David Newman 58.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A new ‘boundary’ topic has emerged during the past few days. But for a change, it
has nothing to do with the Green Line or the future boundaries of a Palestinian
State. Nor does it have anything to do with the Philadelphi Corridor between
Egypt and the Gaza Strip, or the Shaba Farms dispute with Syria and Lebanon in
the North. In fact, it has nothing to do with any of the country’s disputed land
This time, it is about Israel’s maritime boundaries – the
demarcation of exclusive areas of economic exploitation at sea. The recent
discovery of potential new gas fields in the offshore areas has resulted in a
mad scramble for the formal delimitation of the zones within which each country
can exclusively exploit these resources, directly or through the granting of
franchise rights to international companies.
Since the early 1980s, there
has been a set of rules governing the rights of states in the sea, known as
UNCLOS – the United Nations Law of the Sea. This determines the various zones of
political and economic activity that each state has the right to control and
exploit in the maritime areas adjacent to its territory.
The notion that
every state has a right to a small area known as territorial waters, stretching
up to a maximum of 12 nautical miles from the shoreline (known as the “base”
line – a technical term defining the line of low tide) has deep historical
Within this area, the state is almost free to act as a sovereign
agent in much the same way that it does within its land boundaries.
the idea that states also have exclusive rights to the sea’s economic and
mineral resources (including fishing rights) came much later. This was partially
due to the discovery of hitherto unknown resources, along with the demand by an
ever-growing number of newly independent states for full control of those
resources. Following a series of post-World War II UN conferences, the states
reached an outline agreement, which was inscribed in the second UNCLOS
convention of 1982.
In addition to the political rights of control and
policing within territorial waters, states were accorded zones within which they
were allowed to have exclusive control over economic rights. The most
significant of these is known as the Exclusive Economic Zone (the EEZ), which
can potentially stretch up to 200 nautical miles from the base line (a nautical
mile being slightly longer than a mile on land). This was all very well for
those island states surrounded by hundreds of miles of sea, but was much more
problematic in areas such as Europe or the Mediterranean, where the maritime
area did not allow for 400 miles between two adjacent or opposite countries. In
such cases, it was agreed that states would share an equal area of sea,
determined by a median line running through the ocean at a point an equal
distance from each.
WITHIN THE Mediterranean, this has caused a number of
problems, not only between Israel and its neighbors, but also between states of
the South, such as Libya, Algeria and Morocco, and those to the north, such as
Italy, Greece and Turkey – given that the distance between the two coastlines is
a lot less than 400 miles. The independent island states such as Malta and
Cyprus also have their own exclusive zones of control in the middle of the sea,
while a major maritime dispute between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean sea,
dating back to the 1920s, has yet to be resolved.
UNCLOS did not become
international law until 100 states had ratified the convention – and this took
over 20 years due to the conflicting claims of many states. To this day, there
are some major nations that have not ratified the convention, the foremost being
the US, for which the implementation of the UNCLOS regulations infringes on its
ability to act as a free agent in many maritime areas.
Israel has not
signed on to the convention. Thus its claims to international law, regarding
both the potential offshore resources opposite the Gaza coast, and now in the
North adjacent to Lebanon, are problematic. In the case of Gaza, it is even more
problematic, as any recognition of the Gaza’s right to utilize these resources
is paramount to a de facto recognition of a Palestinian state.
states disagree on the maritime delimitation of their boundaries, they can turn
to the International Court of Arbitration of the Law of the Sea, which convenes
in the Hague. It is unlikely that Israel will agree to such arbitration, even
though Lebanon has formally presented its maritime claim to the UN in recent
In the present international climate, Israel does not do itself
any favors by refusing to play ball, or by making demands not in accordance with
accepted regulations. This was the case with the Goldstone Commission (when
Israel refused to give evidence), and it could also backfire on Israel if the
government does not make a formal presentation of its own maritime claims, as is
expected of any country in such a situation.
ISRAEL HAS often experienced
short-term euphoria at the sudden discovery of potential underwater resources,
only for those resources to be revealed as insignificant in terms of commercial
The issue has become even more sensitive in light of the
recent political changes in Egypt, and the possibility that agreements over the
transfer of natural gas from there to Israel could be curtailed, as occurred for
a short period earlier this year. For this reason, it is even more important for
Israel to have an alternative and independent source of natural gas. It is
therefore in its interests to reach a fair agreement with its northern neighbor
concerning the exploitation of this potential new source of energy, regardless
of the many other issues that divide the two states.The writer is
professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of
the international journal Geopolitics. The views expressed are his own.