Lebanon-Israel talks begin as Hezbollah and Amal demand new negotiators

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - A convoy of black SUVs with tinted windows drove at speed towards the Unifil base in south Lebanon’s Naqoura early on Wednesday while a helicopter circled overhead as officials headed to a meeting with a delegation from Israel to begin hashing out the demarcation of borders.

Shortly before the high-profile meeting was set to get under way under UN and US mediation, Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally Amal criticised the move.

The statement from Lebanon's two main Shiite parties called for reform of the negotiating team, which they said must include only military officials, without any civilians or politicians.

A convoy of vehicles passes from Naqoura ahead of talks between Israel and Lebanon on disputed waters, near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon October 14, 2020. REUTERS/Aziz Taher
A convoy of vehicles passes from Naqoura ahead of talks between Israel and Lebanon on disputed waters. Reuters

The two countries have no formal relations, never officially ended years of hostilities and remain technically at war. Hezbollah waged a bloody insurgency against Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon until they withdrew in 2000 and the two sides fought again in 2006.

The small UN peacekeeper base on the southern coastal tip of Lebanon offers the only avenue for Lebanese military heads to negotiate, indirectly through the UNIFIL force commander, with Israel in a bid to maintain quiet on the frontier.

“The current form of the Lebanese delegation, which includes civilian figures, is contrary to the framework agreement,” the Hezbollah press office said in a statement. It added that the current framework is “based on the regular [tripart] meetings between military officers exclusively.” Amal head and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri previously announced the acceptable framework for the parties that talks are undertaken by the military.

A picture taken on October 13, 2020, shows the southernmost stretch of Lebanese coastline in the area of Naqura, by the border with Israel. Lebanon and Israel, which are still technically at war, had agreed to begin UN-brokered negotiations on October 14 over the shared frontier, a particularly sensitive issue as Lebanon wants to drill for hydrocarbons in a part of the Mediterranean disputed by Israel. / AFP / Mahmoud ZAYYAT
The southernmost stretch of Lebanese coastline in the area of Naqura, by the border with Israel. AFP

“[This] represents a recognition of the Israeli logic that wants to obtain any form of normalisation. Therefore, the two parties call to immediately revoke this decision and reconfigure the delegation in line with the framework agreement,” Mr Berri said.

Lebanon and Israel agreed this month to negotiate over a long-running row relating to a sea border running through potentially gas-rich Mediterranean waters.

The talks in the Lebanese border town of Naqoura will be hosted by the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis and US Assistant Secretary Schenker will facilitate the opening session, the State Department said on Tuesday. US Ambassador John Desrocher will serve as the main US mediator.

A United Nations peacekeeping force (UNIFIL) convoy advances towards the last checkpoint for the Lebanese army in the southernmost area of Naqura, by the border with Israel, on October 13, 2020. Lebanon and Israel, which are still technically at war, had agreed to begin UN-brokered negotiations on October 14 over the shared frontier, a particularly sensitive issue as Lebanon wants to drill for hydrocarbons in a part of the Mediterranean disputed by Israel. / AFP / Mahmoud ZAYYAT
A United Nations peacekeeping force convoy advances towards the last checkpoint for the Lebanese army in the southernmost area of Naqura, by the border with Israel. AFP

“The agreement to commence discussions on the maritime boundary is a vital step forward that offers the potential to yield greater stability, security, and prosperity for Lebanese and Israeli citizens alike,” the State Department said in a statement.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said that the negotiations with Lebanon do not deal with the normalisation of relations or peace. Rather, he said, they are negotiations to resolve technical-economic differences related to natural resources at sea.

Lebanon and Israel each claim about 860 square kilometres of the Mediterranean Sea as laying within their respective exclusive economic zones.

A general view shows the headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping force in the southern Lebanese border town of Naqoura, Lebanon, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. Lebanon and Israel are to begin indirect talks Wednesday over their disputed maritime border, with American officials mediating the talks that both sides insist are purely technical and not a sign of any normalization of ties. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
A general view shows the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force in the southern Lebanese border town of Naqoura. AP

Lebanon began offshore drilling outside this contested zone earlier this year and is expected to start drilling for gas near the disputed area with Israel in the coming months.

But Lebanon and Israel remain technically in a state of war since 1948 and Lebanon hosts tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees – most were displaced during the creation of Israel.

The idea of normalisation with Israel is deeply unpopular in Lebanon, particularly among Hezbollah and Amal supporters.

At the same time, Lebanese politicians have repeatedly promised the Lebanese that offshore oil and gas discoveries can help the country recover financially from its worst-ever economic crisis. However, experts point out that even if oil and gas are located in viable quantities this year, it could take upward of a decade to begin seeing a return even without the regular political battles that paralyse government.

President Michel Aoun announced on Monday that the Lebanese team would be headed by air force Brigadier General Bassam Yassin. The three other members are navy Colonel Mazen Basbous, Lebanese Petroleum Administration chairman Wissam Chbat and border expert Najib Massihi.

Contacted by The National on Monday, Mr Massihi’s father answered and said his son was not allowed to speak to the media.

Lebanon and Israel hold monthly tripartite meetings in Naqoura to discuss violations along the Blue Line, which is not an internationally recognised border but rather a UN-agreed line that shows where Israeli forces had been deployed in 1978, prior to the invasion of Lebanon that lasted until the year 2000, to assess the full withdrawal. The Blue Line is patrolled by 10,480 UN peacekeepers from 41 countries.

Lebanon and Israel also held indirect negotiations in the 1990s when Arab states and Israel were working on reaching peace agreements. Although the Palestinians and Jordan signed agreements with Israel, Lebanon and Syria did not. – additional reporting by agencies

Updated: October 14, 2020 11:47 AM

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