BEIRUT: Top Lebanese leaders agreed Monday on a unified position against Israeli attempts to encroach on land and maritime borders ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Beirut later this week, even as Israel refused to budge on the building of a wall on a disputed territory along the Lebanese-Israeli frontier.
President Michel Aoun warned of a new war if Israel carried out its threats over Lebanon’s oil and gas exploration near a disputed maritime boundary, vowing that Lebanon would defend itself if attacked by the Jewish state or if its potential oil reserves were encroached upon.
“The United Nations informed Lebanon that Israel has refused to backtrack on the wall’s construction inside disputed territories,” a source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star Monday, in reference to the “separation wall” Israel began building on a disputed border area last week.
“Orders were issued to the Lebanese Army to confront the Israelis in the event that these threats are carried out,” the source added.
The news about Israel’s refusal to abandon the wall’s construction came as Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Saad Hariri consulted together at Baabda Palace on developments along the border, including “Israel’s continued threats against Lebanon, particularly the building of the cement wall, and Israel’s claim to the property of Block 9 in the Exclusive Economic Zone,” the National News Agency reported.
The three leaders also discussed Lebanon’s position on proposals presented by acting U.S. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield to resolve the oil and wall construction disputes between Lebanon and Israel, as well as preparations for Tillerson’s visit to Beirut Thursday, the NNA said.
Israel has begun constructing the wall along the Blue Line, the United Nations-demarcated border line in the south, as Lebanon has warned against the wall passing through a number of points.
The Baabda meeting between the three leaders came as the U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, UNIFIL, headed a tripartite meeting at its headquarters in the border town of Naqoura between senior Lebanese Army, Israeli and U.N. officers to discuss the wall as well as Israel’s threats against Lebanon over its right to explore and exploit oil and gas wealth in its territorial waters.
Brig. Gen. Malek Chamas, the Lebanese government representative to UNIFIL, joined the Baabda meeting along with General Security head Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim.“We reviewed the challenges that we are facing and we discussed the visit to Lebanon by Satterfield,” Hariri told reporters after the meeting.
“We will keep on the consultations with the president and the Parliament speaker so that Lebanon’s position is unified and national regarding any [Israeli] encroachment on Lebanon.”
“We have taken this decision [a unified position] at the Higher Defense Council and the Cabinet,” Hariri added.
Ministerial sources said that the main and only topics discussed by the three leaders were the maritime border, Israel’s wall, Satterfield’s proposals to resolve the dispute and Tillerson’s visit to Beirut.
In briefing the three leaders on the outcome of the Naqoura meeting, Chamas said the Israeli side did not accept a Lebanese request to rectify the 13 points on the border around which Lebanon has reservations.
“There is Israeli insistence on the building of the wall,” Chamas said.
Lebanon made its position clear during the Naqoura meeting that if Israel wanted to build the wall inside the occupied Palestinian territory, it had no objections, the source said. But Lebanon rejects the building of the Israeli wall on the 13 disputed border points in the Naqoura area because this will give access to the Israelis to occupy part of Block 9 or 8, the source added.
Satterfield, who held talks with Aoun, Berri and Hariri last week, was believed to be mediating in a maritime dispute over Block 9 in south Lebanon after Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that oil and gas exploration projects in the block were “very provocative.”
Amid the heightened tensions in the southern border region, Aoun warned that Lebanon would defend itself against any Israeli attack or any encroachment on its potential oil reserves.
“Lebanon has taken a decision to defend its territory in the event of an Israeli attack on it or on its oil rights,” Aoun said in an interview with Egyptian station ON Live that aired Sunday night.
“So far, no attack has happened. There are only [Israeli] statements and there are powers that are intervening diplomatically and politically to help resolve this dispute.”
Responding to Israel’s threats against Lebanon and its claim to Block 9, Aoun said: “The verbal Israeli provocation doesn’t matter to us, but if [Israeli threats] are carried out, there will be new wars.” He, however, ruled out the possibility of Israel following through on its threats.
Meanwhile, Berri said the rift with Hariri over a decree promoting a number of Lebanese Army officers had ended. He spoke at his Ain al-Tineh residence after holding his first private sit-down with Hariri in two months.
Describing his meeting with Hariri as “very good and positive,” Berri said: “The dispute that existed since Hariri signed the decree promoting the officers’ seniority has become a thing of the past.”
Berri was infuriated by the officers’ promotion decree, which was signed by Aoun, Hariri and Defense Minister Yaacoub Sarraf early in December, because it sidestepped Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, a key political aide to the speaker. Berri said that Hariri had promised him he would not sign the decree.
During their ice-breaking meeting at Baabda Palace last week, Berri and Aoun agreed on a resolution to the dispute after relevant ministers signed a combined decree that seeks to advance the seniority and rank of a number of Army officers by one year and also secure the promotion to other officers.
Berri, who hosted a lunch for Hariri, said he told the prime minister that he would not contest the upcoming parliamentary elections – set for May 6 – without Hezbollah, which has forged an electoral alliance with Berri’s Amal Movement.
Referring to the developments in the southern border region, Berri said: “Any measure taken by Israel will have grave consequences.” He also warned of a possible “security flare-up” over Israel’s threats against Lebanon, but said that the Lebanese Army has been fully instructed to repel any Israeli attack.