Israel rejects Lebanese accusation over gas field, says conflict unlikely

JERUSALEM, June 6 (Reuters) – Israel denied a Lebanese allegation that it was encroaching on a disputed Mediterranean natural gas field, downplaying any prospect of conflict over the dispute on Monday.

After months of stalemate in US-mediated talks on maritime delimitation, Beirut on Sunday warned against any activity in the disputed area, in response to the arrival of a vessel operated by Energean (ENOG.L), based in London, to produce gas for Israel. Read more

Israel says the field in question is in its exclusive economic zone, not in disputed waters.

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“This (the Lebanese narrative) is very far from reality,” Israeli Energy Minister Karin Elharrar told Tel Aviv radio 103 FM, adding that there was “unequivocal” no encroachment from Israel.

Lebanon is home to the heavily armed, Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, which has fought numerous wars with Israel.

Hezbollah has previously warned Israel against drilling in the disputed area until the issue is resolved, and said the group would take action if it did.

Asked about the prospect of an escalation, Elharrar said, “We’re not there at all. Really, the disconnect (between rhetoric and reality) is such that I don’t think they would act.”

But she added: “Israel is preparing (and) I recommend that no one tries to surprise Israel.”

There was no immediate comment from the United States, which in 2000 began brokering indirect talks between the two sides to settle a long-running dispute that has hampered energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.

Energean said its floating production storage and offloading vessel arrived at the Karish field on Sunday, about 80 km (50 miles) west of the city of Haifa in Israel’s exclusive economic zone.

The company said it plans to put it online in the third quarter.

Lebanon says its border intersects the sea at a more southerly angle and Israel’s claim extends further north, creating a triangle of disputed waters.

Last year, Beirut extended its claim by around 1,400 km2 (540 square miles), expanding the disputed area with Israel.

Lebanon has yet to respond to an undisclosed proposal made by a US envoy earlier this year to restart the stalled talks. Elharrar expressed hope that Beirut would return to the table.

“At the end of the day, there are gains to be had from trading, and they can get their own gas field,” she said.

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Written by Dan Williams; edited by Jason Neely

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