Israel suffering worst environmental disaster in a decade

What happened: Over the weekend large quantities of tar washed up along Israel’s beaches causing significant damage to the environment and wildlife in the area.

  • The damage appears to have caused one of Israel’s worse ecological disasters, with 40 per cent of the 106 mile coastline affected.
  • Over the weekend thousands of volunteers alongside environmental organisations and local authorities tried to remove by hand as much of the tar as possible.
  • According to Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel, “this event will not end in the next few days, we are preparing for long, hard work.”
  • The damage is believed to be caused by an unreported spill from a tanker, dozens of kilometres off the Israeli coast.
  • Israel is coordinating with the European Maritime Safety Agency, according to Gamliel. “We’ve identified 10 vessels that passed through that area, and one or more of them could be responsible for this severe incident.”
  • Along with the environment, there has been severe damage to the animal population, particularly sea turtles. In addition, at the end of last week a 17-metre-long fin whale was found washed up on a beach in southern Israel.  An autopsy found oil-based material in the whale’s body.
  • Yesterday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister Gamliel visited Ashdod beach. Netanyahu said: “I was very impressed by the exemplary voluntarism of the citizens who came to clean up the beaches. We must maintain our beaches, our country and the environment.”
  • However, later yesterday the government issues new advice to stay away from the beaches as “exposure to tar could harm public health”.
  • The IDF has now been drafted in to assist the Nature and Parks Authority in mapping areas damaged, cleaning beaches and removing the tar.

Context: In parallel, yesterday Netanyahu met with Egyptian Petroleum and Mineral Resources Minister Tarek El Molla. Netanyahu proposed that “every ship that you see here [will] be powered by natural gas instead of polluting fuel. I think that if several countries band together, within a few years we can bring about a great change, so that the sea, country and beaches will be clean.”

  • Despite over 40 years of peaceful relations, it is still rare for senior Egyptian officials to visit Israel. Netanyahu told the Egyptian minister: ”This is an important day, marking our continued cooperation on energy and so many other things. There is a new era of peace and prosperity for the region with the Abraham Accords. This began of course with the historic peace treaty between Egypt and Israel but now it is becoming something that can better the lives of all the people in economic terms and we think that this is a great opportunity for regional cooperation – Egypt, Israel and the other countries.  We are an energy hub. Together we can supply not only our own needs, but the needs of many other countries.”
  • Minister El Molla noted, “We started together a few years back the expansion of the cooperation in energy which was enhanced by the foundation of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum.”
  • Detection of the spill was initially hampered because of last week’s winter storm, which made it harder to see the tar approaching.
  • Shaul Goldstein, head of The Israel Nature and Parks Authority, has compared the damage to that caused by an oil spill at a nature reserve in southern Israel in December 2014, calling this Israel’s “worst environmental disaster in a decade”.

Looking ahead: The Israel Nature and Parks Authority have already warned that the clean-up will take years.

  • Israel is continuing to work with the European Maritime Safety Agency, using satellite tracking systems to identify the source of the spill with a view to punish the polluter. If found, Israel could take legal action and seek compensation.
  • Minister Gamliel will submit to the Cabinet a plan with a budget to clean the beaches. Gamliel said, “In order to succeed, we need to raise tens of millions of shekels that will be invested in cleaning the beaches. We have the possibility of suing the insurance company of the ship that is responsible for the pollution and we will do everything to locate it. Our moral obligation to the public is to locate those responsible for the event. Our goal is to open the bathing season on time. We need to look toward the future: This event and others like it in the world show us how urgent it is to wean ourselves from polluting fuels and move toward renewable energy.”

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