TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel's defense minister said Wednesday that Lebanon would "pay the full price" for Iran's entrenchment in any future war, the latest in a series of Israeli warnings about Tehran's growing presence in neighboring Lebanon and Syria.
Avigdor Lieberman said Hezbollah guerrillas have sacrificed Lebanon's national interests by subjugating the country to Iran. As a result, he said, all of Lebanon would be fair game in a future war.
Speaking to the Institute for National Security Studies' annual conference, Lieberman said the Lebanese army will be targeted and "if citizens of Tel Aviv are forced to sit in shelters, all of Beirut will too."
He also described as "very provocative" Lebanon's offshore oil and gas exploration tender on the countries' maritime border and suggested that Lebanon had put out a tender to international groups for a gas field "which is by all accounts ours."
His comments drew sharp condemnation from Hezbollah and Lebanese officials, including Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Western ally, who described Lieberman's comments as a "blatant provocation that Lebanon rejects."
He said Lieberman's claim is "invalid in form and substance" and that the Lebanese government would follow this up "with the competent international parties to assert its legitimate right to act in its territorial waters."
Lebanon last year approved the licenses for an international consortium led by France's Total, Italy's ENI and Russia's Novatek to move forward with offshore oil and gas development for two of five blocks in the Mediterranean Sea, including one known as Block 9 that is disputed in part with Israel.
Lebanese officials say the country will start exploratory offshore drilling in 2019 and say Lebanon wants to assert its resource rights along the length of its maritime territories.
A major find in Lebanon's southernmost waters could raise the possibility of a dispute with Israel, which is developing a number of offshore gas deposits, with one large field, Tamar, already producing gas, and the larger Leviathan field set to go online next year.
There are over 800 square kilometers (300 square miles) of waters claimed by the two countries, which are technically in a state of conflict. Israel and Hezbollah fought a monthlong war in 2006.
Hezbollah, in a statement, said Lieberman's remarks offer new proof of Israel's ambitions to steal Lebanon's resources and said it would confront any aggression against Lebanon's rights.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun also weighed in on Wednesday, rejecting Lieberman's statements.
"Comments by Lieberman about Block 9 are a threat to Lebanon and its right to sovereignty over its territorial waters," he said in a statement released by his office.
Israel has repeatedly warned of Iran's increasing efforts to turn Lebanon into "one giant missile site." Israel's chief military spokesman this week said it was "prepared for all the scenarios."
The Iranian-backed Hezbollah wields enormous political and military influence in Lebanon. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has said the Shiite militant group does not seek to provoke a war with Israel but would respond with crushing force should Israel attack Lebanon.