Blaming Iran, environment minister calls oil spill ‘environmental terrorism’

Gila Gamliel says Libyan ‘pirate ship’ that sailed from Iran is responsible for huge leak that polluted coastline, but claim reportedly disputed by Israel’s security establishment

By TOI STAFF3 March 2021, 8:56 pm  3

Soldiers clean tar off the Palmachim beach following an offshore oil spill which drenched most of the Israeli coastline, February 22, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)`

Soldiers clean tar off the Palmachim beach following an offshore oil spill which drenched most of the Israeli coastline, February 22, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)`

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel on Wednesday blamed a Libyan “pirate ship” that sailed from Iran for a massive oil spill that has polluted most of Israel’s Mediterranean beaches.

Gamliel called the oil leak, which has been described as Israel’s worst ecological disaster in decades, an act of “environmental terrorism.” She suggested the spill was orchestrated by Iran.

“Iran is initiating terrorism not only with nuclear weapons and efforts to entrench itself on our borders. Iran is initiating terrorism by harming the environment,” Gamliel wrote on Twitter.

She added: “Our fight against pollution and harming the environment is a cross-border fight.”

Pieces of tar washed up onto the beach at the Gador Nature Reserve in northern Israel on March 1, 2021. (Yossi Aharoni)

Gamliel didn’t name the Libyan firm that owns the ship or provide any further details on Iran’s alleged role in the spill. Speaking at a press conference, she vowed to file a lawsuit over the leak.

“We will sue for compensation in the name of all the citizens of Israel for damage to health, nature, flora and fauna,” she said.

Gila Gamliel speaks at a conference in Kedem, in the West Bank, on September 5, 2019 (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)

The minister’s accusation was disputed by senior security officials, however, with Channel 13 news reporting that Israel’s defense establishment “does not share this assessment.” The network said it was “striking” that neither the Mossad intelligence agency nor other defense bodies were involved in formulating Gamliel’s conclusion.

An unnamed senior security official told the Kan public broadcaster that Iran does not appear to be directly involved.

The head of the naval unit in Gamliel’s ministry also appeared to cast some doubt on her claim the leak was intentional.

“We think the leak that affected us was not during the transfer of oil from Emerald to smaller ships but either a deliberate leak — that is to say terror — or an accident,” Rani Amir said at the press conference.

Israeli soldiers clean tar off the Palmachim beach following an offshore oil spill that hit most of the Israeli coastline. February 22, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Libyan-owned ship, named as the Emerald, was smuggling crude oil from Iran to Syria at the time of the spill, according to the Environmental Protection Ministry, which said the vessel was flying a Panamanian flag.

“Between February 1-2 [the ship] polluted Israel’s economic waters while moving with its [automatic tracking] devices turned off, and when it reached Syria again turned on the devices. Between February 3-14, it unloaded the crude oil it was carrying to other ships in area of Syria,” a ministry statement said.

The ship returned to Iran and is currently anchored there, the ministry said.

Gamliel said earlier Wednesday that Israel had identified the ship, but didn’t give further details.

Her accusation comes after the Jewish state accused Iran of a recent attack late last month on an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman, further raising tensions between the countries. Iran has denied any role in the explosion that hit the MV Helios Ray, leaving two holes in its side but causing no casualties.

Reports of the pollution first emerged when a dead 17-meter (56-foot) baby fin whale washed up on Israel’s southern coast last month, along with other wildlife.

Some experts have called the spill the worst environmental disaster to hit the country’s beaches in decades.

Israelis clean tar off the Bat Yam beach following an offshore oil spill that drenched most of the Israeli coastline, March 2, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Gamliel’s comments came days after her ministry absolved a Greek tanker oil tanker of responsibility for the oil leak. The ministry said over the weekend that while it had initially identified around 10 potentially responsible ships, further investigations had swelled this to dozens of possibilities.

A massive cleanup operation was launched following the spill, with thousands of Israelis volunteering to help clean up the shoreline, alongside workers of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and even IDF soldiers.

The Environmental Protection Ministry reported Tuesday that it had already removed some 120 tons of sand, refuse and other material contaminated with tar from the northern coastal beaches of Jisr az-Zarqa, Herzliya and Atlit and from Palmachim in central Israel. It said preparations were underway to pick the waste up from other beaches, including in Haifa, Rishon Lezion, Netanya, Tel Aviv and Nahariya.

Last week, as the cleanup gathered pace, the Health Ministry ordered a precautionary ban on the sale of fish and other seafood from the Mediterranean.

AFP contributed to this report.

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