In October 2020, the indirect technical negotiations between Lebanon and Israel were launched at the United Nations headquarters in South Lebanon, through American mediation and under UN auspices, to demarcate their maritime borders.
In this article, the author highlights the latest developments of the maritime border negotiations between the two countries.
Three main questions to be addressed are:
- What are the main issues of the maritime border dispute?
- What is the H (Hof) line, and why has it not been accepted by Lebanon since 2012?
- What is the Lebanese line that gives back an area of 1,430 square kilometers to the Lebanese exclusive economic zone (EEZ)?
In 2009, Lebanon demarcated its maritime borders from three sides: the south with Israel, the west with Cyprus and the north with Syria. In 2010, Lebanon officially informed the United Nations of its southern maritime borders, i.e., the line extending from Point 18 to Point 23, and this demarcation was considered preliminary, as not all legal and technical data were available at that time.
In 2011, Israel demarcated its maritime borders with Lebanon by the line extending from Point 31 to Point 1, unjustly claiming an area of 860 km² of the Lebanese waters, and thus Israel would have considered that part of Block No. 8 and part of Block No. 9 fall within its EEZ.
In the same year, the Lebanese government requested the British Hydrographic Office (UKHO) to carry out a study on the Lebanese maritime borders. As a result, and in concurrence with its results, and with the availability of more accurate legal and technical data to support a final decision, the Lebanese Army prepared a detailed study in which it demonstrated Lebanon’s eligibility for the additional area that lies south of Point 23 and ends on Point 29.
That additional area is about 1430 km², in addition to the area of 860 km² that lies between Point 1 and Point 23. This new line is fully compliant with the international law of the Seas (UNCLOS), whereas the Israeli line that ends at Point 1 has no legal basis.
Consequently, the Israeli Block 72 and a half of the Karish gas field fall within the Lebanese EEZ.
What is the H (Hof) line?
In 2012, the American ambassador Mr. Frederick Hof, acting as mediator, proposed a line by which the division of the area between Point 1 and Point 23, representing a total area of 860 km2, gave Lebanon a portion of 490 km2 and gave Israel an area of 370 km2. Ambassador Hof followed the method of the equidistance line in his demarcation of the maritime boundaries, and this method took into account, without any international precedent, the full effect of a small rock called “Tekhelet”.
The method used by Lebanon in its new study is also the equidistance method; however, it did not take into account the influence of “Tekhelet” rock. This method is based on a strong legal principle, and it has been adopted by most countries, as well as by international courts.
The question arises: is it conceivable for Lebanon, because of a totally unpopulated small rock, the surface of which does not exceed the size of a small house, to accept the “Hof” line, which nibbles away an area of 1,800 km2 of Lebanese waters?
When dealing with the distorting impact of islands, international case-law suggests two different adjustment methods: (i) granting a half-effect to the island at stake (eg. the treatment given to the Corn Islands by the ICJ in the Costa Rica v. Nicaragua case, 2018), or (ii) completely disregarding it in what is known as the “zero-effect” technique (eg. the treatment given to the Serpents’ Island by the ICJ in the Romania v. Ukraine case, 2009). To opt for one or the other, international courts and tribunals generally look at three criteria: size, population, and vegetation. Tekhelet has a small size, is uninhabited and has no significant vegetation. This indicates that the proper maritime delimitation between Lebanon and Israel should follow the equidistance line that disregards such small Israeli maritime rocks. It is worth recalling in this regard that international jurisprudence even occasionally resorts to the zero-effect solution for sizeable islands when the distortion is particularly important as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Seas (ITLOS) did with regard to St. Martin’s island in the Bangladesh/Myanmar case of 2012.
Furthermore, the equitable character of the zero-effect method for the delimitation of maritime areas between Lebanon and Israel is confirmed by the disproportionality test. When calculated according to international legal standards, Lebanon’s relevant coast is 167 km long while that of Israel is 174 km, which implies a ratio of 1:1.04 in favor of Israel. As for the Levant maritime areas allocated to both states as a result of the zero-effect delimitation, they are of approximately 20.500 km2 for Lebanon and 22.500 km2 for Israel which entails a ratio of 1:1.1 in favor of Israel. Consequently, the line in question does not show any marked disproportion and easily passes the disproportionality test required by international law. One might even say that it generates a quite proportionate and balanced result. As a matter of comparison, the strict equidistance line (Hof Line) would imply relevant areas of 18.700 km2 for Lebanon and 24.300 km2 for Israel, for a ratio of 1:1.3 in favor of Israel, ie. a result that is less proportional to the ratio of coastal lengths than the one obtained on the basis of the zero-effect line.
Lebanon, as a next step and in accordance with the provisions of the UNCLOS, must inform the United Nations of the geographical coordinates of the new line that ends at Point 29. This automatically renders the Karish field and Block 72 disputed areas and prevents oil and gas companies from operating in them till a solution is found.
For all the reasons mentioned above, one can reasonably affirm that the equidistance line disregarding small Israeli rocks is the proper and equitable solution for the delimitation of the maritime boundary between Lebanon and Israel.
Abboud Zahr, Oil and Gas Specialist