Lebanon, Israel conclude first round of talks over maritime border

A first round of talks between Lebanon and Israel on the demarcation of their maritime border ended on Wednesday with a new meeting scheduled for 28 October, UN and army sources said.

The meeting, which lasted less than an hour, took place at the United Nations headquarters in the border town of Naqoura. They were held under UN auspices in the presence of a US delegation headed by US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker. Local broadcaster MTV reported the delegations from both sides sat in front of each other but did not talk directly. It was not clear if the talks were held in a conference room or a tent, as media outlets were not allowed in. According to a government source who requested anonymity the meeting was "kind of a protocol meeting."

Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Tuesday called the talks "technical negotiations."

"These are open negotiations without a defined timeline so they could last for a long time or they could end in a couple of months with a deal, or they could stop anytime without a deal," Laury Haytayan, Middle East and North Africa director of the National Resource Governance Institute, told dpa. "It is better for Lebanon to get to a deal with Israel on the maritime borders to avoid future problems in case of discoveries in Block 9," she added.

Lebanon signed its first offshore drilling agreement with an international consortium in 2018, though exploration of the area called Block 9 has not yet begun due to controversy around ownership.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Shiite movements of Hezbollah and Amal expressed reservations regarding the talks' delegation including civilians. They called for the delegation to be comprised only of military officials. The presidential palace named the delegation on Monday, saying it would be headed by Air Force Brigadier General Bassam Yassin, Navy Colonel Mazen Basbous, Lebanese Petroleum Administration board member Wissam Chbat and maritime affairs expert Najib Massihi. Lebanese House Speaker Nabih Berri had announced earlier this month that the negotiations would be carried out by the Lebanese army under the supervision of the president.

Israel and Lebanon are officially at war and there are recurring tensions along the border between the Israeli army and members of the Hezbollah movement. The conflict between the two countries stems from demarcation methods, concerning about 856 square kilometres of waters. The issue grew following natural gas discoveries in the Mediterranean Sea, as both countries claim gas deposits there for themselves.

The parliamentary bloc of Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah movement said last week that the planned talks have "nothing to do with the context of reconciliation with Israel or the normalization policies that have been adopted by Arab countries."

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