A huge oil spill in the eastern Mediterranean has caused colossal damage to Israel’s beaches, now gooey with clumps of tar that thousands of volunteers are laboriously picking out of the sand. It has been an unparalleled ecological disaster that has already done, and will continue to do, great harm to the coastal flora and fauna. It has devastated the local economy. For at least a year, and some estimates suggest much longer, tourists and locals will not be able to use the beaches; many will have to seek alternatives abroad. Coastal businesses in Israel, from vacation rentals to restaurants, will close down. The accident has spilled tons of tar across more than 100 miles of coastline from Israel to southern Lebanon in what Israeli officials are calling one of the worst disasters in the country’s history.
The Israelis are now trying to determine what ship caused the disaster, when it dumped oil, by accident or design, some fifty miles offshore.
The oil slick has moved up the coast to damage, though less dramatically, the Lebanese beaches. The Lebanese Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, in deploring the disaster, has chosen, without the slightest evidence, to blame Israel for the oil spill. His blaming of “a ship of the enemy Israel” is here: “Lebanon’s PM blames ‘ship of the Israeli enemy’ for massive oil spill,” Israel Hayom, February 24, 2021.
Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab on Monday said that “a ship of the Israeli enemy” was to blame for the oil spill that has reached Lebanon’s southern Mediterranean shores.
Prime Minister Diab is one of the Lebanese ruling elite who move in and out of ministries as if it were all a game of musical chairs. Their rule has been characterized by mismanagement and corruption. To make matters worse, even non-Shia, such as the Maronite President Michel Aoun, have become collaborators with Lebanon’s real ruler, Hezbollah. And the rule of thumb for all of them is simple: when disaster strikes, blame Israel. My favorite example dates some years back, when bee colonies in Lebanon were failing. Seemingly intelligent Lebanese insisted that Israeli bees had been trained to fly all the way to Lebanon and kill the Lebanese bees, in a diabolical plot to remove Lebanese honey from the world market.
But in this case, the charge is even more preposterous than usual. Why would Israel have wanted to pollute its own beaches, devastate its own coastal economy? And if the oil spill had been an accident, fifty miles offshore, there was plenty of time for that “Israeli ship” to have immediately contacted government officials so that they could prepare, partly by mobilizing volunteers, as well as the navy, to prevent the tar from reaching the beaches. The Israeli government would surely have owned up at once to such an accident; it has no record – unlike the Lebanese government — of lying to its people. The Israelis have announced that they do not know for certain who caused the accident, but they are investigating, and a Greek-owned and flagged oil tanker, the Minerva Helen, has been named as the main suspect in this major oil spill.
Israel’s Kan public broadcaster reported Monday that the Minerva Helen is under investigation as the likely culprit in the spill. The ship is also suspected of being responsible for a major spill off the coast of Copenhagen, Denmark in January 2008.
Diab turned to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, to launch an investigation and possibly help with the severe pollution. Diab, who is also his government’s minister of environmental protection, said he was “following the developments.”
With what alacrity, and on the basis of nothing at all, does the Lebanese Prime Minister affix blame to “the enemy, Israel.” Had it been an Israeli ship, there is no question of a deliberate act that would befoul Israel’s coastline. It could only have been an accident. But as noted above, when the spill occurred, the ship in question was 50 miles out to sea. Israeli sailors would have had plenty of time to warn officials on land. lt makes no sense to blame Israel, unless of course you have been brain-addled by Hezbollah propaganda, like Prime Minister Hassan Diab.
How characteristic, too, is Diab’s immediately declining any responsibility, on his government’s part, to fight the oil spill on Lebanese shores. He can’t even be bothered to ask the Lebanese to volunteer to help clean up the globs of tar littering beaches, as Israelis by the thousands have turned out to do without needing any prodding. Instead, he wants UNIFIL, a force which is supposed to limit its responsibility to peace-keeping, to take charge and investigate the spill, and even to help clean up Lebanese beaches. Why can’t the Lebanese – or for that matter, all those unemployed Palestinians in those UNRWA-funded camps in Lebanon who have been living permanently on the dole – show up to take care of Lebanon’s own territory? Why can’t the rich owners of villas, and luxury resorts, who own all of Beirut’s beaches, hire both Lebanese and Palestinians to clean up the tar? Why should it be UNIFIL’s responsibility?
