New Crisis, Old Demons in Lebanon: The Forgotten Lessons of Bab-Tebbaneh/Jabal Mohsen
New Crisis, Old Demons in Lebanon: The Forgotten Lessons of Bab-Tebbaneh/Jabal Mohsen
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Time to Resolve the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute
Time to Resolve the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute

New Crisis, Old Demons in Lebanon: The Forgotten Lessons of Bab-Tebbaneh/Jabal Mohsen

The crisis that has gripped Lebanon since the murder of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri five years ago has taken a new and dangerous turn.

The crisis that has gripped Lebanon since the murder of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005 has taken a new and dangerous turn, as the international tribunal charged with investigating the assassination comes close to issuing indictments. The expected implication of Hizbollah members has turned the political landscape into a brutal battleground. Inter-communal relations, the legitimacy of the resistance embodied by Hizbollah, the credibility of the tribunal, the survival of the current national unity government, the future of the recent Saudi-Syrian rapprochement and the fragile stability of the country are all at stake. International support for the tribunal, Hizbollah’s categorical rejection of it and the difficulty Saad Hariri, the current prime minister and Rafic’s son, would have to disavow it, risk leading rapidly to a political impasse whose effects would reverberate in the streets.

Many politicians and commentators evoke the possibility of an impending coup d’état or even a new civil war. But the more probable short-term scenario is repetition of a recurring Lebanese cycle: a political stalemate that triggers popular tensions which, in turn, political actors manipulate in order to bolster their leverage. As a result, instability is most likely to occur in Lebanon’s under-developed peripheral areas, whose populations are deeply divided by current events, harbour painful memories of the civil war and are largely left to their own devices until escalating violence brings them into the political game. Such is the case of the Bab-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods of Tripoli, which recently have witnessed both verbal and military escalation, including the firing into the latter neighborhood of a rocket that injured two.

Much as Lebanon, despite its small size, reflects the tensions of the region in its entirety, these two neighborhoods replicate, on a miniature scale, broader challenges to the stability of the country as a whole. Over the last few years, deadly incidents in these geographically and socially remote areas have been linked to disputes far beyond their horizon. This microcosm, largely hidden to those who focus on the spectacle of the capital’s political scene and the secret power games played on the regional stage, offers a key to understanding the interaction between the local, national and regional levels and thus deciphering the crisis currently brewing in Lebanon.

Jabal Mohsen and Bab-Tebbaneh are virtual metaphors for the country at large. Founded as a single unit, they were separated during the civil war along the boundary that now divides the fractured community. Once interwoven, the Sunni majority in Bab-Tebbaneh and the Allawite majority in Jabal Mohsen parted ways in the 1970s and 1980s. Around that time, Tripoli experienced intense political mobilisation under the impact of the Palestinian cause, rising Arab nationalism and Islamism, and, partly as a result, Syria’s expanding influence. Factional street battles caused many deaths, culminating in the 1986 massacre in Bab-Tebbaneh. As elsewhere in Lebanon, those wounds have yet to heal. Memories are fresh; identities are defined primarily by victimisation, yesterday’s suffering, persistent threats and the prospect of revenge; the present is viewed through the prism of the past; and both sides share an intense sense of vulnerability.

The resurgence of the old demons in Jabal Mohsen and Bab-Tebbaneh is of a piece with the country’s chronic instability. Since the end of the civil war, nothing has been done to solve underlying problems; rather, post-war Lebanon has been built upon a flimsy equilibrium whose perpetuation has become an end in itself. Tellingly, violent outbreaks in 2007 and 2008 were followed, at best, by efforts to contain the situation until the next flare-up. The few agreed so-called reconciliation measures still await implementation.

But these two neighborhoods also have served as the arena for proxy wars. External actors transferred their conflicts there, backing local fighters in a struggle that was less costly, and more easily managed, than would be open warfare in the capital. It is hardly coincidental that tensions between Jabal Mohsen and Bab-Tebbaneh exploded just as opposing sides came to realise the limits of what violence in the capital could achieve and decided to back down out of fear that it might spin entirely out of control. Such was the case both when the opposition-led January 2007 general strike threatened to devolve into fighting and when Hizbollah occupied parts of the city centre in May 2008.

