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A woman holds a dead sea turtle covered in tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea at the Gador nature reserve near Hadera, northern Israel, February 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Ariel Schalit/AP: 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, Feb. 20, 2021.
Op-edWe could have reduced, if not prevented, this catastrophe

Israel’s coast is devastated by an oil spill. If only we’d had an emergency plan

A national response plan for marine oil pollution incidents was ordered in 2008; it was never implemented. Now the beaches are closed, seafood is banned, and further disasters loom

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Main image by Ariel Schalit/AP: 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, Feb. 20, 2021.

A week after almost the entire Israeli Mediterranean coastline was devastated by tar from an oil spill at sea, the Environmental Protection Ministry on Wednesday finally began a full-scale clean-up operation.

Experts have found themselves at a loss for words when trying to convey the scope of the disaster. The authorities have been forced to order the public away from all beaches from Rosh Hanikra in the north to Ashkelon in the south. As a precautionary measure, the Health Ministry on Wednesday evening indefinitely banned the sale of fish and seafood from the Mediterranean.

“We make such loving, hardworking efforts to protect every site, every creature,” said Ruti Yahel, an ecologist with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, “and then this comes along and overturns everything… It’s heartbreaking.”

“We’re going to have to go rock by rock, beach by beach, for the coming years” to undo the damage, said the INPA’s director, Shaul Goldstein. “It’s a Sisyphean task.”

Yahel and Goldstein were speaking in an Israel Television report (Hebrew, below) on Sunday night that also briefly focused on efforts to save 14 young turtles covered in tar. Eight did not survive.

Yoav Ratner, who runs the Environmental Protection Ministry’s Center for Preparedness and Response to Sea Contamination, told The Times of Israel’s environment reporter Sue Surkes earlier this week that the catastrophe was simply unprecedented.

Having spent much of his life involved in environmental affairs, he said it was the worst he could recall ever hitting Israel’s coastal sands and rocks because of its wide geographical spread.

Ad hoc cleanup efforts last week had to be abandoned because some volunteers became unwell after inhaling fumes from the clumps of tar.

The damage to marine life is incalculable.

Nobody knows when it will be safe to reopen the beaches.

For now, the ministry is inviting us to keep track of the cleanup with a (Hebrew) color-coded map of the coastline — green for “very light” tar pollution, red for still requiring considerable work.

Five of the 10 oil tankers that were in the area to which the spill has been traced — some 50 kilometers offshore — are still under suspicion. “We’re doing everything to find those responsible and bring them to justice,” said Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel on Thursday morning.

Putting a first official figure on the task ahead, the ministry said Wednesday it would be collecting and disposing of 1,200 tons of tar and contaminated material — including “sand and solid waste such as plastic, wood, algae and shells” — from beaches along 160 kilometers (100 miles) of Israel’s 195-kilometer Mediterranean coastline.

Tar is stuck on rocks after an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea, at Tel-Dor Nature Reserve, in Nahsholim, Israel, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The INPA said later Wednesday that 70 tons had been scraped off and collected from beaches, nature reserves and national parks so far, while its director, Goldstein, warned that more tar may be heading Israel’s way. Some 2,000 volunteers are working with the authorities; the IDF has also provided personnel.

“What humans destroy, humans can also fix,” Dafna Ben-Nun, who took the pictures below, was quoted saying in the tweet. Well, maybe. Hopefully.

Giving a sense of the scale and complexity of the cleanup, the INPA said the worst of the pollution remains “on the rocky surfaces on the beaches,” where it is difficult to remove. The sandy surfaces are relatively clean, although there too there are considerable quantities of lumps and flakes of tar.

The cleanup involves “filtering large areas of sand” — work that requires large teams, it said. “The authority is trying to find effective mechanical and technological measures to grapple with the small lumps of tar, and more advanced measures to tackle the tar on rocky surfaces,” it added.

