Environmental Security in the Eastern Mediterranean
A May 11 Hamas attack on an oil facility in the Israeli seaside town of Ashkelon[i] is the latest reminder that the Eastern Mediterranean marine environment is undergoing a process of “securitization.” As a result, energy resources extracted from, or delivered through the seas are becoming a source of conflict or are targeted in existing disputes. Therefore, we should think about the conflicts in the region in terms of environmental security: how conflicts affect the environment and how changes in the environment affect the security of individuals, communities, and states. Moreover, using an environmental angle opens up possibilities for conflict resolution and regional cooperation.
Beginning in the late 1990s, significant offshore natural gas reservoirs were discovered in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of Israel, Cyprus, Egypt, and Gaza,[ii] creating wealth but also new sources of conflict. States began to demarcate their maritime boundaries, leading to competing claims such as between Israel and Lebanon,[iii] and possibly between Syria and Lebanon.[iv] A Turkish-Libyan November 2019 agreement[v] that marked their EEZs created tensions with regional actors. Exploration and production of energy further led to other forms of conflict. Most notably, in 2018, the Turkish navy blocked drilling activities southeast of Cyprus while launching its own in 2019[vi] under naval protection, and against the EU’s objections. The Turks claim that 44% of Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) belongs to Turkish Cyprus and oppose exploration that might leave the Turkish Cypriotes out of the possible gains. A third aspect of understanding regional realities through an environmental security lens is the awareness that the development of energy infrastructure in the region creates new possible targets. Israeli gas production platforms came under rocket attacks by Hamas operatives in the summer of 2014.[vii] A direct hit on a platform could result in uncontrolled releases of hydrocarbons to the marine environment, impacting both marine ecology and infrastructures such as power stations, seawater desalination plants, ports, fisheries, and offshore aquaculture farms.
An environmental impact analysis report for the Leviathan project (offshore Israel) showed that the release of condensate (low-density mixture of hydrocarbon liquids found in natural gas fields) may impact Israeli and Lebanese shores. The effect in the East Mediterranean is expected to be significant, as water circulation in the region is low: the sea is almost enclosed, and the sea’s two basins (East and West) are separated to a degree, in the strait of Sicily. Moreover, the deep-water mass of water is almost completely disconnected from the upper layers, where mixing occurs. This means that in the case of hydrocarbon contamination, the residence time of contaminants in the Mediterranean is expected to be relatively long, up to a century. The sea’s higher water temperature is expected to exacerbate the crisis. Some of the risks could be mitigated with pipeline integrity management and leak detection systems, but the risk remains. Processing facilities further pose a potential for environmental damage. In 2006, Israel hit the Lebanese Jiyeh power plant,[viii] and 10,000 – 15,000 tons of heavy fuel were discharged into the Mediterranean. Some of the oil traveled north and ultimately affected a shoreline of some 150 KM, mostly in Lebanon but also in Syria, and required international assistance in dealing with the contamination. The UN General Assembly passed in 2014 a resolution asking Israel to pay Lebanon more than $850m in damages for an oil spill,[ix] which Israel rejected.
More recently, starting in February 2021, Israel was affected by a massive oil spill from an unknown source on most of its shores.[x] Later, it emerged that Israel has been targeting tankers carrying Iranian oil to Syria,[xi] mainly in the Eastern Mediterranean. The combination of the two led to accusations in Lebanon that Israel’s actions led to the spill.[xii] In response to the Israeli attacks, Iran attacked at least three Israeli-owned vessels,[xiii] though it seems none was carrying oil.
Alongside the risks, an environmental perspective creates opportunities for conflict resolution and regional cooperation as the challenges require collective action. The dynamic nature of water means that spills in one area could get rather quickly to another corner of the sea. These are best dealt with through cross-border collective action such as joint monitoring and coordinated oil spill response operations. Yet, the region is ill-equipped for that. Libya and Syria suffer from deep divisions brought by civil wars. Gaza, a proto-state led by Hamas, is besieged by Israel (and to some extent Egypt) as both sides bomb each other in rounds of violence. Lebanon forbids by law any interaction with Israelis, as its own authority is challenged by Hezbollah. Turkey occupies the northern part of Cyprus and has decade-long contentious relations with Greece. Under these circumstances, Joint environmental concerns are one of the only incentives for cross-border cooperation and are related to the common regional maritime heritage.
