Israel on Wednesday accused Iran of “environmental terrorism,” blaming Tehran for the worst oil spill in Israel's history in mid-February.
Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel said authorities have identified a Libyan-owned oil tanker, Emerald, which set sail from Iran in January and is currently back there. 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).
After allegedly polluting the water off Israel's coast on February 1-2, it then continued its journey towards Syria where it drifted several more days off Latakia, before supposedly returning to Iran.
Those responsible for the pollution “must pay the price,” Gamliel said. “The operator of the ship has black blood on their hands.”
"Iran is [conducting] terrorism by damaging the environment, and [when] Iran is damaging the environment it isn't just hurting the state of Israel," she said.
The ministry presented what it said was strong "circumstantial evidence" that this was the ship behind the spill, though it did not have "forensic evidence." It said it also ruled out any other source.
The Israeli military and intelligence agencies weren't aware of the minister's claims before she presented them in a press briefing, which officials said caught them by surprise. Israeli intelligence and navy weren't involved in the investigation, and the Environmental Protection Ministry didn't reach out to them for help.
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Officials at Gamliel's ministry later said that "there's high probability this isn't a terror [incident]."
There was no immediate comment from Iran.
The ship-tracking website MarineTraffic.com listed the owner of the Emerald 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.
But the UN-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.
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.
Water samples from various points along the coast were taken for analysis soon after the oil began washing up.
After the pollution was first spotted on February 17, the Environmental Protection Ministry said the most likely source of the oil was an unreported spill of perhaps dozens of tons of oil from a tanker. The ministry has not yet disclosed the type of oil involved, but researchers from Hebrew University’s Hermann Institute of Earth Sciences who collected samples of the tar said that they believe it is from crude oil.
The ministry identified roughly 10 ships in the region as possible culprits. Subsequently the names of dozens of other ships were added to the list. The list of suspected ships was again narrowed to about 10 with assistance from foreign officials.
The Environmental Protection Ministry said Sunday that the Minerva Helen, a Greek tanker, had been cleared of suspicion for the oil spill, following an inspection of the ship.
A team of Israeli investigators from the ministry’s marine environment protection division examined the tanker anchored at the port of Piraeus, on Saturday.
The ministry said that, following a “meticulous, professional and comprehensive” investigation carried out in cooperation with the authorities in Greece and without advance notice to the ship’s operators, it was ruled out the ship as the source of the spill.
Yaniv Kubovich, Amos Harel, Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.