The program director of Greenpeace Middle East and North Africa, Julien Jreissati, called on Lebanon’s Ministry of Environment to “take immediate measures to assess the magnitude of the risk of this spill by setting up an urgent survey and monitoring program.”
He added: “The authorities must develop a quick plan to reduce the impacts on the environment and public health, and based on the results of the assessment, the authorities should provide safety instructions to the Lebanese people, especially concerning fishing and swimming activities.
Jreissati said the incident added to a long list of oil spills that threaten the rich marine biodiversity and affect the eastern Mediterranean’s inhabitants.
“It is a manifestation of the destruction of nature resulting from the addiction of the global systems to fossil fuels,” he concluded.
The last oil spill in the region occurred during the 2006 Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah following Israeli airstrikes on the Jiyeh Power Station in Lebanon, which spilled some 30 tons of oil into the sea. The incident led the UN General Assembly to issue a non-binding resolution in December of 2014 calling on Israel to pay Lebanon $856.4 million in compensation.
Meanwhile, a Haifa court on Monday ordered the partial lifting of key restrictions that have been placed on the media regarding the mysterious oil spill.
As of Tuesday, it was unclear which merchant vessel was responsible for the spill and what flag it was carrying.
An oil spill has created the greatest ecological disaster in Israel in many decades and in the nation’s short history, possibly ever. The Israelis immediately went to work; thousands of volunteers, in rotation – many tens of thousands in the end will be involved – appeared on the beaches to pick out by hand sticky clumps of tar, a difficult and time-consuming job which will take many months, and some fear it may even take years to remove the tar completely..
The issue is that the tar has gotten on the very sensitive ecological areas in the Mediterranean Sea and that’s going to be much more difficult to take away and clean,” Michael Raphael, who is the national coordinator for a nonprofit coalition of Israeli environmental organizations, told The Media Line. “That could take up to 10-15 years.”
The cost of the beach cleanup alone is expected to reach tens of millions of dollars, according to an initial estimate from the Ministry of Environmental Protection. However, the full economic impact of the incident remains to be seen and the government has promised to sue the responsible party for damages.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hassan Diab sits and waits for UNIFIL to do what the Lebanese should be doing for themselves, clean up the mess, and find the culprit – but Diab already knows that the culprit is “the enemy, Israel” — even though it is Israel that has suffered the most from the oil spill, and now hopes UNIFIL will take over the heavy lifting of the clean-up. What if UNIFIL refuses, as it should, to go beyond its assigned responsibilities, which are to keep the peace, however imperfectly, between Hezbollah and Israel? Will Diab ask for volunteers, from a populace that is riven with strife? And why would anyone “volunteer” to clean up Beirut’s beaches that are entirely owned by the rich?
In Israel, the volunteers have been quoted as saying “these beaches belong to all of us” and “we must do this for our country.” In Lebanon, the entire beachfront is now owned by the very rich, mainly Arabs from the Gulf. The last public beach, Ramlet al-Baida, was taken over in 2017 by the Eden Rock Resort, described gushingly in its advertisements as this “sanctuary of luxury and refinement which features high-end apartments, a five-star hotel, a spa, swimming pool and a jetty for residents to moor their yachts.” No Lebanese can say what all Israelis can say: “these beaches belong to all of us.”
And how many Lebanese think of Lebanon any more as “our country,” when that country has for decades been riven by strife, first by a Muslim-Christian civil war, from 1975 to 1990, and more recently by deep conflicts that are are a result of Hezbollah’s takeover of the country?
Eventually the blame for the oil spill will be properly affixed, most likely on the Minerva Helen which has been involved in this kind of thing before. But will Hassan Diab ever admit he was wrong about “the enemy, Israel” being to blame? Even if he were willing to do so – and Diab won’t be – Hassan Nasrallah would never allow any exculpation of the Zionist enemy. The Israelis will find, and sue, the Greek owners of the Minerva Helen. Meanwhile, the other narrative about this catastrophic oil spill, the one Hassan Diab prefers, in which “the enemy, Israel” is identified as the guilty party, will continue to live on, in the minds, hearts, and propaganda of a great many Arabs, never to be dislodged.