Oil Spill Stains Israel’s Shoreline in Worst Natural Disaster in Decades

YERUSHALAYIM -
A clump of tar is seen on the sand an after an offshore oil spill drenched much of Israel’s Mediterranean shoreline with tar, at a beach in Ashdod, Sunday. (Reuters/Amir Cohen)

Thousands of volunteers took part in a cleanup operation of the Israeli shoreline, following an oil spill that has been called the country’s worst natural disaster in decades.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority urged people to stay away from the beach at 16 of the most polluted sites.

At a news conference on Motzoei Shabbos, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said the incident was under investigation. “The circumstances that led to this incident are still unknown,” he said, adding that the government was in touch with local community leaders.

Thanking those who had shown up to clean the beaches, the Prime Minister said, “The tar pollution that struck Israel’s shores is a serious incident, and the pictures of animals covered in tar shocked us all.”

President Reuven Rivlin also thanked the volunteers. He said the time had come for the formulation of a national plan “before we face an unprecedented ecological disaster.”

From Haifa in the north to Ashkelon in the south, black strips could be seen for 160 km (90 miles) of the country’s Mediterranean coastline. At Gador Nature Reserve near the northern city of Chadera, fish, turtles and other sea creatures were found covered in tar.

Stormy weather earlier in the week is believed to have pushed the pollutants ashore. On Thursday, the carcass of a baby whale washed up on a beach near Tel Aviv. Authorities are investigating whether the incident may have been linked to the tar spill.

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel met with the heads of local authorities affected by the spill.

At a meeting with local authority heads and environmental groups, Gamliel said, “Although this is a very complex event, we currently have the situation under control.”

A patrol flight over Israel’s shoreline found no additional signs of the spill out at sea. At the same time, experts warned another storm was likely to cause high waves on Tuesday, which could dislodge lumps of tar from rocks at the beach and transport them with the current to nearby beaches.

Gamliel said her ministry was examining information from the European Maritime Safety Agency, according to which what appeared to be an oil spill was seen on satellite images around a week ago, some 50 km (31 miles) from Israel’s shoreline. She said one or more of around 10 ships that passed by the site of the spill could be responsible for the event.

Commenting on the cleanup operation, a majority of which has been organized by local authorities, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and other environmental organizations, Gamliel said it was heartwarming to see the “thousands of volunteers who came over the weekend and the public’s enlistment in the efforts to clean up the beaches.”

“The tar is a dangerous substance, and the volunteers that want to continue to assist are welcome to do so only with the coordination of local authorities, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and the organization for the preservation of marine and coastal environments Ecoocean,” which she said had worked with the ministry to train volunteers.

Israel Nature and Parks Association head Shaul Goldstein called the incident “the worst natural disaster in decades.” He said the cleanup would take a long time and the cleanup process itself was expected to harm beach infrastructure. “The beach the public encounters when it exits the lockdown will be different from the one they’re used to and full of tar,” he said.