Has Ecoterrorism Hit Israel?
The February 2021 oil spill that polluted nearly half of Israel’s shoreline highlighted the country’s acute vulnerability to environmental terrorism. More than 1,000 tons of black tar washed up along 160 kilometers (100 miles) of Israel’s coastline in what some experts say was the worst ecological disaster in the history of the Jewish state. Months later, lumps of tar were still showing up on Israeli beaches, and many say it could take years for Israel’s coastline to return to normal.
To this day, it remains unclear if the spill was deliberate or accidental. Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection said that, while it does not have “forensic evidence,” it does have strong “circumstantial evidence”—including the chemical composition of the oil, satellite images, and maritime intelligence—that the culprit was a Panama-flagged, Syrian-owned oil tanker named Emerald that was illegally smuggling crude oil from Iran to Syria. That claim was confirmed by Lloyd’s List Intelligence, a leading international shipping journal.
The Emerald, carrying more than 100,000 tons of crude oil, sailed from Iran through the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea with its satellite-tracking device, known as an Automated Identification System (AIS), turned off. Ships seeking to conceal illegal activities routinely turn off these devices. Shortly before passing through Egypt’s Suez Canal, the vessel switched on its AIS, in accordance with international law.
Between February 1 and 2, while moving northward through Israel’s economic waters, the Emerald again turned off its AIS, apparently to avoid detection; but when it reached Syria, it switched the AIS back on. Between February 3 and 14, the Emerald unloaded the crude oil to other ships off Syrian waters. The vessel has since returned to Iran and is anchored there.
Israel’s environmental minister at the time, Gila Gamliel, said the oil spill, which occurred between February 1 and 2 roughly 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of the Israeli port city of Haifa, was an intentional attack by Iran against Israel. She called it a “case of malice” and act of “environmental terrorism.”
Gamliel added, “Crude oil at sea is a weapon that can work against the environment and public health, against animals, and against our shores. This issue must not be taken lightly, as the conduct of the ship was intentional. The connection to Iran is a direct one, it is not an unknown one. There is room here for an urgent discussion of all government bodies, including security agencies, aimed at a broader understanding of the threats to Israel’s economic waters, which are not only environmental.”
Though officials said it was too early to determine if the oil spill was deliberate, others said it fits a pattern of Iranian aggression. “I don’t see any reason to doubt the Israeli government’s conclusion that Iran bears responsibility for this latest violation of international norms,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain Adam Ereli. “It is fully consistent with a well-established pattern of hostile and reckless acts by the Islamic Republic. Unfortunately, this kind of behavior will continue until and unless the international community imposes a sufficiently high cost on Iran for its outrages.”
The director general of Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, David Yahalomi, added, “It doesn’t matter if it was deliberate or not. An enemy state that transfers 45 million barrels of oil illegally and improperly through Israel’s economic waters is harmful.”
Others warned that Israel must be prepared for the eventuality of ecoterrorism. “This incident was a test run for Iran,” said commentator Tabby Refael. “If it wants to, Iran can potentially cause a deliberate oil spill in Israeli waters, eluding responsibility while Israel investigates the matter. . . . And if Iran decides to unload oil from an entire tanker, it could destroy most of Israel’s Mediterranean coastline.”