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Energy firms face legal threat over Israeli licences to drill for gas off Gaza

Rights groups say exploration licences handed to companies in first weeks of war encroach on Palestinian waters and may amount to the war crime of pillaging
A worker stands in front of the gas platform in the Mediterranean Sea near Gaza (Ahikham Seri/AFP)

Major energy companies awarded licences by Israel to explore for gas off Gaza's coast have been warned that they could face legal action for possible breaches of Palestinian maritime sovereignty and war pillaging.

Israel's Ministry of Energy granted exploration rights to three companies - Italian energy giant Eni, UK-based Dana Energy and Israel's Ratio Petroleum - three weeks after the war on Gaza began in October.

Lawyers working on behalf of three Palestinian NGOs - Al Haq, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights - notified the companies in letters this month that they would use "all legal mechanisms to the fullest extent" if they proceeded and called on them to desist from any activities relating to the licences.

The organisations contend that over half of the zone for which the companies were awarded licences lies within Palestine's maritime boundaries.

Those boundaries were declared in 2015 when the Palestinians acceded to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the international agreement providing the legal framework for all marine and maritime activities.

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Further, in 2019, the Palestinians provided full coordinates and maps of the area.

"Because of the overlap, Israel cannot have validly awarded you any exploration rights and you cannot validly have acquired such rights," the letter says.

Meanwhile, the Haifa-based Adalah legal centre has petitioned the Israeli Ministry of Energy and attorney general to revoke the licenses awarded to the companies.

In a letter also sent this month, Adalah says that the tendering and awarding of licenses for the zone, as well as two others included in the tender, violates international humanitarian law and the law of the sea.

'Israel's move to establish facts on the ground in such a manner are illegal and carried out in bad faith'

- Adalah 

Israel has not acceded to UNCLOS or fully declared its maritime boundaries. Adalah argues it cannot unilaterally delimit those boundaries, nor legally tender licences in an area where it has no sovereign rights.

"Israel's move to establish facts on the ground in such a manner are illegal and carried out in bad faith," Adalah says in its letter.

All four of the organisations challenging the licences note that Israel's call for bids, released in December 2022, made clear to companies that the boundaries involved have yet to be delimited. 

The tender lays out that if any area within the licensed zone is deducted during the course of a licence period, companies will not be compensated.

"Israel appears intent on placing the risk of this situation squarely on your shoulders," the letter sent to the companies says.

The Ministry of Energy and two of the companies did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokesperson for Eni told Middle East Eye that, while the company had been awarded an exploration licence, it had not yet signed a contract and confirmed that no activity was underway in the area.

"Wherever Eni operates it always complies with international law and safety best practice," the spokesperson said.

Battle over boundaries

Major natural gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean over the past 15 years have turned one-time gas importers like Egypt and Israel into exporters.

Palestinians have meanwhile been prevented from drilling an offshore gas field discovered off Gaza's coast in 1999 or from any exploration in its declared maritime boundaries, reportedly paying Israel $22m for electricity in Gaza and the West Bank each month.

Israel has argued that the boundaries declared by Palestinians are not valid, saying that only sovereign states can delimit their maritime borders.

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But Larry Martin, senior counsel with the US-based law firm Foley Hoag, which is representing the NGOs that wrote to the companies, said Palestine is a territory recognised by the international community, including as an observer state by the UN.

"So it should have the rights to claim sovereign rights and jurisdiction over maritime resources to the same extent as any other state," Martin told MEE.

"The fact that Israel is continuing to illegally occupy it shouldn't impede it from having that right."

Suhad Bishara, Adalah's legal director, told MEE that Israel is skirting its obligations under international law, "illegally applying their interests and their law in an area that does not fall within their jurisdiction".

The organisations have not had responses from the Israeli government or the companies, but Martin said he is hopeful that the letters, along with public concern, will stop any activity in the licensed area. "If not, we are ready to keep going," he said.

To his knowledge, there has not been any legal action taken over areas within Palestinian maritime boundaries that Israel has previously demarcated as its own gas reservoir or awarded licenses for exploration or development.

"We are also considering potential claims related to those," Martin said.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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