Oil spill into Mediterranean may have Iran connection, Israel says

Officials believe Libyan-owned tanker spilled around 1,000 tons of black tar

Israeli authorities said Wednesday that a Libyan-owned tanker suspected of smuggling oil from Iran to Syria was responsible for spilling tons of crude into the eastern Mediterranean last month, causing one of Israel's worst environmental disasters.

Over 90% of Israel’s 195 kilometer (120-mile) Mediterranean coastline was covered in more than 1,000 tons of black tar, the result of the mysterious oil spill in international waters.

The ecological disaster, one of the worst in the country’s history, has caused extensive damage and forced the closure of beaches and a ban on the sale of seafood from the Mediterranean.

A dog smells pieces of tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea, on a beach in the Gdor Nature Reserve near Michmoret, Israel, Monday, March 1, 2021. The cleanup from the disastrous oil spill that has blackened most of the country's shoreline is expected to take months. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

A dog smells pieces of tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea, on a beach in the Gdor Nature Reserve near Michmoret, Israel, Monday, March 1, 2021. The cleanup from the disastrous oil spill that has blackened most of the country's shoreline is expected to take months. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel said the Panamanian-flagged "pirate ship owned by a Libyan company" — identified as the "Emerald" — filled its stores with oil in the Persian Gulf, then sailed with its transmitters off toward the coast of Syria.

Ministry officials said it is believed to have dumped its oil in the eastern Mediterranean, around 70 kilometers (40 miles) off the coast of Israel, on Feb. 1 or 2.

The ship-tracking website MarineTraffic.com listed the owner as the General National Maritime Transport Co. The company, which describes itself as Libyan state-owned with a fleet of 22 vessels, did not respond to messages left after working hours.

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But the U.N.-run International Maritime Organization said that as of late December 2020, the Emerald came under new ownership. It lists the active owner as Emerald Marine Ltd., which is registered in the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands Maritime and Corporate Administrators did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Rani Amir, one of the ministry’s lead investigators into the incident, said "strong circumstantial evidence" pointed to the Emerald's involvement, and that it was believed to be involved in smuggling oil to Syria in breach of international sanctions.

"We don’t think it had another aim," he said. "The aim was to smuggle oil illegally from Iran to Syria."

Amir said the spill could have been either an accident or a deliberate act of terrorism.

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Iranian oil tankers increasingly have been accused of smuggling oil out of the country and selling the lucrative crude abroad after then-President Donald Trump withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers nearly three years ago. Trump reimposed sweeping sanctions on the country, including on its oil sector, a main source of income for Tehran.

In 2019, the U.K. seized an Iranian oil tanker suspected of violating European Union sanctions on oil shipments to Syria, setting off a series of confrontations. Iranian tankers sometimes turn off their identification system, making them difficult to track.

Gamliel, however, called the incident a deliberate act of "environmental terror" and blamed Iran. Gamliel, a junior minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, provided no evidence to support that theory.

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"We will sue for compensation for all citizens of Israel," she said at a press conference.

Gamliel's spokesman declined requests for clarification, and Israel's military and defense and foreign ministries could not confirm the claim.

Iranian officials did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment.

Israel's Environmental Protection Ministry had kept the particulars of its investigation into the incident under close guard and obtained a court issued gag-order on all details about the case.

Globules of tar first started appearing on Israel's coastline on Feb. 19 after a winter storm drove the slick to shore. Tar has also coated parts of Lebanon's coastline.

The oil spill’s impact on the ecosystem has yet to be fully assessed, but ecologists and environmental groups estimate the damage is extensive.

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Last month the ministry allocated 45 million shekels ($13 million) to the clean-up project, which is projected to take months. The sea has continued to dredge up tar onto Israel's beaches almost two weeks after the disaster hit.