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US and Israeli companies are working with Israeli approval to siphon natural gas from Gaza’s territorial waters, even though this is illegal according to international law, says TRNN’s Shir Hever

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network, I’m Sharmini [inaudible 00:00:09] coming to you from Baltimore. Natural gas has become one of the most important natural resources in Israel-Palestine. It is a major divisive issue in Israeli politics. A new report by a Dutch organization reveals that Israel is stealing natural gas from the occupied Gaza strip with the help of a Texas based corporation, Noble Energy. A reservoir of natural gas was discovered in the year 2000 off the shore of Gaza strip. They call it Gaza Marine. Back then, when the gas prices were much higher than they are today, the then Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, refused the request by a British gas company to help develop the field on behalf of the Palestinian government. Israel attacked the Gaza strip in the winter of 2008-2009. A month later, the Israeli companies announced that natural gasses found off the shore of Haifa in Israel, and later, other areas in Israel’s territorial waters. The US corporation, Noble Energy, then teamed up with Israeli companies to build a drilling platform and exploit the natural gas. Meanwhile, everyone believed that the natural gas off the shore of Gaza remains untapped. The Israeli government planned on selling the gas to the new regime in Egypt, but then Egypt found its own reserves off its shores. Then Israel made a deal to sell the Israeli gas to Jordan, sparking massive demonstrations in Jordan opposing the deal. One issue that is almost not addressed is the matter of timing in all of this. The long term trend in prices of natural gas is moving downwards. So while the Palestinians are waiting for permission to exploit their own natural gas resources, they are actually losing money. The new report, published by the Dutch civil society research organization, SOMO, titled “Beneath troubled waters” brings forth evidence that Noble Energy has drilled natural gas in the vicinity of Gaza Marine, knowingly siphoning natural gas into the drilling platforms within the Israel’s territorial waters, and selling it as Israeli natural gas. The Israeli government now rushes to build a pipeline to sell the gas to Europe. Israeli prime minister of energy, Yuval Steinitz, met with European state reps last month to convince them to invest in the project. Let’s listen to what he had to say. YUVAL STEINITZ: If everything is going according to plan, it can happen in 2025, [inaudible 00:03:08] about eight years from now. But we will try to speed up and to shorten our time table. Our estimate today is [inaudible 00:03:18] the five billion euro to the Greek system, and six billion euro to the Italian system. SHARMINI PERIES: Joining us to talk about all of this is Shir Hever. Shir is a Real News correspondent in Heidelberg, Germany, but he has been covering and following what’s going on in Israel for a very long time, and he is from Israel and lived there for many years before moving to Germany. So, thank you so much for joining us today, Shir. SHIR HEVER: Thanks for having me, Sharmini. SHARMINI PERIES: So, Shir, one of the problems with this whole issue of the politics of natural gas is that already in 2009, various conspiracy theories popped up. How is it possible that Israel discovered natural gas right after the invasion of Gaza? Was it an attempt to take over Gaza’s natural gas? And so on. Now, however, the respectable research center in the Netherlands, SOMO, is showing hard evidence that the natural gas is being stolen. What evidence do they show in this report? SHIR HEVER: I think the conspiracy theories have been largely disproven. There is no evidence that the Israeli planned in advance to somehow take over the Palestinian gas. And that had nothing to with the invasion of Gaza in 2008-2009, or the subsequent invasions in 2011 and in 2014. However, what they do is, they try to to exploit the natural gas in the Israeli offshore waters very quickly. And the reason for the rush is, the international boycott movement against Israel- BBS, which is already causing some decrease in the Israeli overall exports, especially commodity exports. And some of that decrease in the exports is not because of the boycott movement or because of other reasons, but it is interpreted within Israel as possibly tied to the BBS movement. So the Israeli government is very anxious, and very desperate, to sell their natural gas as fast as possible. That’s why they signed this deal with Jordan for a very low price. Actually, Jordan got a massive discount. And what they’re also doing- With the help of the Texas company, Noble Energy, is to develop this natural gas at the very edge of the Israeli territorial waters, because they’re just not willing to focus on the center of the territorial waters for now, and there is one of these reservoirs right next to the Gaza territorial waters. It’s called [Noah 00:06:02]. In that area, Gazans are not allowed. And not only to exploit their gas, but not even allowed to fish or to sail. Just this Monday, a Palestinian fisherman by the name of Muhammad Bakr, was shot and killed by the Israeli navy, just because- Their own explanation is that he was seen further apart from the area where he is allowed to fish. And Noble Energy is now drilling gas right over there, right on the border. And SOMO have used a variety of experts, and the experts all agree, you can not simply drill for gas adjacent to another reservoir without some of that gas being siphoned from that reservoir. And therefore, according to international law, you have to have the permission of the other party- The owner of the natural resource, to drill. And in response to repeated requests by SOMO for- To Noble Energy to have clarifications on this issue, Noble Energy refused to answer. SHARMINI PERIES: Alright. And so, besides- Or in spite of the protests, I suppose. In Jordan, they’re continuing to purchase the gas from Israel. Is that right? SHIR HEVER: Yes. And that is a last minute deal done at the end of 2016, because the export data on 2016 showed a steep decline in commodity exports. [inaudible 00:07:33] himself pushed to authorize this deal with Jordan, and gave Jordan a massive discount. So King Abdullah of Jordan decided to sign this deal, although it’s very unpopular, because he wanted this very cheap gas. And the very interesting thing, they have a special clause in this agreement between Israel and Jordan that even the event of some shortages in supply of natural gas, Israel has made a commitment to stop supplying to it’s own citizens before it stops shipments of natural gas to Jordan. That is a very unusual clause in international agreements. