HomePoliticsBriefingCrossing the line

Crossing the line

Of continued maritime border disputes, the deaths of two Lebanese in Italy, a new airport terminal, continued attempts to flee Lebanon, how much losses should the banks absorb, passports, Riad Salameh’s legal woes, rising fuel prices, legal limbo for illegal settlements in the West Bank, more mysterious deaths in Iran, a deal with Venezuela, airstrikes in Syria, political crisis in Iraq, a railway in Jordan and Pride Month. The latest from Lebanon.

Lebanese protesters take part in a demonstration at the Lebanese southernmost border area of Naqoura, on June 11, 2022, days after Israel moved a gas production vessel into an offshore field, a part of which is claimed by Lebanon. Israel urged Lebanon to speed up negotiations on its disputed maritime border ahead of an expected visit to Beirut by the US mediator in the contentious talks. Photo: Mahmoud Zayyat, AFP

We have now entered the second week of heightened tensions between Lebanon and Israel over disputed maritime borders.

More accurately, it is anger in Lebanon over Israel’s plans to drill for fuel in the Karish fields, an area that Lebanon has said belongs to it, making it disputed territory and illegal for Israel to drill there.

Prior to this dispute, most Lebanese had no idea what Line 29 is, much less its implications,  because Lebanon has not really put much effort into negotiating its maritime borders with Israel.

Though they have been going on for around 15 years, they have never really taken all that seriously.

Furthermore, it is unclear as to what Lebanon actually considers to be its actual maritime borders.

Lebanon first claimed Line 29 marked its borders in 2018, four years ago, and it has still not been formalized.

Supposedly, this is because President Michel Aoun is using Line 29 as a negotiating tactic with the US in order to get his son-in-law and presidential hopeful, Gebran Bassil, removed from the US sanctions list.

Many people in Lebanon agree that Lebanon’s borders are at Line 29 and have spoken out against Israel’s plans to drill in Karish. This includes the newly elected opposition MPs who met with Aoun to stress the importance of adhering to Line 29.

During a Thursday evening speech, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah, also condemned Israel’s excavation plans in Karish, claiming that such actions could lead to attacks on the ships in the field. This, however,  seems unlikely, as it would likely lead to an all-out war between Hezbollah and Israel, which neither side is looking for.

As of right now, the Karish field is not officially in the disputed territory despite the rhetoric coming from the Lebanese side.

People can be opposed to Israel’s plans as much as they want, but unless Line 29 is formalized by the Lebanese government and they start to take the negotiations seriously, then it is all pointless.

Is Line 29 a more accurate border demarcation for Lebanon? Many analysts say that the original marking, Line 23, did not make any sense, and that Line 29 is more realistic.

But it is up to the government to actually make it official or else, just like with so many other things, their lack of interest and effort will let another opportunity slip right through its fingers.

In Lebanon

Going to committee: Last week, Lebanon’s Parliament voted on the new makeup of the parliamentary committees, with the establishment politicians maintaining their hold on the most important ones.

Newly elected opposition MPs were able to gain a small foothold in the committees, although the amount of influence that they will have in them remains to be seen.

One of the committees that much of the public had their eyes on was the Finance and Budget Committee, responsible for pushing the government’s plan to help the country recover from the ongoing economic crisis.

The FPM’s Ibrahim Kanaan was easily re-elected as its head, along with Ali Hassan Khalil, who is being investigated by Judge Tarek Bitar in the Beirut Port explosion investigation.

Independent and opposition MPs were also elected to the committee, such as Ibrahim Mneimneh. 

Tragedy in Italy: A helicopter carrying seven people from Lucca to Treviso to visit a tissue paper making facility crashed en route, killing everyone on board.

Two of those killed were Lebanese citizens Chadi Kreidi and Tarek Tayah.

Tayah’s wife, Hala, was killed in the August 4 Beirut Port explosion.

Their daughter Tamara gave French President Emmanuel Macron a pin in the shape of the map of Lebanon that was made by Hala, a jeweler, when the French politicians visited the city in the aftermath of the explosion.

Upon hearing the news of Tarek’s death, Macron expressed his condolences.

One step closer: The saga of Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh’s legal troubles persists after prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat ordered that Salameh and an unspecified number of his associates be formally investigated for illicit enrichment, embezzlement, money laundering, forgery and tax evasion.

Salameh and his brother, Raja, have been under investigation in five European countries along with Lebanon.

Both continue to deny the charges.

Previously, the Salameh brothers were being investigated by Jean Tannous, who was able to gather evidence but not press any charges.

Tannous confirmed that the case was being transferred on Thursday.

This change could indicate that Salameh and his associates will be formally charged.

Managing losses: Lebanon’s caretaker deputy prime minister, Saade Chami, said that Lebanon’s banks should “go first” when it comes to absorbing the losses incurred by the ongoing economic crisis.

Chami has been working with the IMF to unlock desperately needed funding so that Lebanon can begin recovering from the economic collapse.

