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Israel drills disputed West Bank oilfield with 3.5B barrels

Nov. 6, 2013 at 10:33 AM   |   Comments

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RAMALLAH, West Bank, Nov. 6 (UPI) -- Israel's Givot Olam oil company says it's exploring an oil field that could contain 3.53 billion barrels of crude, which along with the rich natural gas fields the Jewish state's found under the Mediterranean Sea seems set to make it a regional energy power.

There's only one problem: Most of the Meged field, where Givot Olam started drilling in 2011, appears to lie in Palestinian West Bank, which Israel has occupied since June1967.

On Tuesday, just hours before U.S. Secretary of state John Kerry arrived to press Israel on Washington's latest peace initiative, Israeli negotiators told the Palestinians that the Separation Wall the Jewish state's building across the West Bank will mark the border with a future Palestinian state.

That would mean almost the entire Meged, which starts just inside Israel near the pre-1967 Green Line that separates the Jewish state from the West Bank, will be under Israeli control.

Officially the Israeli government will not discuss the field. But privately, officials acknowledge it extends eastward into the West Bank for at least 48 square miles and maybe as much as 96 square miles.

Palestinian officials claim the Israelis have changed the course of the concrete and steel barrier, which Israel said was vital to prevent terrorist attacks, so that Meged will fall completely within territory the Jewish state plans to hold onto under any peace settlement.

The new route for the wall blocks any Palestinian access to the Meged field between the Israeli town of Rosh Haayin and the Palestinian village of Rantis, northwest of Ramallah, capital of the West Bank and seat of the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinians say Israel refuses to discuss the field even though exploration surveys indicate that just about the entire field lies under Palestinian land.

Several years ago, when Givot Olam announced it had made a commercial strike at Meged literally yards from the Green Line it estimated the field contained 980 million barrels of oil.

Earlier this year, that estimate rose to 1.5 billion barrels, and now stands at 3.53 billion barrels.

In global terms, that's peanuts compared to Saudi Arabia's state reserves of 267 billion barrels. But to both Israel and the Palestinians that's an economic game-changer.

The political implications are immense and could dangerously complicate the already stuttering peace process as the right-wing Israeli government under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu insists it will hold onto much of the West Bank.

This includes two-thirds of the region listed under the 1993 Oslo Accords as Area C, which continues to be under total Israeli control.

The Israelis have built 200 settlements in that zone, which includes most of the Palestinians' major resources such as water aquifers, minerals and farmland.

The Meged dispute heated up last month when the World Bank said the Israeli occupation is blocking Palestinians from exploiting key natural resources on what is their land under international law, destroying any prospect that a future Palestinian would be economically viable.

Right now the Palestinian economy is totally reliant on Israel and on international donors.

The World Bank estimates the PA could generate $4.3 billion in added revenue a year of it had full control of Area C -- not including potential oil revenue from Meged.

The Oslo Accords stipulate that Israel has to coordinate with the PA on the exploitation of all West Bank resources. But Palestinian officials say that hasn't happened.

They accuse Israel of deliberately stifling data on the field, particularly on how far into the West Bank it extends.

"The PA's facing a $2 billion deficit and desperately needs to invest in major projects taking advantage of our natural resources," said Ashraf Khatib of the PA's negotiations unit.

Daud Abdullah, director of the London-based Middle East Monitor, disclosed that previously unavailable documents obtained from Britain's Foreign Office by the Palestine Policy Network under the Freedom of Information Act "confirm there is potential for a Palestinian petroleum sector in the West Bank."

Victor Kattan, program director of the PPN, known as al-Shabaka, observed: "The documents reveal that, in addition, Israel may be exploiting an oil field located near Ramallah within the occupied Palestinian territories.

"The documents also point to the possible existence of two other oil fields near Qalqiliya and another near Hebron."

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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