United Nations armored vehicles are seen in the background as a Lebanese soldier patrols the border in the southeastern Wazzani River area, Lebanon, Monday, Aug. 1, 2011. Israeli and Lebanese troops briefly exchanged fire Monday on the countries' border, a volatile area where tensions can easily reignite hostilities between the two nations. -AP Photo

BEIRUT: A dispute between Lebanon and Israel over their maritime boundary has heated up and sparked fears of conflict as both countries move to assert sovereignty over an area potentially rich in gas.

Tension rose last month after Israel's cabinet approved a map of the country's proposed maritime borders with Lebanon and submitted it to the United Nations, which has been asked to mediate.

The map conflicts with one submitted by Lebanon to the UN last year and that gives Israel less territory.

The Lebanese say their map is in line with an armistice accord drawn up in 1949 and not contested by Israel.

They also challenge Israel's assertion that an accord signed in 2007 between Cyprus and Lebanon sets the same boundaries as those agreed between the Jewish state and Cyprus in 2010.

Neither side for now appears willing to budge on the issue, especially given the discovery of important energy reserves near the disputed area which could generate billions of dollars.

Energy Minister Gebran Bassil told AFP that Lebanon's new cabinet, in which the militant group Hezbollah plays a key role, was rushing to approve a decree setting out the country's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

An EEZ is a sea zone that gives a state the right to explore its maritime resources.

“Israel cannot arbitrarily flout international law and aggress Lebanon by creating a zone of conflict in our waters,” Bassil said.

“It's not simply a question of them tracing a line and stating what's theirs.” Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, whose party fought a devastating war with Israel in 2006, also waded into the dispute last week warning the Jewish state against any attempt to plunder Lebanon's offshore gas and oil reserves.

The United Nations and diplomats are urging both sides to exercise restraint and to resolve the matter at the negotiating table. The disputed zone consists of about 854 square kilometres (330 square miles).

“It is common to the point of routine for neighbouring countries to have ... overlapping claims,” a senior State Department official said, asking not to be named.

“There are many mechanisms available to both countries to resolve this problem peacefully,” he said. “These mechanisms range all the way from direct negotiations to binding arbitration.”

He and other diplomats interviewed by AFP said that even though the rhetoric over the border was heating up, it was in no one's interest to start a conflict given the economic interests at stake.

They also pointed out that companies involved in gas exploitation will shun the area should the dispute escalate.

“Companies that do this kind of work avoid working in troubled waters like the plague,” said the State Department official. “They are not looking for legal problems or to be in the middle of a dispute.”

Another Western diplomat in Beirut said that although legally Lebanon's case appears stronger than that of Israel, it was unlikely the issue would be resolved anytime soon.

Hampering progress is the fact that both countries are technically still at war and as such will not negotiate face to face. Lebanon also has yet to begin underwater energy exploration -- even in territory not contested -- to determine what lies under its seabed.

“Lebanon is lagging way behind Israel on this,” the Western diplomat said.

“It needs to set up the legal framework to begin exploration and research.”

Diplomats said the best way to proceed for Lebanon and Israel at this point is to let mediation run its course while exploring for gas and oil outside the contested area.

“Clearly, there has got to be a process in the future where Lebanon and Israel resolve this (maritime) line,” the State Department official said.

“In the meantime, both countries are perfectly free to move forward with hydro-carbon exploitation in areas that are not under dispute.”