In Unusual Move, Israel Slaps Gag Order on Probe Into Massive Oil Leak That Decimated Shoreline

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A sea turtle covered in tar on a beach in Israel, earlier today
A sea turtle covered in tar on a beach in Israel, earlier todayCredit: The Sharon Municipality Association

Israel's Environmental Protection Ministry said Monday that a judge had issued a gag order on details pertaining to an oil spill off its coast that led to one of the worst cases of maritime pollution in decades.

The order, valid for a week, bars publishing any detail related to the investigation, including anything that might identify the suspects, the vessels involved, their cargo, destination and port of departure.

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In response to a Haaretz inquiry, the ministry said that "publications at this sensitive stage could harm a complex investigation with international aspects."

On Monday afternoon, Haaretz, together with other media outlets, submitted a request to the Haifa Magistrate's Court for the gag order to be canceled or for its scope to be reduced. 

A volunteer cleans tar on an Israeli beach, yesterday.Credit: Moti Milrod

The pollution was first noticed Wednesday, with the Environmental Protection Ministry saying the most likely scenario is an unreported spill of perhaps dozens of tons of oil from a tanker. The ministry said Saturday it had been told by the European Maritime Safety Agency that an oil slick located about 50 kilometers (31 miles) off Israel's coast was the source of the pollution. 

On Sunday, the Israeli government called on the public to refrain from visiting beaches in a wide swath of the country.

Authorities said beaches between Rosh Hanikra in the north and the kibbutz of Zikim in the south, near the Gaza Strip, were closed to the public until further notice.

A dead whale washed up on a shore in Israel, last week. Credit: Ilan Assayag

Tar from the accident has marred beaches over 170 kilometers (106 miles), 40 percent of Israel’s coast. 

Thousands of volunteers joined major cleaning efforts organized by NGOs and local authorities on Saturday. Officials say much work remains to remove all the tar, and most of it will have to be done by hand. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority believes the cleanup will take years. 

Since Wednesday, animals have been found covered with tar, including a few birds and nine sea turtles. Four of the turtles died, while the others were taken to the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center at Mikhmoret between Tel Aviv and Haifa. There they were fed in an attempt to increase their metabolism and dilute the oil in their bodies.

The Nature and Parks Authority meanwhile announced initial findings from the autopsy of a whale that washed ashore on Thursday. According to Roni King, a veterinarian who works for the authority, a black liquid was found in the whale's lungs, but that it was not yet known whether the liquid was linked to the whale's death or if was related to the spill.

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