Greenpeace Slams Israeli Minister's 'Baseless Claim' Accusing Iran of Eco-terrorism in Devastating Oil Spill

The NGO said that Environmental Protection Minister Gamliel was 'undermining Israel's credibility internationally' by trying to 'reap political capital' from the ecological disaster

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The suspected ship, Emerald, at sea.
The suspected ship, Emerald, at sea.Credit: Graham Flett/marinetraffic.com

The Israeli chapter of the international environmental organization Greenpeace castigated Israel's Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel on Thursday after she repeatedly asserted that the ruinous oil spill off the Mediterranean coast was an act of Iranian terrorism.

The organization, which has undertaken its own independent investigation into the leak, described Gamliel's assertions that Iran had committed a deliberate act of “eco-terrorism” as "baseless at this stage in time."

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The vociferous statement said that Likud member Gamliel's behavior had "a bad stench of electioneering" and is an attempt "to reap political capital at the expense of a serious ecological disaster, while also undermining Israel’s credibility internationally, and especially the credibility of the Environmental Protection Ministry.”

Later on Thursday, Gamliel defended the claims. In a Channel 12 News interview, she said: “It was clear it was a malicious act… This is an environmental terror attack.”

When pressed by the interviewer on evidence to support her claims, Gamliel reiterated Israel had “strong circumstantial evidence,” but failed to present any direct evidence.

Greenpeace said the only way to determine that the leak came from a particular ship is through laboratory tests showing that the chemical composition of the leaked material – in this case, the tar on Israel’s beaches – matches that of the oil the ship was carrying. The ministry hasn’t yet published results from any lab tests conducted on the tar.

Israel is blaming a Libyan-owned oil tanker, Emerald. While Greenpeace officials accepted that it could have been responsible, they added that there other Iranian tankers in the area. The organization also found one tanker, the Romania, that belongs to a Lebanese company and was identified by the United States in the past as a suspected violator of the international embargo on Syria.

The tanker was spotted near the area where the ministry thinks the leak happened on February 5, shortly after it emerged from the Suez Canal. Like the Emerald, it had turned off its tracking system.

Iranian tankers are often present in this area of the sea, so their presence hardly constitutes evidence of a terror attack, Greenpeace said. Moreover, while most tankers now carry protective equipment that has greatly reduced the number of oil spills, accidents still do happen.

Finally, even deliberate actions may not have terrorist motives. For instance, tankers approaching a port sometimes don’t want to pay for the cleaning the port requires and therefore choose instead to pour the dregs from their tanks into the open sea. That would constitute a crime, but not a terror attack.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese parliament’s environmental affairs committee announced on Thursday that it held Israel responsible for the leak, which also caused severe pollution on Lebanon’s beaches. It said it would seek to file a complaint against Israel with the United Nations, and that it would ask the body to investigate the damage.

Lebanon also decided to set up a special committee comprised of representatives of all the relevant government agencies to deal with cleaning up the pollution, including finding the necessary funding.

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel made the claims following the identification of the Emerald on Wednesday, based on data the ministry received from a tracking firm called Tank Trackers. She claimed the Panamanian-flagged ship turned off its radio transponder after sailing through the Suez Canal and before entering Israel's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Emerald track after leaving Suez Canal, shutting transponder, sailing to Syria coast via Israeli EEZ, loitering there for several days and later returning to Suez CanalCredit: Marinetraffic.com

The oil tanker suspected of responsibility for the tar that washed up on Israel’s shores was spotted in January off the Persian Gulf island of Kharg, which lies in Iran’s territorial waters, the Environmental Protection Ministry said on Thursday.

On Wednesday, the ministry said it had a satellite photograph taken on February 14 that showed the Emerald transferring crude oil to an Iranian tanker, the Lotus, on the open sea between Cyprus and Syria. In the photo, the two ships can be seen tied together.

The Emerald changed its country of registration from Libya to the Marshall Islands in December 2020.

Following the revelation, Gamliel said that “Crude oil at sea is a weapon that targets the environment and public health, animals and our beaches...We mustn’t make light of this issue. All of the ship’s behavior was deliberate."

“There’s a clear connection to Iran here, not a hidden one,” she added. “An emergency discussion involving all government agencies, including the security agencies, would be in place, for the sake of a broader understanding of the threats in Israel’s exclusive economic zone, which aren’t only environmental.”

If the ministry can persuade Israel’s legal authorities that the leak was in fact deliberate, they could theoretically file a complaint with the International Criminal Court. Many experts, however, aren’t convinced that there’s enough evidence for such a complaint.

An estimated 1,000 tons of black tar from the leak washed up on over 90 percent of the country's 195 kilometer (120 mile) coastline. The government is awaiting the results of water quality testing before potentially reopening some beaches, which remain closed along the coast.

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