The international community should further strengthen regional efforts for coordination. Political constraints limit the implementation of the 1995 Barcelona convention for the protection of the Marine Environment and the Coastal Region of the Mediterranean.[xiv] With international leadership, regional actors might be able to learn from similar frameworks elsewhere - such as HELCOM[xv] (in the Baltic region) - who also operate in a politically tense context. The Union for the Mediterranean[xvi] should also be strengthened. The organization has as one of its aims to support water, the environment, and the blue economy and runs several successful projects. The second challenge in the region is weak governance. Limited capacity prevents many states in the area from developing national marine monitoring programs as agreed by the Barcelona convention contracting parties. The result is an inaccurate environmental assessment and further limitation on collaborative actions. Here too, the international community can play a role by better training and funding local authorities and civil society activists. The training can be done in the multinational environment, thus creating another possible path for future regional cooperation.
Finally, all parties should integrate an environmental assessment in their security-related planning and operations. This will not only be good for the environment but could also serve as a further constraint on countries’ choice to use force in the region.
*** The views expressed herein belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of JTMS or the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. Dr. Eiran is an Associate Professor at the University of Haifa and a Visiting Scholar (2019-2021) at Stanford University. He is a former assistant foreign policy advisor to Israel’s Prime Minister and a board member at the Mitvim Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. Dr. Zeidner holds a Ph.D. in marine ecology and teaches as an adjunct lecturer at the Technion, the Israel Institute for Technology. He has over two decades of experience in ecological work in offshore marine environments in Israel and the US.
All links accessed 5 July 2021.
[i] Rami, Ayyub. “Israeli Energy Pipeline Hit in Gaza Rocket Attack, Sources Say.” Reuters, 11 May 2021, www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/israeli-energy-pipeline-hit-gaza-rocket-attack-israels-channel-12-tv-2021-05-11/.
[ii] Ratner, Michael. “Natural Gas Discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean.” Congressional Research Service, 15 Aug. 2016.
[iii] Eiran, Ehud. “Between Land and Sea: Spaces and Conflict Intensity.” Territory, Politics, Governance, vol. 5, no. 2, 6 Jan. 2017, pp. 190–206.
[iv] Houssari, Najia. “Maritime Border Dispute Emerges between Lebanon, Syria.” Arab News, 31 Mar. 2021, www.arabnews.com/node/1835266/middle-east.
[v] “Turkey and Libya Renew Commitment to Contested Maritime Deal.” Al Jazeera, 12 Apr. 2021, www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/4/12/turkey-and-libya-renew-commitment-to-contested-maritime-deal.
[vi] Butler, Daren. “Turkey Spars with EU over Fresh Drilling off Cyprus.” Reuters, 19 Jan. 2020, www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-cyprus/turkey-spars-with-eu-over-fresh-drilling-off-cyprus-idUSKBN1ZI0G0.
[vii] Reuters. “Hamas: Rockets Targeted Off-Shore Israeli Gas Well.” The Jerusalem Post, 14 Aug. 2014, www.jpost.com/arab-israeli-conflict/hamas-rockets-targeted-off-shore-israeli-gas-well-371650.
[viii] Kenyon, Peter. “Lebanon Oil Spill a Byproduct of War.” NPR, 18 Feb. 2007, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7480103.
[ix] “UN Asks Israel to Pay Lebanon $850m over Oil Spill.” BBC News, 20 Dec. 2014, www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-30559670.
[x] Paget, Sharif. “Oil Spill Leads Israel to Close Beaches as It Faces One of Its ‘Most Severe Ecological Disasters.’” CNN, 22 Feb. 2021, edition.cnn.com/2021/02/22/middleeast/israel-oil-spill-ecological-disaster-intl-hnk/index.html.
[xi] Kingsley, Patrick, et al. “Israel’s Shadow War with Iran Moves out to Sea.” The New York Times, 26 Mar. 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/03/26/world/middleeast/israel-iran-shadow-war.html.
[xii] “Lebanese Parliament Moves to Submit UN Complaint against Israel over Oil Spill.” The Times of Israel, 4 Mar. 2021, www.timesofisrael.com/liveblog_entry/lebanese-parliament-moves-to-submit-un-complaint-against-israel-over-oil-spill/.
[xiii] “Israeli-Owned Ship Said Attacked off UAE Coast amid Sky-High Tensions with Iran.” The Times of Israel, 13 Apr. 2021, www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-owned-ship-said-attacked-off-uae-coast-amid-sky-high-tensions-with-iran/.
[xiv] UNEP. Barcelona Convention and Protocols. www.unep.org/unepmap/who-we-are/barcelona-convention-and-protocols.
[xv] Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission, helcom.fi.
[xvi] Union for the Mediterranean, ufmsecretariat.org/.