Israel issues gag order over oil spill behind 'most severe ecological disaster' in country's history

Abbie Cheeseman
·3 min read
Scientists examine the body of a dead fin whale that washed up in Nitzanim with black liquid in its lungs - Amir Levy /Getty Images Europe 
Scientists examine the body of a dead fin whale that washed up in Nitzanim with black liquid in its lungs - Amir Levy /Getty Images Europe

Israel has imposed a gag order on sensitive details surrounding its investigation into a major oil spill which has blackened beaches and which experts say is one of the worst environmental disasters in the country's history.

After winter storms blanketed Middle Eastern cities with rare snow last week, the powerful winds and high waves covered Israeli beaches in at least 1,000 tons of tar that is suspected to have come from an oil spill from a vessel several dozen miles offshore.

In an unusual move, an Israeli court on Monday issued a gag order on the investigation, banning the media from reporting any details that could identify the suspects, the vessels, their cargo, destination and port of departure.

When the reporting restrictions were questioned by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the Environmental Protection Ministry, which is investigating the spill alongside European agencies, said "publications at this sensitive stage could harm a complex investigation with international aspects".

The oil, which was first noticed creeping up on beaches on Thursday, had washed up on around 160km of Israel’s 190km shoreline by Sunday, according to officials.

 Israeli soldiers search for tar grains while cleaning the Palmachim Beach near the city of Rishon Lezion - ABIR SULTAN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock /Shutterstock
Israeli soldiers search for tar grains while cleaning the Palmachim Beach near the city of Rishon Lezion - ABIR SULTAN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock /Shutterstock

Thousands of volunteers took to beaches up and down the country over the weekend trying to free turtles from pools of tar and clear the beaches. Some had to be hospitalised because of the fumes they inhaled, the Times of Israel reported.

A 55ft-long young fin whale has also washed up on the beach since the spill. Israeli vets said they were investigating whether it died from ingesting tar.

Oil was also seen washing up on the southern beaches of neighbouring Lebanon as of Monday.

Gila Gamliel, Israel’s environmental protection minister, said she hoped the nationwide cleanup would be completed by May for the start of the spring beach season.

But there were warnings that the spill has dealt a near-catastrophic amount of damage to marine life, although it will take some time before the full extent of the destruction becomes clear.

"The enormous amounts of tar emitted in recent days to the shores of Israel from south to north caused one of the most severe ecological disasters to hit Israel," the country's Nature and Parks Authority said in a statement.

Israeli soldier hold tar grains while cleaning the Palmachim Beach near the city of Rishon Lezion - Abir Sultan/EPA/Abir Sultan/EPA
Israeli soldier hold tar grains while cleaning the Palmachim Beach near the city of Rishon Lezion - Abir Sultan/EPA/Abir Sultan/EPA

Ruth Yahel, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s marine ecologist, told Hebrew news site Zman Yisrael, that she believes no more than five to 10 per cent of small creatures in the nearshore ecosystem would survive.

The country’s Agriculture Ministry said it was still too early to assess the extent of the damage that has been caused to the fish.

Ms Gamliel said Israel may take legal action if the vessel that caused the spill is identified, such as by suing its insurance provider, which was likely to cost tens of millions of shekels. She added that one of ten vessels which were in the area at the time could be responsible.

A coalition of Israeli environmental groups on Sunday told reporters that the ministry is desperately underfunded and the existing legislation does little to prevent environmental disasters.