Some of the measures required to unlock this funding include an audit of the Central Bank.

Lebanon’s Association of Banks has rejected the proposed recovery plan, claiming that the depositors and banks would be the ones facing the brunt of an estimated $72 billion in losses.

But Chami stands by the plan, arguing that the banks should be the ones to pay first before any depositor is affected.

According to Chami, the government is planning on returning up to $100,000 of depositors’ savings over time, which he believes the banks are capable of paying.

Parliament now needs to pass laws to meet the demands set by the IMF in order for the funding to be released.

Expansion: Lebanon is prepared to launch an international tender to build a new terminal at Lebanon’s only international airport in the hopes of better accommodating an anticipated growth in visitors over the next few years.

The project is estimated to cost around $70 million and the new terminal would primarily be for chartered, low-cost flights and flights carrying Muslim pilgrims.

Currently, Lebanon’s only terminal sees around eight million passengers, per year but this is expected to increase to closer to 20 million per year by 2030.

There has been a big push by the government to increase tourism to Lebanon, especially in the summer, in order to aid the ailing economy, though it is unclear how much of an impact the summer tourism season would have on the economic crisis.

Another attempt to leave: The Lebanese military stopped a boat carrying 64 migrants attempting to flee Lebanon for Europe on Tuesday, marking yet another attempt by residents to escape the country’s ongoing economic turmoil seeking a better life.

The migrants were apparently apprehended prior to the ship departing Sheikh Znad, just north of Tripoli. Its passengers were questioned, except for a  pregnant woman who had to be taken to the hospital for bleeding.

This attempt comes nearly two months since another ship carrying more than 60 migrants sank off the coast of Tripoli on April 23, leading to massive outrage in Lebanon’s second-largest and poorest city.

Attempts to get smuggled to Europe by boat have increased since the start of Lebanon’s economic crisis despite the potentially deadly risks that come with the attempted journey.

Papers, please: After nearly two months, Lebanese will once again be able to make appointments to apply for passports after services were suspended in April due to supply shortages.

Lebanese can begin applying once more starting today, June 13.

An increasing number of Lebanese have applied to renew their passports in the hopes of being granted visas so that they can leave the country amid the ongoing economic crisis.

Staying put: Fuel prices rose once more with the cost of 20 liters of gasoline inching closer to 700,000 lira.

The new fuel prices are:

674,000 for 95 octane

685,000 for 98 octane

683,000 for diesel

358,000 for a canister of cooking gas

The rising costs of fuel will also see the prices to use the country’s informal public transportation system, such as service, vans and buses, go up, making it increasingly difficult for many in Lebanon to get around the country.

Viral outbreak: In Tripoli, there has been an outbreak of Hepatitis A, with over 250 confirmed cases so far. The cause of the outbreak remains unknown.

While the virus is treatable, medicine is not readily available because they are still subsidized, making it nearly impossible to import amid the economic crisis and the government’s inability to continue paying for subsidies.

Covid-19 update: In recent days, Lebanon’s Covid-19 cases have started to increase from around 100 cases daily to over 200 cases daily. 

Deaths remain low, just one or two per day, but with an increase in cases, this could also eventually rise.

It remains important to take precautions to avoid contracting and spreading the virus. New infections may be down and covid-19 may not be in the news as much anymore, but it is still something that should be taken seriously.

In the region

Legal limbo: Illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank could be facing a drastic shift in their legal protections.

In the West Bank, there is a two-tier legal system: one for the Palestinians and one for the Israeli settlers. The Palestinians are subject to military law, meaning that their homes can be searched at any time, they can be stopped on the street and searched without warning and they are tried in a military court. The settlers, on the other hand, are governed by Israeli civil law, despite not actually living in Israel, thanks to a decades-old legal system set up by Israeli lawmakers.

This could soon change as the Knesset failed to pass an extension for this legal protection for the settlers.

Currently, there is an even split in the Knesset, with 60 lawmakers on the side of the government and another 60 in the opposition, including the former long-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party are in favor of this law, but voted against it in the hopes of toppling the fragile government coalition and forcing new elections where Netanyahu could potentially regain a government majority and return as prime minister.

On top of this, not everyone in the government is in favor of this law.

Palestinian and liberal lawmakers refused to vote in favor of the extension, which they view as being fundamentally unfair.

Even if the safeguards are removed and Israeli settlers become subject to military law, few believe that much would change.

The Israeli government has until the end of the month to pass the extension.

More mysterious deaths: Two members of Iran’s aerospace division of the Revolutionary Guard Corps died in separate incidents over the weekend, following two the mysterious deaths of two high-ranking IRGC officials.

Ali Kamani, who is believed to have been a second lieutenant, died in a “car accident” in Khomein, with no further information being provided.

Given his assumed rank, Kamani would have been involved with Iran’s ballistic missile program and some of the country’s air defenses.