Tar contamination along Israel’s northern beaches, photographed from a helicopter by Israel Nature and Parks Authority director Shaul Goldstein, on February 22, 2021. (Courtesy)

A catastrophe Israel saw coming years ago

In an article we published on Monday, reporter Surkes describes how a series of measures drawn up years ago that would have given Israel earlier warning of the catastrophe heading our way — the spill has been dated to February 11 — and better tools to minimize the devastating impact were never implemented.

“Way back in 2008,” she writes, “the government decided to formulate a National Plan for Preparedness and Response to Marine Oil Pollution Incidents. A cabinet decision, made in June 2008 when Ehud Olmert was prime minister, ordered that within three to five years from January 1, 2009, the ministry would fill staff positions and acquire all the equipment and sailing vessels it needed to prevent oil contaminations at sea.”

The Environmental Protection Ministry “was instructed to discuss with the Treasury any funding needs it could not meet on its own, in the run-up to the 2009 budget. And the environmental protection minister at the time was ordered to ensure that the plan was enshrined in law, along with the requirements of the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Cooperation, to which Israel is a signatory.

“But the plan never made it into the law books. And the Finance Ministry effectively blocked the transfer of additional funds.”

All this is evidence, with now tragic consequences, of the low priority afforded environmental protection by successive governments.

It ought to be beyond obvious that Israel’s Mediterranean coastline is a glorious national asset to be protected at all cost — our own western horizon and our face to the world; the core of our domestic and international tourism industry; a precious, delicate ecological resource

Hammering home the unconscionably shortsighted indifference and neglect, even the budget for the official cleanup now underway was initially held up by bickering ministers and bureaucrats.

It ought to be beyond obvious that Israel’s Mediterranean coastline is a glorious national asset to be protected at all cost — our own western horizon and our face to the world; the core of our domestic and international tourism industry; a precious, delicate ecological resource.

Evidently, abysmally, this hasn’t been obvious at all to the politicians and officials responsible for keeping the coastline safe.

Marine veterinarians take samples from a 17-meter fin whale on Nitzanim beach, near Ashkelon, February 21, 2021. The whale washed up dead three days earlier and was found to have a black liquid in its lungs — the first sign of the tar spill to hit Israel’s beaches. (Flash90)

The next disaster

Extraordinarily, even as Israel belatedly seeks to battle one maritime disaster, with no telling when the damage will be alleviated, it appears to be risking irreversible catastrophe at another of our most precious waterfront jewels, the Red Sea resort city of Eilat.

There, plans are rapidly advancing for a project in which tankers from the United Arab Emirates will unload at Eilat port into a pipeline conveying crude oil across the country to Ashkelon, and thence on to Europe.

Israelis at a Red Sea beach near the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company’s (EAPC) oil terminal at the southern port city of Eilat on February 10, 2021. (Menahem Kahana / AFP)

Activists have been warning for months that the plan is a calamity waiting to happen, the more so because, they say, the expected two-to-three tankers a week are slated to do their unloading just a few hundred meters from Eilat’s world-renowned coral reefs.

The ‘next ecological disaster’ is now all too obviously here, blackly congealed along our Mediterranean coast

In a report we ran on February 15, Nadav Shashar, head of marine biology and biotechnology at Eilat’s Interuniversity Institute for Marine Science, said he anticipated “a constant leak of oil pollution” just off the coast.

Other activists predicted that the project — initiated in the wake of last year’s laudable Israel-UAE normalization agreements — could lead to “the next ecological disaster.”

This picture taken on February 10, 2021, shows marine life at a coral reef in the Red Sea waters off the coast of  Eilat. (Menaham Kahana / AFP)

They were wrong, of course.

The “next ecological disaster” is now all too obviously here, blackly congealed along our Mediterranean coast.

Tar on a beach in Rosh Hanikra, northern Israel, February 21, 2021. (Eyal Miller, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

It is estimated that at least half of oxygen production on Earth comes from the ocean. An oil spill at sea has thus forced the closure of one of our most vital breathing spaces, if not the most vital.

If that does not prompt the radical elevation of environmental protection to the top of the national agenda — embracing, too, longtime concerns about pollution from our offshore natural gas fields — then nothing will.

And Israel will be doomed to deepening environmental blight.

** An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

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