Lebanese flotilla gathers at Israel’s maritime border ahead of talks

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese protesters sailed the country’s coast in dozens of fishing boats and yachts headed for Israel on Sunday, days before a U.S. envoy was due in Beirut to continue serving as mediator in a maritime border dispute between the two countries.

Lebanon and Israel, which have been officially at war since the latter’s creation in 1948, both claim an area of ​​around 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) from the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon hopes to exploit offshore gas reserves as it grapples with the worst economic crisis in its modern history. Lebanon and Israel launched maritime border talks nearly two years ago.

Sunday’s flotilla carried Lebanese flags and banners, with slogans in Arabic, French and Hebrew expressing what they say is Lebanon’s right to its maritime oil and gas fields.

“We are claiming our right to every square inch of our waters,” Aya Saleh, one of the protesters on a fishing boat, told The Associated Press. “And we are sending a message from the Lebanese people.”

Lebanese and Israeli navy vessels were present, although no tension arose.

Amos Hochstein, senior energy security adviser at the US State Department, shuttled between Beirut and Jerusalem to mediate the talks. He was last in Beirut in late July, when he briefed Lebanese officials on Israel’s response to a proposal made by Lebanon in June, and expressed optimism after his trip.

According to Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s office, Hochstein informed adviser and deputy speaker of parliament Elias Bou Saab that he would visit Beirut later this week. Lebanese media have speculated that the two countries may soon reach an agreement.

However, tensions between the Iran-backed Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah and Israel have also simmered in recent months over the border talks.

In early July, the Israeli military shot down three unarmed Hezbollah drones flying over the disputed Karish gas field in the Mediterranean.

Lebanon’s interim Prime Minister Najib Mikati criticized Hezbollah, saying the move could pose risks for the country. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in an interview that month said the militant group could locate and strike Karish and any other Israeli gas fields.

Kareem Chehayeb, Associated Press


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