Israel’s coast polluted by hundreds of tonnes of tar in major oil spill

Hundreds of tonnes of oil have poured out onto Israel’s Mediterranean coast. Experts believe it’s one of the country’s worst ecological disasters.

An oil spill off the coast of Israel has caused extensive ecological damage, with hundreds of tonnes of tar pouring onto the country’s Mediterranean coastline. The incident was likely caused by a passing oil tanker. Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry and environmental groups estimate at least 1,000 tons of tar washed up along a 170-km long stretch of coast – that’s 40 per cent of the country’s entire coastline.

Volunteers at work in Israel

Thousands of volunteers and soldiers, with the help of NGOs, are working to contain the damage and protect the coastline. Photos of turtles and birds covered in oil have emerged, showing that the spill is already causing damage to wildlife.

Following the spill, a 17-metre-long fin whale was found washed up on shore, lifeless, on a beach in southern Israel. The veterinarians who carried out the autopsy stated that they found a “black liquid” within the whale’s body. It’s still not clear, however, whether there is a direct connection between the oil spill in question and the cetacean’s death.

Israel’s most severe environmental disaster

According to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the pollution caused by the spill is “one of the most serious ecological disasters” in the country’s history. It’s feared that it will take months, or even years, to fully clean up the coastline. Members of the public have been told to stay away from the beaches for the time being, while sports and camping have been banned along the coast between the border with Lebanon to the north and the Gaza strip to the south.

Officials from the Environmental Protection Ministry are working to determine the source of the spill, using satellite images gathered thanks to a collaboration with the European Maritime Safety Agency. Nine tankers are currently being investigated. It is believed that the tanker responsible for the spill may have been damaged by a storm on 11th February and that it may have been operating illegally, hence the fact that the ministry issued a gag order on all details of the investigation until its conclusion. The court order, valid for a week, bans the publication of anything that might identify the suspects, the ships involved, what they were carrying, their destination, and their port of origin.

What’s known so far is that the spill was first reported on Wednesday, 17th February 2021. On that day, the ministry reported a generic spill of a dozen tonnes of oil from a tanker. On Saturday, 20th February, the European Maritime Safety Agency revealed that an oil spill originating some 50 kilometres off the coast of Israel was the source of the pollution. The following day, a swimming ban between Rosh Hanikra to the north and the Zikim kibbutz to the south, near the Gaza Strip, was enforced. The tar has reportedly washed up along beaches in Lebanon as well.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to one of the affected beaches to inspect the damage. The government is reportedly considering undertaking legal action against the responsible party, to demand compensation which could amount to millions of dollars.

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