Israeli minister: Iran an environmental terrorist over oil spill

Official says oil tanker responsible was ferrying sanctioned oil from Iran

Israel accused Iran of being linked to a recent oil spill off its shores that caused major ecological damage, calling the incident environmental terrorism.

The spill was caused by an oil tanker carrying pirated cargo from Iran to Syria last month, Israeli Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel said.

The vessel sailed through the Gulf and the Red Sea without radio contact, switching its tracking devices back on before passing through Egypt's Suez Canal, Ms Gamliel said.

It turned the devices off again before entering Israeli waters in the eastern Mediterranean, and dumped oil into the sea between February 1 and 2, she said on Wednesday, naming the vessel as the Panama-flagged oil tanker Emerald.

"Iran is [conducting] terrorism by damaging the environment, and [when] Iran is damaging the environment it isn't just hurting the state of Israel," Ms Gamliel said.

There was no immediate comment from Iran.

The accusation is the second in a week in which Israel blamed its long-time enemy of wrongdoing at sea.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Tehran for an explosion aboard an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman last week, an accusation rejected by Tehran.

Tensions have risen in the Gulf region since the United States reimposed sanctions on Iran in 2018 after then-president Donald Trump withdrew Washington from a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major powers.

Lebanese politicians, whose shores have also been damaged by the slick, said the government should sue the Israelis over the spill.

Kassem Hachem of the environment parliamentary committee told The National it is recommending the government file a complaint against Israel to the UN General Assembly.

“It is absolutely clear that the pollution came from the occupied Palestinian territories, in Ashkelon, which means the Israeli enemy is to blame.”

A report by the National Council for Scientific Research showed that the oil spill came from south of Lebanon, Mr Hashem said.

Ecological disaster

The oil spill blackened beaches up and down the Israeli coast, and clumps of sticky black tar washed up on the shores of south Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, as well.

Environmental groups said it was an ecological disaster that could take years to clean up.

Ms Gamliel said the vessel was "owned and operated by a Libyan", without identifying a person or company.

Libya's state-owned shipping firm, the General National Maritime Transport Company, said it had owned the vessel but sold it at auction in December.

The vessel was purchased by Emerald Marine Ltd, a company based in the Marshall Islands, according to the shipping database Equasis. Reuters was unable to reach the company for comment.

Ms Gamliel said the vessel turned its tracking devices back on again upon reaching Syria on February 3, where she said it unloaded crude oil. It then returned to Iran, where it is currently anchored, she said.

Refinitiv ship tracking data showed the vessel reported a destination of Sohar in Oman, across the Gulf of Oman from Iran, on January 20, meaning it was around Iran's coast at that time.

The ship tracking data did not show any destinations in Iran, although it is common for vessels to conceal their movements there.

The vessel reported its position after passing through the Suez Canal on February 1, Refinitiv data showed.

It next reported its position with a destination of Mersin in Turkey on February 3, showing a gap between February 1 and 3.

The vessel did not report any destinations in Syria, although it is also common for ships to conceal movements there.

An international convention requires merchant ships to have a satellite tracking device on board when travelling at sea. But a ship's captain has the discretion to switch the transponder off under certain circumstances, enabling them to avoid detection.

The Israeli environmental protection ministry said it had collected strong "circumstantial evidence" that this was the ship responsible for the spill, although it did not have "forensic evidence." It said it also ruled out any other source.