Israelis cleaning a beach at a kibbutz after an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea, yesterday
Israelis cleaning a beach at a kibbutz after an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea, yesterdayCredit: The Sharon Municipal Association

Haaretz Editorial Feb. 20, 2021

Last week Israelis were exposed to the severe consequences of an oil spill at sea as they beheld the wretched sight of sea turtles soaked in pollutants and requiring emergency treatment to save them. There are serious fears of long-term damage to the rocky portion of the coastline, which is rich in wildlife and of great environmental importance. It’s highly likely that this spill originated beyond the country’s territorial waters. Nevertheless, it should serve as a warning of the danger of using fossil fuels, including inside the country.

The Energy Ministry continues to approve plans for oil exploration near the Israeli coast, including a plan to also pump oil close to Palmahim, one of the beaches damaged by the latest spill. The Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company plans to expand its oil pipeline business at the ports of Ashkelon and Eilat. And all of this increases the risk of an accident on a much larger scale than the one we saw last week. If this plan were to be carried out it would devastate the environment, severely damage beaches used for swimming and threaten vital infrastructure, first and foremost desalination plants, which depend on a supply of clean seawater. If the climate crisis hasn’t yet persuaded the government, maybe the serious damage of the past few days will lead it to conclude that it ought to reduce and certainly not expand the use of polluting fuels as much as possible.

The second main lesson that ought to be learned relates to how to cope with pollution if it can’t be prevented, as in the case of a large oil spill beyond Israel’s territorial waters. The Environmental Protection Ministry is supposed to be prepared for any such event. But being prepared means it must be given the appropriate resources. Twelve years ago, the government approved a national plan for dealing with oil and gasoline pollution. But the plan has been only partly implemented, and the ministry suffers from a chronic shortage of staff positions, ships and facilities needed to prevent maritime pollution.

The problem is systemic, and solving it would require expanding the ministry’s powers and areas of activity. The ministry is supposed to be able to take action but lacks the supportive apparatus of appropriate equipment and personnel to do so.

Over the past several years, Israel has drafted a national policy for planning in maritime areas. It has also managed to develop its offshore natural gas reserves and turn them into an important economic resource. The sea and its coasts are in constant danger of being polluted, as proven by the tar now strewn across the counry’s beaches. Therefore, it is necessary to increase the country’s preparedness to deal with the negative consequences of exploiting the sea, both within its borders and beyond.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.