Pipeline Disaster Proves: Israel Must Remove Unjustified Shroud of Secrecy

Residents of southern Israel didn't even know a pipeline was under their feet for 46 years - until it exploded.

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Insects sunk in the oil after the spill at Evrona Nature Reserve, southern Israel. Credit: Environmental Protection Ministry

Residents of Eilat and the surrounding area didn’t know a pipeline had run through their city for the last 46 years – one that could cause the heavy stench that enveloped the area last week, and might also leave their beaches with black stains this morning when the rains arrive. The Environmental Protection Ministry also had no idea until last week of what was flowing through this pipeline, or what impact a fire could have. And the Israel Nature and Parks Authority is still in shock at the revelation of the danger posed by an oil pipeline running through a nature reserve.

Their surprise is due to the ignorance that was forced upon them. The government dictated this ignorance in an order approved in 1968, and since then it has forgotten to reexamine the order’s relevance. The confidentiality order classified a sensitive venture known as the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC), under which Iranian oil was marketed via Israel. That venture no longer exists (though the company still does); it died 35 years ago, when the Iranian revolution brought a new regime to power. Yet the order remained because of a financial dispute between the two countries.

This order mistakenly wore a security guise. It was maintained for decades by the military censor, who automatically repulsed any expression of interest in what was being done with the venture’s assets. Therefore, residents of Eilat and the surrounding area were sitting unwittingly on a barrel of explosives, and also without the knowledge of the civilian agencies whose job it is to safeguard them. Had the pipeline not ruptured and disrupted daily life in the south, everyone would have continued to live their normal lives without knowing a thing.

The pipeline leak ought to constitute a watershed moment for everything related to the “policy of concealment.” The secrecy order slapped on EAPC must be canceled by the attorney general. There is no logic to imposing military censorship on commercial civilian activity, and only extreme irresponsibility could explain excepting a dangerous project from transparency or supervision by the civilian authorities.

Nevertheless, dealing with EAPC isn’t the end of the necessary public discussion. There are many other areas of activity in Israel that are covered by a veil of security secrecy as a way of avoiding troublesome regulations and nettlesome bureaucracy, even at the price of endangering human life. The state comptroller and attorney general must take action to remove this veil of secrecy in cases where it is no longer justified. The public is not supposed to be held captive by officials arrogating the authority to determine what should or shouldn’t be subject to public supervision, while the reasons for this decision remain shielded from scrutiny. Such secrecy is liable to exact a heavy price.

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