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Israelis told to stay away from beaches due to health fears over oil spill

Authorities urge keeping distance from entire Mediterranean coast from Rosh Hanikra to Zikim due to worry over tar exposure, a day after people fell ill helping cleanup efforts

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

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)
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)

The government on Sunday advised Israelis to avoid all Mediterranean beaches from north to south due to pollution from a tar spill that has reached the coastline.

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

A joint advisory issued by the Health, Interior and Environmental Protection ministry called on the public “not to go [to the beaches] to swim, or do sports or leisure activity until further notice.”

“Exposure to tar could harm public health,” the advisory read.

Vets carrying out a post-mortem on February 21, 2021 on the corpse of the young fin whale washed up onto Nitzanim beach in southern Israel on February 18, 2021. (Assaf Kaplan, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

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 told volunteers to go through a registration and safety training process.

The cause of the pollution — involving dozens of tons of tar spilled at sea — was not definitively clear and was under investigation.

Parks Authority head Shaul Goldstein on Saturday called it Israel’s “worst environmental disaster in a decade.”

Tar on a beach under the Carmel Beach Regional Authority’s jurisdiction in northern Israel, February 17, 2021. (Sharon Adi and Dan Biron, courtesy of the Environmental Protection Ministry)

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel said an oil spill had been identified about 50 kilometers (31 miles) off the coast a week ago, and that one of 10 vessels that were in the area at the time may have been responsible.

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.

The Environmental Protection Ministry said Saturday that on an observation flight, tar spills were found moving in the direction of several beaches in Haifa. The affected areas were 200 to 500 meters (656 to 1,640 feet) from the shore, and the ministry said it was considering its response.

A woman holds a dead sea turtle covered in tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea; in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel; Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The Israel Defense Forces and Nature and Parks Authority said the military will assist in cleaning up the spill.

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

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi and Nature and Parks Authority head Shaul Goldstein have agreed that “starting this week, thousands of IDF soldiers will assist workers and volunteers for the Nature and Parks Authority in mapping areas damaged by the tar pollution, cleaning beaches and in the removal” of pollutants, according to a joint statement.

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