Undersea warfare: The fight for gas and data between Israel, Hezbollah, and Hamas
Clashes in early July in the disputed airspace above Israel’s Karish gas field alerted the region to the ever-present prospect of escalation between Hezbollah and Israel.
Indeed, airspace has been part of growing tensions between both parties in recent years. Although the unarmed drones were not the first of their kind to be sent by Hezbollah, they signalled a new strategy.
On 13 July 2022, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, revealed the movement's intentions to engage in war with Israel over the Mediterranean gas dispute.
According to Nasrallah, Hezbollah is willing and capable of engaging Israel militarily on land, sea, and air if it fails to settle the marine border dispute with Lebanon to its satisfaction. Nasrallah not only talked about targeting Israeli gas infrastructure, but also Palestinian gas fields disputed with Israel.
"The threat of war between Israel and the Iranian axis has been high for many years now, but what is unique is the new capabilities being deployed to conduct it, especially at sea"
Hamas leaders have shown support for 'the new equation' put forward by Hezbollah and expressed willingness to defend national resources against Israeli aggression.
Mohamed Sweidan, a Beirut-based international relations researcher, told The New Arab that Hezbollah is taking advantage of Western vulnerability due to the energy crisis following the Russian invasion of Ukraine to exert additional pressure in the negotiations with the US and Israel.
It is also showcasing new military capabilities that could undercut Western efforts to extract energy off Lebanon’s coast without meeting its demands.
These new capabilities, if used, will have a significant disruptive impact that will undermine many of the strategic projects Israel has been developing in order to become a greater global economic and technology power, Sweidan explained.
The threat of war between Israel and the Iranian axis has been high for many years now, but what is unique is the new capabilities being deployed to conduct it, especially at sea. In addition to the introduction of drones, Hezbollah, and also Hamas, have in the past used speedboats and frogmen to launch attacks by water.
However, the success of such attacks has been insubstantial due to operational limitations and exposure to Israeli surveillance and interception capabilities that were able to prevent severe losses.
In the 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah had limited success in launching surface-sea missiles and damaging Israeli military ships. Ports have always been a target for Hamas rockets, yet a large-scale attack has never materialised.
This time, the escalation is likely to take on an entirely new dimension, with the inclusion of undersea targets. The development of new underwater military capabilities by Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran threatens to undermine both the geo-economics of the Mediterranean region and possibly even the wider global economy.
Over recent years Israel has worked to build national infrastructure, much of which remains vulnerable to undersea attacks. For example, the Ukraine crisis has brought back energy-security efforts for the construction of the proposed EastMed pipeline, which connects Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, and Greece.
The pipeline, in addition to being a financial burden, also presents a significant security challenge due to the fact that it passes by the shores of Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, all of which have undersea military capabilities to sabotage it and undermine its economic viability.
Particularly, Russia’s presence in Syria could jeopardise the security of a pipeline that tries to compete with Russian energy exports.
Additionally, Hamas and Hezbollah have been testing unmanned remote-controlled submarines capable of attacking undersea infrastructure such as pipelines.
"Israel has valuable undersea telecommunications infrastructure critical to its digital economy and its position in the globe as a cyber superpower"
Offshore gas rigs also have an undersea infrastructure that can be subject to attacks where air defences will be of no use, thus making undersea infrastructure more vulnerable to successful sabotage operations.
If such attacks are conducted, “Israel will lose tens of billions in revenue and local energy consumption will be harmed. Furthermore, Jordan will be negatively affected due to its reliance on Israeli gas imports,” said Mohammed Belal Habeeb, a Gaza-based economist.
Together with regional disruptions, global supply chains could also be impacted. Shipping insurance premium costs could also increase resulting in added pressure on the cost of goods, which would be felt across Europe and the globe.
In addition to energy infrastructure, Israel also has valuable undersea telecommunications infrastructure critical to its digital economy and its position in the globe as a cyber superpower. Such targets can be attacked by low-cost undersea mines, frogmen special operations, and undersea unmanned vehicles.
In August 2021, Google announced plans to build and operate two submarine cable systems to connect the Middle East with southern Europe and Asia. One of the projects, the Blue Submarine Cable System, will tie Israel to Italy, France, and Greece. The other, called the Raman Submarine Cable System, will connect Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Oman, and India.
With such great economic value, Hezbollah and Hamas could quite easily undermine the data flow from such cables with physical attacks or hacking. This would not only threaten the security of Israel’s data-driven economy but also impact the global economy and increase the pressure on data exchange infrastructure.
As the global economy digitises further, the disruptive potential grows.
“Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [in Iran] have recently announced the formation of a Joint Military Committee responsible for coordinating military action across the resistance axis frontiers," explained Habeeb.
"Thus, it is envisagable that Hamas and other Palestinian military factions may take part in such a confrontation with the caveat that Palestinians have fewer capabilities to attack at sea and under it. Thus, they might engage through drone swarm attacks rather than undersea attacks,'' he added.
“Hamas wants to be able to protect what it deems national economic resources stolen by Israel and collaborating with Hezbollah will aid in achieving such an objective.”
In pursuit of improving its negotiating position and exerting additional pressure, Hezbollah is working on demonstrating its new capabilities on the battlefield and introducing new spaces for warfare and competition between the Iranian axis and the US-led axis in the region.
"Hamas wants to be able to protect what it deems national economic resources stolen by Israel and collaborating with Hezbollah will aid in achieving such an objective"
Israel has admitted difficulty in responding to a relatively large drone attack and is likely to undergo even greater challenges in responding to undersea attacks that may target infrastructure critical to its economic standing at home and globally.
Hamas is taking the opportunity to join Hezbollah in its chase to access Palestinian energy resources Israel has prevented them from utilising.
Regional and global economies could incur significant costs if these battles extend to the undersea frontier, complicating rebuilding efforts and rewriting the power dynamics of the region.
Ahmed Alqarout is a specialist in the political economy of conflicts. His research focuses on the impact of financial and economic policies on regime stability in the Middle East and North Africa.