On Feb. 18, Israelis woke up to the first reports of a new source for concern: 1,000 tons of crude oil had washed up on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, polluting nearly its entire 190 kilometers of shoreline in one of the country’s worst ecological disasters to date. A heavy storm and unusually high waves prevented an early detection of the approaching tar and its removal at sea. All of Israel's beaches were closed as a result of the pollution and a call was made to not go swimming or play sports on the beach. Experts predict it will take months or even years to clean the beaches from the tar that has killed and injured wildlife on the coast, including birds and turtles. Thousands, including members of the diplomatic community, volunteered in the cleanup effort.
When I joined a World Zionist Organization (WZO) delegation about two weeks later, the beach area we were designated to clear in the city of Bat Yam was full of pebble to golf ball size globs of tar that had already worked their way into the sand. Working with pasta strainers, it was a painstaking job to separate the tar from the sand and quickly seemed like a Sisyphean task. Tar was a mainstay of the Israeli shoreline when I was younger, and every authorized beach had its ubiquitous canister with kerosene and a brush to remove the sticky substance from the soles of feet and shoes. These disappeared in recent years as the beaches became cleaner but will undoubtedly have to be reintroduced until cleanup is complete.
Whereas the environmental impact of the oil spill once it hit land is a glaring physical challenge that will have to be reversed over time, other aspects of the incident are less obvious. First, what preparedness measures did Israel have in order to head off the blight and second, who is the culprit and what was the motivation for releasing pollutants at a point at sea that would undoubtedly bring it to our shores?
Protecting Israel against sea infiltration and keeping the Mediterranean (and other) shipping lanes open has been a priority for the State of Israel—whose land borders are for all intents and purposes locked by enemy and frenemy countries that surround it—since its founding. Today, the Mediterranean plays an even greater economic and strategic role after Israel expanded its Exclusive Economic Zone, discovered large deposits of natural gas and built a string of desalination plants that provide some 80% of Israel’s potable water—all of which could be affected by how the government manages its response to any future ecological disaster.
Writing in the Jerusalem Post early this month, retired Admiral Prof. Shaul Chorev, director of the Maritime Policy and Strategy Research Center at the University of Haifa who held positions as Head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, Assistant to the Minister of Defense for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defense and Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, argued that the incident has shown Israel’s inattention to the civilian maritime domain.
“Israel has failed to establish the necessary legal framework for its maritime domain or even to define the responsibilities of various governmental agencies that will have to be addressed in order to avert another maritime disaster,” Chorev wrote. “Ignoring or downplaying the non-military issues of the maritime domain, as the current ecological disaster highlights, is the major source of Israel’s maritime domain blindness.”
As for the culprit of this outrage and its motivations, Israel’s Minister of Environmental Affairs Gila Gamliel accused Iran of deliberately releasing the pollutants in order to damage Israel's marine ecosystem. After some speculation that the offending ship was Greek—a prospect that could have had damaged the close relationship between the two countries—and the lifting of a court-imposed gag order on any details regarding the ship responsible for the spill, Gamliel announced on March 3 that, following an intensive two-week investigation, the culprit had been identified: a Libyan-owned, Panamanian-flagged tanker, “Emerald,” illegally transporting 12,000 tons of crude oil from Iran to Syria. The oil spill occurred between Feb. 1 and 2, within Israel’s economic waters, close to the Israeli coastline, and the prevailing sea stream brought it to shore two weeks later.
Fingering Iran directly (an accusation the defense establishment reportedly would not endorse), Gamliel said: “Iran is waging terrorism not only by trying to arm itself with nuclear weapons or trying to establish a basis near our borders. Iran is waging terrorism by harming the environment. Our battle on behalf of nature and animals must be a cross-border one. Together, we will bring to justice those responsible for the environmental terrorism, those who committed this crime against humanity.”
The minister also responded to criticism that her ministry was negligent in failing to identify the oil spill while it was still at sea. “It should be noted that no source had prior information about a suspicious stain in the Mediterranean that led to the pollution incident, which was only discovered when lumps of tar began washing ashore onto Israeli beaches on Feb. 17. Therefore, all analyses of the event were retrospective, using tracking of ship data and satellite imagery,” Gamliel said.
Suspicion that the ship had nefarious intentions increased when it became clear that while it was in Israel’s territorial waters on Feb. 1-2, its trackable devices were turned off and turned on only when Emerald reached Syrian waters. Latest reports indicate that the ship is anchored again at Kharg Island in Iran.
This week the plot thickened: According to a Wall Street Journal article quoting U.S. and regional officials, Israel has attacked at least a dozen Iranian vessels or those carrying Iranian cargo bound for Syria—mostly carrying Iranian oil—since late 2019 out of concern that petroleum profits are funding extremism in the Middle East. (Iran has continued its oil trade with Syria, shipping millions of barrels and contravening U.S. sanctions against Iran and international sanctions against Syria.)
The unconfirmed Israeli attacks against Iranian tankers, the release of crude oil to damage Israel’s shore, the Feb. 26 attack against the Israeli-owned MV Helios Ray giant cargo ship attributed to Iran and the March 10 attack on the Iranian-owned Shahr e Kord all point to a growing naval conflict taking shape over the past three years in the Eastern Mediterranean and Arabian Gulf. Israel’s alleged sea offensive is part of a much larger campaign—which has included a reported 1,500 airstrikes in Syria since 2017—designed to prevent the radical Iranian axis from building up its military and terrorist power in the region, but doing so with an invisible footprint and plausible deniability to gingerly avoid regional war.
Notwithstanding Iran’s growing malign behavior in the region against Israel and other countries, recent reports suggest that the United States is concerned the conflict in the maritime domain could spoil its attempts to negotiate a new nuclear agreement with Tehran. Seth J. Frantzman, senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post and a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, believes that these and other recent incidents, such as the reported Iranian cyberattack against Israel last year, could mean that the Islamic Republic is using every asymmetric means of attack at its disposal, including the environment. If this is the case, Israel will have to be very nimble as it predicts and forestalls Iran’s next nefarious contrivance.
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