Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Monday warned Lebanon’s Hezbollah that any attack on its gas assets could spark war, after the terror group threatened to “sever” Israel’s hands if it taps a disputed offshore field.
The warning came amid lengthy negotiations between the eastern Mediterranean neighbors, which do not have diplomatic relations, to settle a dispute over their maritime border.
Tensions spiked in June when a production vessel chartered by Israel arrived near the Karish offshore gas field, which Lebanon claims is within contested waters. Last month, the Israeli military shot down four unarmed Hezbollah drones flying toward Karish.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said on August 9 that “the hand that reaches for any of this wealth will be severed” and over the weekend warned of an “escalation” if Lebanon’s demands aren’t met in the US-mediated maritime talks.
Asked if any attack by Hezbollah against an Israeli gas field could lead to war, Gantz told Israel’s 103 FM radio station: “Yes, that could trigger a reaction, leading to several days of fighting and to a military campaign. We are strong and prepared for this scenario, but we don’t want it.”
Gantz said extraction from the gas field would begin “when it is ready to produce,” reaffirming Israel’s claim to Karish.
“The State of Israel is both ready to protect its assets and ready to reach a deal with the Lebanese government, via American mediation, on the Sidon deposit,” he said, in reference to another gas field known in Lebanon as Qana.
“I believe that in the future, there will be two gas platforms. One on our side, one on theirs. And I hope that we do not have to go through another round of confrontations before then.”
Israel and Hezbollah last fought a devastating conflict in 2006 and Jerusalem and Beirut officially remain at war, with United Nations peacekeepers patrolling the land border.
Negotiations on the maritime border resumed in 2020, with the talks stalling before being revived in June.
The initial discussions focused on a disputed area of 860 square kilometers (332 square miles), in accordance with Lebanon’s claims registered at the UN in 2011.
Beirut subsequently requested the area be expanded by a further 1,430 square kilometers, which includes part of the Karish field that Israel states is within its exclusive economic zone recognized by the UN.
Gantz’s warning came after an Israeli television report Sunday evening said security forces are on high alert near the northern border amid fears Hezbollah may attempt to launch an attack in order to sabotage the talks.
Israeli defense officials fear Nasrallah may be seeking to provoke Israel one more time in hopes of getting credit for any Israeli concessions before a deal is signed, Channel 12 news reported, without citing a source. The report said the two sides are closed to signing an agreement.
US envoy to the talks Amos Hochstein said earlier this month that he was “optimistic” about the deal, and Lebanon’s foreign minister late last month said he was more bullish than ever about negotiations.