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In surprise move, court slaps 7-day gag order on probe into oil spill disaster

Media barred from publishing details of investigation; some local councils halt cleanup, citing lack of money from Treasury; Environment Ministry due to submit proposal for funds

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Police officers receive instructions at Nitzanim beach in southern Israel before joining volunteers to help clean up tar from an oil spill, February 22, 2021 (Menachem Fried/Israel Nature and Parks Authority)
Police officers receive instructions at Nitzanim beach in southern Israel before joining volunteers to help clean up tar from an oil spill, February 22, 2021 (Menachem Fried/Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

In an extraordinary move Monday, a Haifa court slapped a seven-day gag order on the investigation into the source of a huge oil leak that has polluted Israel’s entire Mediterranean coast with tar.

The ruling by the Haifa Magistrate’s Court came at the request of the Environmental Protection Ministry, which is probing the spill. The order prohibits publishing any details that may identify suspects, vessels, relevant ports, cargo and shipping lines.

Meanwhile nine local authorities belonging to the Sharon Carmel Towns Association stopped cleanup work at contaminated beaches under their jurisdiction Monday, after the Finance Ministry refused to approve a program and budget submitted by the Environmental Protection Ministry.

“We are not prepared to fund the beach cleaning at the expense of residents and the local authorities,” said association chairman Asif Izak. “The government is quarreling and harming wildlife, environmental protection, and will cause a delay in the opening of the bathing season.”

President Reuven Rivlin views the cleanup of tar on Herzliya beach, February 22, 2021 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The councils were planning an emergency meeting Monday evening.

Volunteers, joined by police officers and IDF soldiers, continued to clean tar off beaches up and down the coast Monday.

The Environmental Protection Ministry secured satellite images, dated February 11, of a suspicious black patch on the sea surface some 50 kilometers (31 miles) off the coast and footage showing 10 ships that were in the area around that time.

It is cooperating with international authorities to narrow the options down in the hope of pinpointing the vessel or vessels that may have thrown fuel overboard.

People clean tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Feb. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Maya Jacobs, who heads the Zalul marine protection organization, reacted to the court order by saying, “When those active in the sea and creating the dangers of spills are wealthy oil and shipping companies with influence over regulators, Zalul demands a transparent investigation and the removal of the order.”

On Saturday, Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel pledged that authorities would use every means possible to locate whoever was responsible for the spill and prosecute.

She announced Sunday that she had agreed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on submitting a proposal for government approval on Monday for immediate funding for beach rehabilitation and advancement of legislation on preparedness for marine spills that should have been passed years ago.

The government on Sunday advised Israelis to avoid all Mediterranean beaches from north to south due to the pollution.

The spill is suspected to have resulted in the death of many sea creatures, including a whale whose body washed up on shore on Thursday. Some officials have called it the worst environmental disaster to hit Israel for years.

People clean tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Several thousand people came to beaches along the Mediterranean coast on Saturday to help with the cleanup of the spill but a number were hospitalized after apparently inhaling toxic fumes.

As a result, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority set up a registration and safety training process for volunteers.

From as north as Haifa and down south to Ashkelon near Gaza, black strips could be seen along the Mediterranean coastline. At Gador Nature Reserve near the northern city of Hadera, the tar smeared fish, turtles, and other sea creatures.

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