Only one Iranian outlet reported the death of the second man, naming him as Mohammad Abdous, and claiming that he died “on a mission” in the Semnan region, home to the Imam Khomeini Spaceport that has been used for satellite launches.

In the past month, Colonel Hassan Sayyed Khodayi was shot and killed by two gunmen on a motorcycle in front of his home and Colonel Ali Esmaelzadeh was found dead in unclear circumstances.

Both Khodayi and Ezmaelzadeh were members of Unit 840, a secretive unit within the IRGC’s foreign arm, the Quds Force, which Israel claims kills foreigners abroad.

Israel is believed to have been behind the death of Khodayi.

These deaths come amid heightened tensions over the tattered nuclear deal that has been stalled for months.

Recently, Iran announced that it was removing 27 cameras set up by the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor Iran’s activities are various nuclear sites throughout the country, putting the possibility of a renewed deal in jeopardy.

Currency collapse: Iran’s national currency, the rial, further lost value amid the continued US sanctions and added to the country’s economic woes.

By the end of the weekend, the rial was trading at 332,000 to $1. When Iran signed the nuclear agreement with the US in 2015, it was at only 32,000 rials.

Iran desperately wants to rejoin the agreement in order to have many of the crippling sanctions removed.

But talks have stalled over Iran’s demands to have the IRGC removed from the US’s list of terror organizations, which the Biden administration has said it will refuse to do.

Since oil-rich Iran cannot sell its fuel abroad without recipients facing sanctions, it is left with few options of where it can export its fuel.

Airport closure: Syria’s transportation ministry announced that indefinite suspension of flights to and from Damascus’s airport after an Israeli airstrike nearby damaged the airport.

Syria is believed to use the airport as cover for its military activities and to send arms to Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon.

Israel has a long history of performing airstrikes throughout Syria as a means of countering Iran and its regional activities.

Political chaos: The largest bloc in Iraq’s parliament, headed by the influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who gained a following by leading a militia against the US after it invaded Iraq and overthrew the country’s long-serving dictator Sadam Hussein, submitted their resignations from the legislative body following months of stalemate in electing a new president.

The 73 lawmakers submitted their resignations based on the request of al-Sadr and were accepted by Parliamentary Speaker Mohammed Halbousi.

For eight months, al-Sadr had been looking to form a majority government that excluded the Iran-backed lawmakers but had been unable to find the two-thirds of lawmakers needed to elect a new president, a requirement before a new prime minister can be named.

According to Iraqi law, when a parliamentarian resigns, the person who got the second-most votes in the election takes their seat, something that is likely to benefit the Iran-backed lawmakers.

The mass resignation has sparked concern that there could be social unrest on the streets of Iraq or that it could lead to new elections.

What we’re reading

Pride Month: Lebanon has long been viewed as the liberal outlier in the Middle East. But the LGBTQ+ community has long had to find a way to navigate societal and legal constraints that they face in the Mediterranean country. There is hope, though, as NOW Lebanon’s Dana Hourany discovered with lawmakers looking to finally abolish the law criminalizing homosexuality.

The veil: The hijab and other face coverings stereotypically associated with Islam have been the focus of many western states, particularly France. Farrah Akbik wrote for NOW Lebanon about the hypocrisy surrounding this obsession.

All aboard: During the Ottoman rule of the Middle East, there was a railway system that connected much of the region together. However, after the region was divided under the Sykes-Picot agreement following the end of World War I, this railway began to fade. Part of it still remains in Jordan, though, and, as Ben Hubbard and Asmaa al-Omar discovered, the journey now may be much shorter, but it still attracts a lot of attention in this piece for the New York Times accompanied by amazing photographs by Laura Boushnak.

The end of times: Recently, Iraq has been in the news frequently due to the massive number of sandstorms hitting the country caused by a variety of reasons, such as water shortages, illegal wells made by businessmen and climate change. Now, the country’s “pearl of the south,” the Lake Sawa, has tried up. AP’s Samya Kullab looks at the case of Lake Sawa and how it is affecting the people who used to benefit from its water.

The investigation: It has been a month since Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed while reporting on an Israeli raid in the Jenin refugee camp in the north of the West Bank. Al-Jazeera and the Palestinian Authority were quick to accuse Israel of targeting Abu Akleh while Israel claimed that she was killed by Palestinian militants. The Washington Post‘s Sarah Cahlan, Meg Kelly and Steve Hendrix looked into the events that transpired on May 11 in this thorough investigation.


Podcast: There is still only one podcast to listen to this week. Sarde after dinner hosted Elie Habib, CTO and co-founder of the music streaming service Anghami which became the first Arab tech company to be listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange in 2022, to discuss the story of Anghami, music in the Arab world, the commercial and creative relationship between artists, platforms and listeners and what Anghami’s data tells us about human behavior and patterns.

Until next week, follow NOW Lebanon on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and subscribe to our weekly newsletter. And stay safe.