Reeling from Massive Oil Spill, Israeli Government Puts Lid on Story
Gag order approved by courts to avoid impeding ‘delicate international investigation’
An Israeli court granted a request by the Environmental Protection Ministry to place a sweeping gag order on the government’s inquiry into last week’s massive oil spill that has closed beaches up and down the Mediterranean coast.
According to the injunction issued on Monday, details that could identify those suspected of being involved in the disastrous incident, including the name of the vessel in question, its port of departure and its current location, cannot be published by the media until February 28.
The extreme legal course was demanded by the ministry so as “not to impede a delicate international investigation,” after details about one of the oil tankers marked as a suspect by Israeli authorities were made public Sunday night.
“We have utilized all the resources at our disposal and identified ten ships as potential suspects,” a representative of the environmental protection ministry told The Media Line. “We’re working to locate those in charge and bring them to justice.”
Yet, out of the ten vessels targeted by Jerusalem, only one so far has been inspected by government officials, at Ashdod port, and was found to be innocent of the spill, according to the ministry.
“Naturally, we are in contact with international bodies and, once a suspected ship is identified and located abroad, the agency will ask local authorities there to act swiftly,” the ministry representative said.
Concealing the investigation is a serious injury to public trust in government. In environmental issues such as these, especially with a disaster this big, transparency is critical, and also required by law
On Saturday, Israelis awoke to discover the country’s Mediterranean coastline almost entirely covered in thick black tar, the result of an apparent oil spill by a tanker traveling west of the country. The leak is estimated to be in dozens to hundreds of tons, wreaking unprecedented havoc on the nation’s shores and marine life.
Hundreds of sea turtles, crabs, fish, whales and seagulls are thought to have been killed in the disaster.
Meanwhile, hundreds of volunteers who had spread out along the 160-km shoreline to clean the endless amounts of tar from rocks, sand and helpless wildlife were later called off by authorities, after several people had to be hospitalized for inhaling toxic oil fumes.
While experts believe the full extent of the damage will only be made clear later this week as the weather calms, recovery efforts are expected to last for at least several months, and many in Israel are wondering if the entire catastrophe could have been avoided.
“Concealing the investigation is a serious injury to public trust in government. In environmental issues such as these, especially with a disaster this big, transparency is critical, and also required by law,” read a statement sent to The Media Line from the Adam, Teva V’Din – Israel Union for Environmental Defense organization. The group’s name translates as People, Nature and Law.
Other environmental organizations have pointed to Israel’s National Plan for Readiness and Response to Oil Pollution of the Seas, which was approved by the government in 2008 but was never passed into law in parliament and was therefore left unfunded and on paper only.
“We received no report or warning by anyone, up to the present moment, and neither did anyone else in the entire Middle East,” a spokesperson for the ministry in charge of protecting Israel’s environment told The Media Line on Monday.
Once the magnitude of the spill became evident on Wednesday, the ministry, headed by Likud lawmaker Gila Gamliel, began narrowing down, with the help of its European counterparts and marine authorities, potential culprits.
In an unfortunate turn of events, Israel on Wednesday witnessed its worst winter weather of the year, as rare snowstorms rocked its mountainous areas, and heavy rain and wind pummeled its coastal cities. Experts believe the inclement weather aided in driving the poisonous oil toward the country’s shoreline.
Coincidentally, Egyptian Minister for Petroleum and Mineral Resources Tarek El-Molla visited Israel’s Leviathan natural gas rig on Monday, part of his three-day tour in Israel.
El-Molla and his Israeli counterpart signed an agreement to build a new direct pipeline from the Israeli rig to Egypt, which will enable faster liquidation of the natural resource in Egypt prior to its export to Europe.