Does Israel walk a thin line with West Bank oil drill? (BBC) British Broadcasting Company) By Alex Rowell Rantis, West Bank 10 July 2012 Last updated at 00:04 GMT)
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While the search for oil beneath Israel has been going on for years,
the most recently drilled well in the Meged oil field, on the edge of
the West Bank, is raising concern that it might draw from untapped
After a 10-minute uphill hike through the rocky fields of the West
Bank village of Rantis, we reach a summit where we rest, panting in
the 40-degree heat.
A hundred metres (330ft) in front of us lie the wired fence and
gravel track of the Green Line - the perimeter of the West Bank and
To our left lies Ben Gurion airport; beyond that, Tel Aviv and the
Mediterranean. But it is for a different view that we have come here.
"It hasn´t been on for the last few days," says Bilal, a Rantis local
and student at Bir Zeit University.
"And you can´t see too much in the daytime anyway. But at night -
boof!" He gestures as though throwing a fistful of confetti into the
He is referring to the large black pipe inserted vertically into the
earth, not more than 500 metres away, out of which a steady, blazing
flame has been periodically sighted for about a year now.
It is in fact a gas flare, part of the Meged-5 oil well, owned and
operated by Givot Olam Oil Ltd, currently the sole player in Israel´s
tiny onshore oil and gas production sector.
"I happened to be driving past when all of a sudden I saw this huge
flare on the Green Line," recalls Hafez Barghouti, editor of the
Palestinian al-Hayat al-Jadeedah, who first broke the story in
"I was sure it must be gas. So I called the mayor of Rantis and he
said, ´Yes, the Israelis are drilling oil and gas.´"
´No man´s land´
While this may seem uncontroversial on the face of it- the flare is,
after all, within Israel proper - its proximity to the Green Line
raises ethical questions.
"Geology doesn´t follow geography," explains Dr Samer Naboulsi, a
veteran petroleum engineer at a leading oil firm in Dubai.
"Looking at the site of the flare, and the shape of the overall
field, it´s clear that this extends into the West Bank. And even when
extracting from the Israeli side, it´ll be draining Palestinian
"This is why the international convention is to establish a ´no man´s
land´ - typically many kilometres wide - along national borders in
which neither party may extract without the other´s consent."
Dr Walid Khadduri, a former director at the Organisation of Arab
Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) and editor-in-chief of the
Middle East Economic Survey (MEES), also criticises Israel´s
"Ordinarily in such a situation, both parties would reach a mutual
agreement to divide the field and the associated revenues and costs
in an equitable manner.
"This was the case between the UK and Norway, for example. Without
such an agreement, things can get messy - look at Iraq and Kuwait,"
he says, referring to Iraq´s 1990 invasion of its southern neighbour
following a dispute over the transnational Rumaila field.
Moreover, the drilling would seem to contravene the Oslo Accords,
which call for "co-operation in the field of energy, including an
energy development programme, which will provide for the exploitation
of oil and gas [and] will encourage further joint exploration of
other energy resources".
Givot Olam refused to comment, but an Israeli government official
dismissed the claims as "yet another attempt to politicise
"We are engaging in exploratory digging within Israel. While we are
hopeful, there is at present no conclusive indication as to whether
commercially viable quantities will be found, or precisely where,"
the unnamed official told the BBC.
"The commercial implications, including over the Green Line, are
unknown. It is surprising that a Petroleum Engineer in Dubai already
knows more than the people on the ground at this early stage."
The Palestinian Authority (PA) meanwhile has shown little interest in
pursuing what is potentially a substantial strategic and economic
opportunity for the West Bank.
A technical report issued by the UK-based consultant Greensand
Associates in 2010 concluded that "the Meged Core Area has robust
economics... and could be a highly profitable venture if the
predicted well production volumes prove to be achievable and
The reserves of the Meged-5 well alone have been estimated by Givot
Olam at over 1.5bn barrels - not a huge find but certainly enough to
make a difference for the chronically energy-poor West Bankers (the
UK, by comparison, has around 3bn barrels of proven reserves). The
company says it extracted 800 barrels a day during a test period last
Yet there appears to be neither the will nor the ability on the
Palestinian side to take action.
"I met [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas shortly after discovering the
flare and told him about it," says Mr Barghouti. "He shrugged. He
wasn´t interested at all."
A report in the Chinese state media, however, quoted PA official
Abdullah Abdullah as condemning the drilling, saying the
organisation "will not stay cross-handed. We will take urgent
procedures that may include suing Israel in international courts."
Even so, Mr Khadduri points out the considerable practical obstacles
to an effective Palestinian initiative. "An obvious problem is that
they simply don´t have the expertise.
"Historically, there has never been a Palestinian oil industry. This
is all very new."
And there is also the more fundamental question of whether Israel
would recognise the Palestinians´ right to any part of the field in
the first place.
"They regard that entire section of the West Bank as Israeli
territory," says Mr Barghouti. "Including Rantis. They refer to it as
the ´Kfar Sava area´."
Mr Khadduri also says Israel has repeatedly derailed Palestinian
efforts to extract gas from the sizeable fields off the coast of Gaza.
All of which suggests that a rare opportunity for mutually beneficial
Israeli-Palestinian cooperation is likely to be missed. (© BBC MMXII
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