'In my view, it was a deliberate act of terror'

Environment minister adamant oil spill is Iran terror; defense figures skeptical

Gila Gamliel insists there’s a ‘direct link’ between Iran and tanker blamed for pollution; before ship was identified, she had said she believed the incident wasn’t deliberate

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel at a press conference regarding an oil spill on Israel's beaches, at the Ministry of Environmental Protection offices in Jerusalem on March 3, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel at a press conference regarding an oil spill on Israel's beaches, at the Ministry of Environmental Protection offices in Jerusalem on March 3, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel insisted Thursday that a huge oil spill that polluted most of the country’s beaches was an Iranian terror attack on Israel, despite having said in an interview a day earlier that she didn’t believe the spill was deliberate.

Gamliel contended that the spill, which forced the closure of beaches along Israel’s Mediterranean coast, was directly caused by Iran, even as defense officials have said it was not deliberate but rather a malfunction.

Speaking to Army Radio on Thursday morning, Gamliel pushed back at suggestions that the spill was an accident, saying, “To say that this isn’t terror is simply inappropriate.”

She went on to say there had been a “failure” by defense services in monitoring Iranian crude oil smuggled to beat international sanctions imposed on Syria due to its human rights record.

“I call on the defense establishment to do a check right now,” she said. She described the crude oil on tankers as an “ecological weapon” that threatens the country.

Asked directly if the spill was deliberate or an accident she said, “If they had fired a missile at an Israeli ship would anyone ask if it was a mistake or deliberate? In my view, it was a deliberate act of terror.”

A Libyan-owned ship, the Emerald, was smuggling crude oil from Iran to Syria at the time of the spill, the Environmental Protection Ministry said in a statement, citing satellite images by the TankerTrackers monitoring group. The ship has since returned to Iran and is currently anchored there.

“Crude oil in the sea is a weapon that acts against the environment and public health, and against wildlife and against our coasts,” Gamliel said in a statement of her own.

“There is a direct link here to Iran,” Gamliel continued, urging the government to hold an emergency discussion about the matter with defense officials “to gain a broader understanding of the threats in Israel’s economic waters, which are not merely environmental.”

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

On Wednesday Gamliel announced that Israel had identified the ship responsible for the spill and at a press conference later that evening she vowed to file a lawsuit over the leak.

She also pinned responsibility on Iran. “We have discovered that this wasn’t merely environmental criminality, but rather environmental terror,” she said at the press conference. “Now we have found that Iran doesn’t only carry out terror via nuclear weapons or via attempts to establish a presence on our borders. Iran carries out terrorism by damaging the environment.”

The minister’s allegation of Iran’s involvement was immediately 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.

Channel 12 News on Thursday cited sources in the defense establishment as saying that Gamliel’s remarks were “very strange” and that there was no indication of a deliberate act of terror.

Ori Disatnik, the former commander of Israel’s submarine force, also cast doubt on Gamliel’s assessment.

Screen capture from video of Ori Distanik. (YouTube)

“When you start to analyze things this doesn’t look like terror at all,” he told the Walla news website.

Disatnik said that if the spill were deliberate, the ship would have moved on as soon as it unloaded the pollutant instead of remaining in the area for nearly two weeks, as it reportedly did. He also said that the relatively small size of the spill, less than one percent of the 112,000 tons the ship can carry, indicates it was not a deliberate attack.

“If they wanted to do an attack, they would have dumped the whole cargo into the water,” Disatnik said. He noted the great oceanographic knowledge and skill it would take to start a spill in one part of the Mediterranean Sea and be sure it would reach Israel.

Disatnik assessed that it was more likely a malfunction on the ship or the release of fuel for some operational reason.

Gamliel, in a Wednesday morning interview, had herself assessed that the spill was not an attack.

“It was done in territorial waters that are not Israeli territory, and the weather was very stormy,” Gamliel told Channel 12, explaining that would have made it impossible to know which way the spill would go.

“It seems to me to be more damage by environmental criminals,” she said. “Even if it was a malfunction on a ship — someone did not report it, despite his duty to do so. But it does not seem at all that this is a malfunction, but rather malicious.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel walk on Ashdod beach on February 21, 2021, after an offshore oil spill caused damage along Israel’s Mediterranean coast (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Channel 12 reported Thursday that the Environmental Protection Ministry claimed that Gamliel was provided new information following her Wednesday interview that changed her opinion.

Speaking Thursday afternoon, the ministry’s director-general, David Yahalomi, insisted, like Gamliel, that the spill was a form of terrorism, even if not deliberate.

“It doesn’t matter if it was deliberate or not,” Yahalomi told the Kan public broadcaster. “An enemy state that transfers 45 million oil barrels illegally and improperly through Israel’s economic waters — is harmful.”

He said the potential harm under such circumstances “is a ticking bomb, and so it is correct to call it environmental terrorism.”

He estimated that about 1,000 tons of tar have hit Israel’s Mediterranean coast since last month’s spill, and said the damage could be 100 times worse, causing irreversible damage, if an entire tanker shed its oil off Israel’s coast.

In its Thursday statement, the Environmental Protection Ministry said that information it received from the TankerTrackers organization, which monitors tanker movements, showed the Emerald was docked off the Iranian coast in the Persian Gulf on January 17.

“The assessment is that during that docking tanker loaded crude oil that in the end reached Israel’s beaches,” the statement said.

The ministry said it also had satellite images showing that the tanker rendezvoused with an Iranian tanker, the Lotus, in the open sea off Syria on February 14 and transferred oil to it.

Volunteers from youth associations clean a contaminated beach in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre on February 27, 2021, following last week’s offshore oil spill that drenched the northern Israeli coastline and reached parts of the neighboring Lebanese beaches. (Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP)

Three days later lumps of tar washed up along Israel’s Mediterranean coastline.

Gamliel’s accusations come 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.

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 IDF soldiers.

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