TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- Israel's navy is drawing up plans to protect the state's new-found strategic resource, a natural gas bonanza in the eastern Mediterranean, parts of which Lebanon and the Palestinians claim.
The arrival in the Mediterranean this week of an Iranian frigate, accompanied by a supply ship, the first Iranian warships in the region in more than 30 years, added a new twist amid the unprecedented ferment in the Arab world at this time.
The Yediot Ahronot newspaper reports that the Israeli navy will present the plan to the general staff of the Israel military in March. If it is approved, it will be sent to the government for a final decision.
Given the extent to which the deep-water gas finds off the coast of northern Israel made over the last three years will transform Israel's economy, it is unlikely Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's coalition will reject the naval blueprint.
"This is an important mission," a senior military officer observed. "For the (military), it effectively means another front."
The navy's plan is expected to initially cost $55 million but will undoubtedly expand as exploration continues in a vast area that is almost double the size of the Jewish state's landmass.
The blueprint will involve the protection of offshore drilling vessels and production platforms, undersea pipelines and the like within Israel's maritime economic zone.
The fields, holding an estimated 25 trillion cubic meters of gas, will eventually supply 70 percent of Israel's energy needs for producing electricity as well as generate billions of dollars in exports.
The largest field in known as Leviathan, about 80 miles off Haifa. It contains 16 trillion cubic feet of gas. The next largest in Tamar, which lies to about 30 miles north and contains an estimated 8.5 trillion cubic feet of gas.
Tamar is expected to start producing in 2011, Leviathan not before 2016.
The navy will have to procure specialized vessels and assign personnel to protect dozens of installations, including rigs, underwater cables, pipelines and other equipment.
Israel's military command has been planning to expand the 7,000-person navy, the smallest of the country's armed services, for some time. Priority has gone primarily to acquiring three more Dolphin-class submarines from Germany to double the size of this strategic force capable of hitting Iran.
In August, the Israeli business daily Globes reported the defense establishment was considering building two Saar-5 Mark II corvettes at the Haifa Shipyards Ltd to bolster naval forces patrolling Israel's maritime borders.
The main threat to the gas fields now comes from the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian groups, particularly Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
But the arrival in the Mediterranean of the 1,100-ton Iranian frigate Alvand, armed with torpedoes and C-802 anti-ship missiles, and the 33,000 replenishment ship Kharg on Tuesday caused jitters in Israel.
There was nothing to indicate the deployment was a direct threat to Israel's gas fields, or any other Israeli target for that matter. The Iranians say it's a training and flag-showing operation.
But the presence of the aging British-built vessels no doubt reminded the Israelis of the vulnerability of their offshore energy installations.
The Iranian vessels are bound for Tartous in Syria, Tehran's strategic Arab ally.
Israel considers Iran's contentious nuclear program to be an existential threat and has threatened to launch pre-emptive strikes against Iran.
Israel already faces security problems regarding the gas fields. Lebanon, its northern neighbor with whom the Jewish state is still technically at war, claims the gas fields stretch into its waters.
Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006, has warned it won't allow Israel to "plunder" Lebanese resources. Israel has made it clear it will use military force to defend its gas fields.
Gas fields in the same continental shelf structure as Leviathan and Tamar were found off the Palestinian-held Gaza Strip in 2000.
But Israel has blocked efforts to develop them, fearing they would bolster the economic prospects of a Palestinian state. That's another source of potential conflict over energy resources.
Egypt has warned it will be watching to ensure the Israelis don't encroach on Egypt's territory. That happened before President Hosni Mubarak was driven from office in January but it will undoubtedly remain in force despite the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace agreement.