Israel closed all its Mediterranean beaches until further notice on Sunday, days after an offshore oil spill deposited tonnes of tar across more than 160km (100 miles) of coastline in what officials are calling one of the country’s worst ecological disasters.
Activists began reporting globs of black tar on Israel’s coast last week after a heavy storm.
The deposits have wreaked havoc on local wildlife, and the Israeli Agriculture Ministry determined on Sunday that a dead young fin whale that washed up on a beach in southern Israel died from ingesting the viscous black liquid, according to Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster.
Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority called the spill “one of the most serious ecological disasters” in the country’s history.
The environmental protection, health and interior ministries issued a joint statement warning the public not to visit the entire length of the country’s 195km (120 miles) Mediterranean coastline, cautioning that “exposure to tar can be harmful to public health”.
Representatives from a coalition of Israeli environmental groups said in a news conference on Sunday that the environmental protection ministry was woefully underfunded and that existing legislation did little to prevent or address environmental disasters.
They cautioned that this disaster should be a wake-up call for opposition to a planned oil pipeline connecting the United Arab Emirates and Israeli oil facilities in Eilat – home to endangered Red Sea coral reefs.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Environment Protection Minister Gila Gamliel visited a beach in the southern port city of Ashdod on Sunday to inspect the damage.
Gamliel in a tweet said, “We are making every effort to find those responsible for the disaster and we will bring to the government’s approval tomorrow a proposal for resolutions to rehabilitate the environment.”
The environmental protection ministry and activists estimate that at least 1,000 tonnes of tar have already washed up onshore.
Gamliel told Hebrew media that her department estimates the clean-up project will cost millions of dollars.