The Israeli military has warned the Islamist group Hezbollah that it risks starting a third Lebanon war if it fires its rockets at offshore natural gas platforms in the Mediterranean.
Senior Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) officers told Haaretz newspaper they were aware the Iran-backed, Shiite paramilitary group Hezbollah had acquired rockets capable of hitting platforms off the coast, but that firing them would amount to a declaration of war.
“The other side also understands that hitting the gas platforms is the declaration of a third Lebanon war,” they said.
The caution from the IDF follows warnings from Hezbollah over the gas installations, which Lebanon claims fall within its own economic zone. The country does not recognize Israel as a state with rights over natural resources in the Mediterranean.
“Lebanon is capable of defending its gas and oil resources, and anyone who lays a hand on its assets, we’ll know how to treat him,” Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in 2011. “If Lebanon is wise enough to act maturely and responsibly regarding the gas and oil fields, we’ll have an opportunity to pay our debts and improve the country’s economic situation,” he added.
Current thinking within the Israeli military is that Hezbollah is unlikely to risk another conflict with Israel. The pair last fought a war against each other in 2006. Israel considers the conflict it fought in Lebanon in 1982, when it invaded the country during the Lebanese civil war, the first Lebanon war.
Israeli naval forces plan to acquire four Sa’ar-6 missile boats in 2019 to deal with the more advanced threat from Hezbollah. This capability will build on the Iron Dome missile systems that have already been installed on one Sa’ar-5 vessel to protect the installations.
After importing most of its energy needs for decades, Israel has sought in the last 10 years to export natural gas to its neighbors, beginning with Egypt in 2008.
The IDF has said Hamas in the Gaza Strip is also looking to develop its capabilities to attack the offshore platforms. “One of Hamas’ goals in the next conflict will be to hit the platforms,” one source told Haaretz. “It’s [25 miles] from the Gaza Strip to the platforms, and that’s not a distance they’re incapable of reaching,” they added.
However, with the Iron Dome missile defense system in place, the IDF is less concerned by the Hamas missiles than those that might be fired by Hezbollah.