These neighbourhoods, marginalised and neglected by the state, illustrate a development model centred on Beirut’s wealthy quarters. Basic public services are reduced to an absolute minimum. Victims of a decrepit education system, young people expect little more than menial work or unemployment. The security apparatus, absent in normal times and all the more so in times of crisis, makes fleeting appearances whenever a truce is concluded, as if to symbolically endorse the reestablishment of “order”, without in fact asserting state authority. A feeling of abandonment and economic precariousness feed a militia culture inherited from the civil war in two conflicting areas which in fact have much in common.

For many Sunni youngsters in Bab-Tebbaneh, joining one of the many Islamist groups which have spread relatively freely since Syria’s military withdrawal provides an attractive alternative to idleness and social failure. Jabal Mohsen’s Allawite majority has rallied behind a single political party, not necessarily out of shared ideals or conviction, but rather because it is the only actor able to protect it in some fashion.

The external sponsors that prop up local actors do little more than maintain them in a client relationship. That was the case when Syria, then Lebanon’s dominant power, favoured the Allawites politically while failing to ensure Jabal Mohsen’s development. It is true, too, of Bab-Tebbaneh’s various sponsors, whether Saad Hariri’s Future Current movement, Saudi Arabia or members of Tripoli’s wealthy Sunni class. Besides, just as external actors use local conflicts to pursue their own confrontation by other means, local fighters use their struggles as a way to attract important outside support. This economy of violence is replicated at all levels of Lebanese politics.

The ebbs and flows in the antagonism between Bab-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen serve as a reliable barometer for tracking two fundamental issues facing Lebanon: tensions between Sunnis and Shiites on the one hand; and relations between Lebanon and Syria on the other. Notwithstanding a period of relative calm in both regards thanks to the Damascus-Riyadh rapprochement – exemplified by Hariri’s reconciliation efforts – popular resentment is very much alive, if not rising. What is happening at the ground level illustrates the scepticism and suspicion with which, so far, ordinary Lebanese have greeted agreements reached at the top, and how little such agreements have altered underlying dynamics. The international tribunal easily could bring the temperature on the street back to boiling point. Should that occur, Tripoli’s barometer could take another plunge.

Beirut/Brussels, 14 October 2010

Demonstrators carry a banner and flags during a protest against Israeli gas extraction that Lebanon says falls in disputed waters near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon, June 11, 2022. The banner reads " The Line 29 is a red line". REUTERS/Aziz Taher

Time to Resolve the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute

Domestic politics in Israel and Lebanon could scuttle talks about their claims in the Mediterranean – and to the gas riches underneath. With the U.S. mediator’s help, the two countries should refocus on achieving an accord that serves their mutual interest and spares them a confrontation.

U.S.-mediated maritime border talks between Lebanon and Israel have entered a perilous new phase. The parties have been engaged for over a decade in indirect negotiations over the ownership of natural gas fields discovered, or presumed to exist, in disputed offshore territory. Israel is reportedly on schedule to start extracting gas from the area as early as September. These plans have prompted Hizbollah – the powerful Lebanese Shiite militia and party – to threaten attacks if Israel proceeds without first resolving the territorial dispute. While the two neighbours are reportedly closer than ever to an accord, political crises in both may delay the agreement or make reaching it impossible. Washington has invested significant political capital in fostering a compromise, and it should intensify its efforts to help the two negotiating teams clear the remaining hurdles. Israeli and Lebanese leaders, for their part, should keep their sights trained on concluding an agreement that carries clear mutual benefit, while avoiding a conflict with dangerous consequences for both countries.

