Lebanon flotilla rallies at Israel sea border ahead of talks

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Lebanese protesters sailed in dozens of fishing boats and yachts along the country’s coast to Israel on Sunday, days before a US envoy is expected in Beirut to continue mediating a maritime border dispute between the two countries.

Lebanon and Israel, which have been officially at war since Israel’s founding in 1948, both claim approximately 860 square kilometers (330 sq mi) of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon hopes to exploit offshore gas reserves while grappling with the worst economic crisis in modern history. Lebanon and Israel began sea border talks almost two years ago.

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

Lebanese protesters sail near an Israeli Navy ship during a demonstration demanding Lebanon’s right to its maritime oil and gas fields, September 4, 2022, in the southern coastal city of Naqoura, Lebanon.

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

Ships from the Lebanese and Israeli navies were present, although there was no tension.

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

According to the office of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Hochstein told adviser and deputy parliamentary speaker Elias Bou Saab that he would visit Beirut later this week. Lebanese media have speculated that both countries could reach an agreement soon.

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

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

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has criticized Hezbollah, saying the move could pose risks for the country. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in an interview this month the militant group could locate and attack Karish and any other Israeli gas field.

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