Thousands of volunteers help clean Israel’s beaches after oil spill

Tar deposited over large stretches of Israeli coastline from Lebanon in the north to Gaza in the south

 Israeli soldiers  cleaning a beach near the city of Rishon Lezion, Israel. Photograph: EPA/Abir Sultan

Israeli soldiers cleaning a beach near the city of Rishon Lezion, Israel. Photograph: EPA/Abir Sultan

 

Thousands of volunteers are helping to clean Israel’s beaches after an oil spill deposited tar over large stretches of the Mediterranean coastline from Lebanon in the north to Gaza in the south.

A thousand soldiers have also been called in to help remove the pollution in what has been called the country’s worst environmental disaster in decades.

Authorities closed beaches to the public until further notice just as many families were planning to revisit the seaside after restrictions on gathering in public places were eased following a strict coronavirus lockdown.

Israel’s nature and parks authority ranger Noam Matsri said it was imperative to remove as much of the tar as possible before the weather helped melt it into the sand. “As long as it’s cold it’s okay: when it gets warm it’s going to stick, it’s going to liquify,” he said.

“The amount of tar is just incredible, and almost all of Israel’s coastline is covered in tar,” said Dr Ruth Yahel, a marine ecologist for the Israel nature and parks authority. “We haven’t seen this extent of pollution in our region. It could take decades to rehabilitate and get rid of this pollution, and that also includes all of the sandy and rocky habitats.”

The source of the pollution is unknown, but it is believed to be the result of an oil spill from a vessel that passed by Israel’s shores.

In a rare move on Monday a judge issued a gagging order on details pertaining to the oil spill. The order prohibited publishing any details that may identify suspects, vessels, relevant ports, cargo and shipping lines. Israel’s environmental protection ministry said that “publications at this sensitive stage could harm a complex investigation with international aspects”.

New regulations

Environmental activists criticised the gagging order, saying it was the right of the Israeli public to know who was responsible for this disaster and bring them to justice.

During a visit to one of the polluted beaches, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that the government would discuss a budget for cleaning the shore and that he had been in touch with the Egyptian authorities to promote new regulations for polluting ships.

Since Wednesday animals covered with tar, including birds, sea turtles and snails, have been found on the beaches. Some were dead and others were taken to a special clinic where they were fed in an attempt to increase their metabolism and dilute the oil in their bodies.

A whale that washed ashore on Thursday was found to have black liquid in its lungs, but experts suggested the 17-metre mammal may have died before the oil spill. It was buried on the beach after bulldozers dug a huge hole.