Israeli Security Officials Unaware Iran Blamed for Spill, Media Report

The oil spill that polluted the length of Israel’s coastline last month likely resulted from sanctions-busting trade between Iran and Syria, according to an Israeli maritime intelligence specialist.

“All risk indicators such as dark activities like turning off the transmissions, ship-to-ship transfers of cargo, complex and opaque ship structures, a vessel that hadn’t entered the Mediterranean Sea in eight years, lead us to assess that this was sanctioned trade between Iran and Syria,” said Ami Daniel, chief executive officer of Windward, a company the government used to analyze data and narrow down possible perpetrators.

The U.S. has slapped oil sanctions on both of those countries. In an effort to keep some of its oil exports alive, Iran has increasingly relied on a flotilla of tankers that operate clandestinely and execute ship-to-ship transfers to evade detection.

In late February, a spill originating outside Israel’s territorial waters began to smear tar along the country’s Mediterranean shoreline, causing the worst environmental calamity in the country’s history. On Wednesday, the environment minister said a Libyan ship that sailed from Israel’s arch-foe Iran dumped oil into the sea in early February in an act of “environmental terrorism’ against her country.

The Libyan vessel, named the Emerald, turned off its tracking system to avoid detection while nearing Israeli waters, then switched it back on once in Syria a few days after the spill, Gila Gamliel told reporters. The ministry presented what it said was strong “circumstantial evidence,” while acknowledging it did not have “forensic evidence,” Haaretz newspaper reported.

The ministry released images by TankerTrackers, an online service that follows crude shipments, that showed the Emerald transiting the Mediterranean on Feb. 2 west of the Israeli city of Haifa, then on Feb. 14 engaged in a mid-ocean oil transfer with Iranian-flagged Suezmax tanker Lotus, then an image of the Lotus pulling into Banyas, Syria, on Feb. 22.

Iran hasn’t commented on the Israeli allegations of terrorism. The Foreign Ministry in Tehran was not immediately available for comment on the sanctions-busting hypothesis.

Officials Unaware

Gamliel’s comments broadsided Israeli security officials who weren’t aware of the minister’s claims before she presented them in a press briefing, Israeli media reported. Channel 12 news reported that Gamliel had said in an interview just three hours before the briefing that it was probably not an attack.

The government has come under fire for not doing more to minimize damage from the spill. Retired Rear Admiral Shaul Chorev says the country doesn’t even have a chain of command in place in the event of a non-security maritime emergency.

“It doesn’t matter if there is tar on the beach as a result of an accident or a terrorist incident,” said Chorev, who heads the University of Haifa’s marine research center. “It was suspicious behavior that went unnoticed by us. And even if it was noticed, Israel has no authorities responsible for dealing with it.”

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