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. So this is all to hook you, which is the audience who’s listening to this. We’re going to go into a segment too, with Shir, and discuss further the implications of this siphoning of natural gas from the Gaza strip- Off the shore of Gaza strip, by Israeli companies and the US companies, and how it’s being sold. We’ll continue in segment two. And Shir, please join me then. SHIR HEVER: Thank you. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining me here on the Real News Network. Part 2 SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries. Welcome back to my conversation with Shir Hever. We are discussing is Israeli gas companies, aided by US gas companies, is siphoning gas from the Gaza Strip and its reserves, held off the shore of Gaza. Thank you so much for joining me again, Shir. SHIR HEVER: Thank you, Sharmini. SHARMINI PERIES: So, Shir, this whole issue has legal implications, because the Gaza Strip is officially under military occupation and under Martial Law. You had indicated to me that, under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which Israel is signatory to, this is strictly forbidden. Explain that to us and also tell us who’s pillaging resources from where. SHIR HEVER: I learned from this SOMO report that according to international customary law, which is much older than the Geneva Convention, dating back to 1907. It is forbidden for an occupying power to take possession of immovable assets, and that includes natural gas, without permission of the local population. That means Israel would be allowed, theoretically, to allow Palestinian companies to exploit their own gas, provided that all the income from that gas would be used for the benefit of the Palestinian population. That is allowed under international law. But once Israeli companies are taking a natural resource from an occupied territory, and then repackaging it, or giving it a different label, and calling it Israeli gas, and selling it to Europe, also to Jordan and other places, without disclosing the fact that that gas has been siphoned off from the Gaza Strip, they are committing an act of pillage. That is a very serious offense, punishable by international law. I certainly hope that, at some point, Israeli officials and also, owners and managers of Noble Energy, will be taken to account. SHARMINI PERIES: Shir, in addition to the pillaging of Palestinian natural gas, the SOMO report also criticizes the natural gas exploration and drilling that’s taking place near Lebanese territorial waters. In fact, there is a dispute between Israel and Lebanon about where exactly the territorial waters and borders lie. Former Israeli Minister of Energy, Uzi Landau, even threatened war with Lebanon over the natural gas fields. What can Lebanon do if Noble Energy starts drilling its territorial waters? SHIR HEVER: Noble Energy is already drilling very close to the Lebanese territorial waters and the field called [Tamau 00:03:07]. There is a dispute along the border, which is based on how you measure the angle from the shoreline that defines where the territorial waters, one country end and the other begin. Lebanon signs international agreements and tries to resolve the issue with Israel through some kind of mediation, but Israel refused to have any kind of conversation about this and simply claims the whole territory as its own. In addition to that, in the last couple of year, Israel has strongly reinforced its Navy and is quickly buying war ships, acrobats, and also military submarines. All of that is mentioned by the Israeli government as part of the need of the Israeli government to protect its strategic assets of natural gas. It’s clear that the Israeli government is not willing to entertain any kind of compromise on that issue. At the moment, there is not so much that Lebanon can do, except to appeal to international mediators, but such international organizations are rather weak. In the end, it’s a political question. If the European Union will simply turn a blind eye to the Israeli aggression in the Mediterranean, I don’t think that international organizations, like the International Court in The Hague, will be able to do anything. SHARMINI PERIES: Shir, the European Union, by buying the gas, would be at risk of becoming complicit and this act of pillage. Explain what that means and why they would be complicit. SHIR HEVER: There’s a very complicated logistics question in transferring natural gas across long distances. The natural gas has to be liquidated, turned into a liquid, and then transported on pipes at the bottom of the sea. That’s very deep. It’s not so easy to lay those pipes. This is a very complex project, and very expensive one, which involves many different countries. That means that Greece and Italy, and the European Commission, as well, are not only involved in just buying the product, which has been produced illegally, because part of it is produced through pillage, but they’re also involved in the process of financing the laying of these pipes, planning them, giving authorizations for the companies that would lay the pipes, and so on. These are all agreements that are done on the State level. The SOMO report makes a very important point here, that whenever such agreements are being signed, or even negotiated, it’s the responsibility of all sides to have due diligence to the questions of international law and human rights. If European countries are aware, and they are indeed aware, as the SOMO report is available to them to read, that there are legal issues and that the Palestinian government is losing its sovereignty over its own natural resources, they have an obligation, according to international law, not to cooperate with that project. If they still continue to cooperate with it, that makes them culpable and exposes them to lawsuits. SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Shir. Important issue. I thank you so much for joining us today. We look forward to further reports from you. Thank you. SHIR HEVER: Thank you very much, Sharmini. SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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Dr. Shir Hever grew up in Israel and now lives in Germany. He has been reporting on Israel/Palestine stories for 16 years, and for the Real News specifically since 2016. He’s the author of two books and many articles, and is a committed member of several Palestine solidarity groups.