Hizbullah Bloc Says Border Talks Not ‘Normalization’ with Israel

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Hizbullah on Thursday said U.S.-backed talks next week aimed at delineating Lebanon’s disputed maritime border did not signify “reconciliation” or “normalization” with Israel.

Lebanon and Israel, which are still technically at war, last week said they had agreed to begin U.N.-brokered negotiations over the shared frontier, in what Washington hailed a “historic” agreement.

Iran-backed Hizbullah is both an armed group that has fought several wars against Israel and a major force in Lebanese politics with seats in parliament.

The talks had “absolutely nothing to do with either any reconciliation with the Zionist enemy… or policies of normalization recently adopted… by Arab states,” Hizbullah’s parliamentary bloc said.

“Defining the coordinates of national sovereignty is the responsibility of the Lebanese state,” it said in a statement, the party’s first official comment on the start of the negotiations.

Last month, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab nations to establish relations with Israel since Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric has said the Lebanon-Israel border talks, to be held at the headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping force UNIFIL in the southern town of Naqoura, would start around mid-October.

Lebanon’s parliament speaker and key Hizbullah ally Nabih Berri last week announced the talks would go ahead, sparking criticism over what was perceived as being Hizbullah’s tacit approval to Washington mediating despite previously opposing this over the United States having such strong ties to its arch foe Israel.

The deal to start border talks follows years of U.S. shuttling between both sides.

As well as the discussions on the maritime border to be facilitated by the U.S., a separate UNIFIL-brokered track is also to address the disputed land border.

The issue of the sea frontier is especially sensitive as crisis-hit Lebanon hopes to continue exploring for oil and gas in a part of the Mediterranean disputed by Israel.

In February 2018, Lebanon signed its first contract for offshore drilling for oil and gas in two blocks in the Mediterranean with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, ENI and Novatek.

Lebanon in April said initial drilling in Block 4 had shown traces of gas but no commercially viable reserves.

Exploration of the other, Block 9, has not started and is more controversial as ownership is disputed by Israel.

Hizbullah is credited with ending two decades of Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.

The Shiite group fought a 33-day war against Israeli forces in 2006 that killed more than 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and over 160 Israelis, a majority soldiers.

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