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Lebanese rally near Israeli border against gas drilling in area claimed by Beirut

NAQOURA, Lebanon — Hundreds of people and several lawmakers protested Saturday in southern Lebanon against Israel moving a gas production vessel into an offshore field partly claimed by Beirut.

The demonstration comes just days before the US envoy mediating maritime border talks between the two neighbors is expected in Lebanon, and after the ship operated by London-listed Energean Plc arrived at the Karish gas field last week.

Several hundred people waved Lebanese and Palestinian flags in Lebanon’s border town of Naqoura to protest Israel’s claim on the area where the Karish field is located, an AFP correspondent said.

“We absolutely refuse to neglect Lebanon’s maritime resources, which belong to all Lebanese,” said lawmaker Firas Hamdan, reading a joint statement from 13 independent parliamentarians, most of whom were newly elected last month.

Lebanon and Israel have no diplomatic relations and are separated by a UN-patrolled border.

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Lebanon’s president and prime minister have condemned Israel for moving the vessel into the Karish field, and have invited US envoy Amos Hochstein to Beirut for mediation.

Hochstein is scheduled to arrive in Lebanon on Monday for a two-day visit, according to the US State Department.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with US Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, center, and US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea, left, at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, February 9, 2022. (Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Official Government via AP)

Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group this week warned Energean against proceeding with its activities, saying it was capable of halting work at the rig, including by force.

Israel’s navy is reportedly preparing to defend the rig from potential attacks.

Lebanon and Israel resumed negotiations over their maritime frontier in 2020, but the process was stalled by Beirut’s claim that the map used by the United Nations in the talks needed modifying.

Lebanon initially demanded 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of territory in the disputed maritime area but then asked for an additional 1,430 square kilometers (552 square miles), including a part of Karish.

The independent lawmakers said in Saturday’s statement that they supported Lebanon’s claim to part of Karish.

Israel says the site is part of its UN-recognized exclusive economic zone, in a location that Beirut had not previously claimed. Israeli officials insisted earlier this week that the new rig will not pump from a disputed area with Lebanon and urged the resumption of talks to solve the issue.