Lebanon and Israel have conducted indirect negotiations over demarcating their maritime border since the two sides became aware more than a decade ago that lucrative gas deposits may lie off their shores. Originally in dispute were 860 sq km of waters between the southern boundary of the Lebanese claim (known as “line 23”), which it formally asserted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the boundary Israel sought to draw to the north (known as “line 1”). In 2012, U.S. mediator Frederic Hof proposed a compromise that would have split up the area at a ratio of 55 per cent for Lebanon and 45 per cent for Israel. But – without offering clear reasons – the Lebanese government failed to approve the proposal and the negotiations lapsed. When indirect talks resumed in late 2020, the Lebanese delegation presented new legal and hydrographical studies to support an expanded claim (bounded by what is known as “line 29”) encompassing an additional 1,430 sq km south of line 23; it did not, however, formalise the expanded claim by amending its prior UNCLOS filing, which remains pegged to line 23.

Lebanon’s subsequent insistence on staking its claim based on line 29 has brought previously undisputed gas reserves into play, setting the stage for the recent escalation of tensions. Under Lebanon’s original line 23 claim, the Karish field – the one from which Israel is preparing to extract gas as soon as September – lay far to the south in Israeli waters. By contrast, the new Lebanese claim would put the northern half of Karish in Lebanese maritime territory, turning the field into a source of contention. Predictably, Israel has rejected the new Lebanese position, and the parties have struggled unsuccessfully to narrow the gap between them – engaging first through five rounds of indirect talks at the UN base in Naqoura, a small city in southern Lebanon, and then via shuttle diplomacy conducted by U.S. mediator Amos Hochstein. Meanwhile, on the Israeli side, preparations have continued for Karish’s development, which is expected to add around 1.41 trillion cubic feet of gas to Israel’s proven reserves. The expected quantity of gas available at Karish falls well below the estimated size of the Leviathan and Tamar fields, which Israel is already exploiting, suggesting that Karish is not integral to Israeli energy security at present.

In June, Israel signalled that it could begin extraction at Karish in a matter of months. On 5 June, the London-listed company Energean – which Israel has enlisted to develop Karish on its behalf – deployed a floating production, storage and offloading facility to the field. Israeli officials point out that the company began its work at a spot clearly south of line 29, and also note that Lebanon has never amended its UNCLOS filing to bring its claim to that line. Thus, Israel argues, Lebanon has not formally claimed the area where Energean is working.

Hizbollah ... has vowed to defend the country’s maritime claims.

These arguments have triggered a harsh response in Lebanon – particularly on the part of Hizbollah, which has vowed to defend the country’s maritime claims. In several speeches, the party’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, maintained that the Karish field is disputed. He threatened to attack the offshore gas infrastructure if Israel began extracting gas before the two countries agreed on a border. On 2 July, Hizbollah’s military wing, the Islamic Resistance, deployed unarmed reconnaissance drones toward Karish, which the Israeli air force intercepted. Two days later, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati publicly denounced interference in the negotiations by non-state actors, saying it exposed Lebanon to “unnecessary risks”. Undeterred, Nasrallah spoke of military action if the dispute was not settled by September. On 31 July, Hizbollah released a video displaying its capacity to attack gas infrastructure. The same day, the group published footage of black-clad fighters patrolling unarmed near the Israeli-Lebanese border.

With Hizbollah putting its credibility on the line, and Israel doubtless reluctant to back down in the face of threats from a group that it characterises as a terrorist organisation, the risk of some form of escalation is significant. While Nasrallah expressed hope that the dispute can be resolved without a fight, Hizbollah’s brinkmanship – in marked contrast to the more cautious approach to Israel the group has taken in recent years – suggests that the organisation is prepared to take greater risks this time. Even a limited military confrontation could spin out of control, due either to miscalculation about the other side’s red lines or to operational error – such as a missile or drone attack aiming to inflict only material damage but causing casualties instead.

That said, there are grounds for hope that a confrontation can be averted. Despite the threat of conflict, or perhaps because of it, the two sides now appear closer to a deal than ever. During U.S. mediator Hochstein’s last visit to Beirut on 31 July, Lebanon reportedly proposed a compromise that moves its claim back from line 29 to line 23, on the condition that Israel cedes an additional 80 sq km south of line 23. This extra pocket of maritime territory would put the Qana prospect – a gas deposit of unproven potential to the north east of Karish – entirely within Lebanese waters. In practical terms, the suggested compromise treats Lebanon’s claim to line 29 as a bargaining gambit to secure its claim up to line 23, along with the entire Qana prospect.

