Israel’s maritime boundaries

In this border dispute, it is in Israel’s clear interest to approach international authorities.

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 borders.
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 roots.
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.
But 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.
Where 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 weeks.
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 exploitation.
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.