In the first months of 2020, it felt like there was a new disaster every week. And 2021 appears to be playing the same tune. In the last week of February, patches of tar began washing up on beaches along more than 100 miles of Israel’s coastline. Immediately, the sale of locally caught fish and seafood was prohibited, and beaches were closed. Already, over 70 tons of tar and contaminated material has been removed from shorelines by cleanup efforts, but there is a long, long way to go.

The incident is being called one of the worst ecological disasters to ever befall the eastern terminus of the Mediterranean Sea and is being compared to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster off the Alaskan coast, when 10.8 million gallons of crude oil spilled and contaminated over 1,000 miles of coastline. But unlike that catastrophe, no one yet knows the source of this oil, nor yet the extent of the spill. The Israeli government is investigating, and ten ships are under investigation.

On March 3, 2021, Israel’s Environmental Protection Minister, Gila Gamlier, accused a Libyan oil transport of deliberately spilling the oil, calling the disaster “an act of environmental terrorism” and implicating Iran. But this accusation came as news to Israeli security forces, who are the one investigating the incident, and the evidence for Gamlier’s accusation at this time is unclear. As with most national-level investigations in Israel, there is a gag order banning the publication of unconfirmed details.

So far, this oil spill has contaminated close to two-thirds of Israel’s total shoreline on the Mediterranean, and how much more is waiting to wash ashore is entirely unknown. So far, the Israeli government has approved a $13.8 million response disbursement from their Fund for the Prevention of Marine Pollution. Cleanup is expected to take years, and environment recovery probably decades. The oil spill is also threatening to trip up plans for an underwater gas pipeline between Israel and Egypt, which was meant to improve Israel’s energy security.

Photo: Oil washed up on the beaches at Gulf Shores, Alabama, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Credit: Shutterstock