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The two neighbours have no official relations, but a maritime agreement opens up the possibility for exploitation of reserves in the gas-rich Mediterranean Sea.

Israel and Lebanon have officially approved a historic United States-brokered agreement laying out their maritime boundary for the first time, which opens up the possibility for both countries to conduct offshore energy exploration.

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun signed a letter at the presidential palace on Thursday morning that will be submitted to US officials at Lebanon’s southernmost border point of Naqoura later in the day.

Top Lebanese negotiator Elias Bou Saab said the deal, which ends a long-running maritime border dispute in the gas-rich Mediterranean Sea, marked the beginning of a “new era”.

Israel’s government also ratified the agreement on Thursday, a statement from Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s office said.

Lapid said the deal was a “political achievement” for Tel Aviv as “it is not every day that an enemy state recognises the State of Israel, in a written agreement, in front of the entire international community”.

The agreement comes after months of indirect talks mediated by Amos Hochstein, the US envoy for energy affairs.

The two countries have no diplomatic relations and have formally been at war since Israel’s creation in 1948.

Beirut has sought to avoid framing the agreement as normalisation with Israel, insisting that another annexe scheduled to be signed by both sides at the UNIFIL headquarters in Naqoura later on Thursday be signed in separate rooms.

The deal is expected to come into force later on Thursday, after US representatives at the United Nations peacekeeping mission officially announce its approval by both sides.

With the Lebanese economy in complete collapse, Beirut sees the demarcation of the maritime border along Line 23 as an opportunity to unlock foreign investment and lift the country out of its spiralling economic crisis.

Lebanon’s foreign minister Abdallah Bou Habib told Al Jazeera that “the Lebanese people have great hope that their country will become a gas-producing country”.

He noted, however, that it will take time for Lebanon to begin extracting gas and that gas reserves in its offshore reservoir have yet to be proven.

Bou Habib confirmed reports that the Lebanese government had awarded French oil firm TotalEnergies temporary control of a previously disputed offshore gas block.

“TotalEnergies and its partners must start work in the areas agreed upon with the Lebanese government, namely block Number 9 in the Qana field,” he said.

Under the terms of the deal, Israel received full rights to explore the Karish field, which is estimated to have natural gas reserves of 2.4 trillion cubic feet (68 billion cubic metres).

In turn, Lebanon received full rights in the Qana field but agreed to allow Israel a share of royalties through a side agreement with the French company TotalEnergies for the section of the field that extends beyond the agreed maritime border.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES

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