Israel is reportedly ready to accommodate this proposal, which would entail giving up on the nearly 400 sq km north of line 23 it was supposed to receive under the 2012 Hof proposal, as well as Qana. It is possible that Israel may ask for a share of future proceeds from Qana should gas exploitation prove viable, or for territorial compensation north of line 23, which would mean an S-shaped rather than a straight demarcation line. While Israel’s official response to the Lebanese proposal remains unknown at this stage, a territorial swap would appear to be a more straightforward solution than a profit-sharing arrangement, given the antagonism between the two countries.

Israeli officials also told Crisis Group that they would welcome ... resolving disputes through negotiation, rather than violence.

Israel has good reason to make such substantial concessions. The energy crisis in Europe, triggered by the war in Ukraine, provides a window of opportunity to expand gas exports. But if that is the goal, securing stable access to the offshore reserves is imperative – and that will require an accommodation with Hizbollah and Beirut. While Israel may be confident that it can defeat Hizbollah in a military confrontation, private corporations are unlikely to undertake investments and expose staff and multi-million-dollar equipment if they risk being caught in the crossfire. Israeli officials also told Crisis Group that they would welcome the precedent a deal would set for the two countries resolving disputes through negotiation, rather than violence.

For Lebanon, wrapping up the negotiations swiftly would also be a win, not least because it would receive a far larger share of the disputed maritime area than appeared possible even a few months ago. A comprehensive solution to the demarcation issue would also clear the way for exploration in Lebanon’s promising southern waters. Until now, the international consortium commissioned to explore the area, led by French energy giant Total, has made clear that operations cannot proceed before the parties resolve their dispute. As for Hizbollah, despite its bellicose posture, it has never committed to defending any specific line, and has repeatedly stressed that the Lebanese government alone is responsible for reaching a settlement; that said, Hizbollah would likely take credit for helping Lebanon achieve a favourable outcome if a deal is struck.

Yet despite an accord being within reach and to clear mutual benefit, the process may still falter in the final stages because of dysfunctional domestic politics on both sides. Lebanon’s politicians have been unable to form a new government since the country’s elections on 15 May. Leaders are increasingly preoccupied with the debate over the succession of President Michel Aoun, whose term expires on 31 October, and the spectre of an open-ended constitutional crisis if no compromise on his replacement can be found. This matter has reduced Beirut’s bandwidth for the border negotiations, and indeed for major political decisions of any kind. There is also a risk of last-minute sabotage by leading Lebanese politicians, who have long competed with one another to claim personal credit for a successful outcome in the maritime talks. In Israel, the ruling coalition’s collapse has left a caretaker cabinet in charge that likewise finds it difficult to make big decisions. With elections approaching in November, hardliners may exploit any border compromise for political attacks.

It would be a missed opportunity for both sides, and a blow to regional stability, if an otherwise achievable agreement were to fall through for any of these reasons. After more than a decade and many false starts, the maritime border negotiations are tantalisingly close to a viable solution. As the parties move toward a deal, outside actors that have influence with key players in each system should urge them forward over the finish line. The U.S., whose shuttle diplomacy has contributed significantly to the process, should in particular redouble its efforts to get the deal done. It may need to hold more regular meetings with, and lean on, the two countries’ negotiators to get them to recognise the matter’s urgency. Washington should also encourage Lebanese interlocutors to dissuade Hizbollah from hardening its confrontational stance and Israel to hold off on gas extraction while the deal is hammered out – even as it works to maintain the talks’ momentum and keep them from being held hostage to political developments in either country.

Ultimately, it will fall to Israeli and Lebanese political leaders to make the deal happen. Their task may be difficult amid jockeying for electoral and partisan advantage. The prize, however, is well worth the trouble. The parties have the chance to make an agreement that is good for both countries, sets an important precedent for greater bilateral comity and averts the prospect of dangerous escalation. They should seize it.

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