Israel must increase its maritime awareness in light of recent oil spill

Much of Israel’s approximately 200-km. (125-mile) Mediterranean coastline has been contaminated with thick tarballs, and Israelis have been warned to stay away from beaches.

LUMPS OF tar mar the sand at a beach in Ashdod after an offshore oil spill polluted much of Israel’s Mediterranean shoreline last week.  (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
LUMPS OF tar mar the sand at a beach in Ashdod after an offshore oil spill polluted much of Israel’s Mediterranean shoreline last week.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Massive maritime oil spills have a way of searing our collective memory. For Americans, this trauma was instilled by two incidents: the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989, and 21 years later, the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. The French experienced a disastrous oil spill in 1978 with the sinking of the Amoco Cadiz off the coast of Brittany. Now it is Israel’s turn to join this shameful club. But Israel can learn from its current disaster.
While few details of the latest spill are yet publicly known due to a gag order imposed on investigators by a Haifa court, it appears that tar was first noticed accumulating on February 17. The relevant agencies failed to promptly identify the spill, much less contain it. Much of Israel’s approximately 200-km. (125-mile) Mediterranean coastline has been contaminated with thick tar balls, and Israelis have been warned to stay away from beaches. On February 24, the Health Ministry banned the sale of all seafood sourced from the Mediterranean. The ramifications of this oil spill are just beginning to emerge. However, there are important matters that policymakers could, and should, address immediately.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the phrase “maritime domain awareness” emerged as Americans began to comprehensively reassess maritime security requirements. As a result of a national security presidential directive issued by president George W. Bush in 2004, a “National Plan to Achieve Maritime Domain Awareness” was issued in October 2005. The Department of Homeland Security, formed after 9/11, was tasked with coordinating maritime safety awareness so that a unified US government approach could be adopted.
Personnel in the Israeli Navy have long been taught maritime domain awareness – identifying and understanding all variables related to the sea that could affect security, safety, the economy, and/or the environment. If we were to construct a continuum from maritime domain awareness to maritime domain blindness, Israel’s actions (including inaction), especially since mid-February, fall very much in the blindness camp. Israel has failed to establish the necessary legal framework for its maritime domain or even to define the responsibilities of various governmental agencies. Addressing these two facets will be a critical requirement to prevent another maritime disaster in Israel.
Most of Israel’s trade is conducted by sea, and free passage through the Mediterranean has always been considered a vital Israeli interest. The importance of the Mediterranean grew dramatically with the expansion of Israel’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the 2009 discovery of large natural gas reserves and the construction of related infrastructure, and the building of desalination plants along the coastline of Israel. Israel’s maritime domain is vast, and its area is even larger than the territorial area of Israel before 1967.
The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – which applies even to non-signatories, such as Israel – defines the rights and obligations of states in maritime areas. Israel established its EEZ with Cyprus in 2010, and has recently held indirect negotiations with Lebanon, under US auspices, delimiting its maritime border based on UNCLOS principles. A legal opinion issued in January 2013 by Israel’s deputy attorney-general clarified that “Israel accepts upon itself the customary provisions of UNCLOS, including those pertaining to maritime areas.”
SINCE 2017, Israel’s Justice and Energy Ministries have been working to approve a parliamentary bill pertaining to maritime areas, based primarily on principles found in UNCLOS and the 1958 Convention on the Continental Shelf. The draft bill enumerates a number of maritime domain goals, including sovereignty and sovereign rights, law enforcement enhancements, development and proper utilization (including natural resources), and strengthening environmental protections. Yet, as written, the bill would grant the Environmental Protection Ministry only advisory input; the Energy Ministry would have sole control over Israel’s maritime domain, despite the obvious potential for significant environmental implications. Separating the issuance of drilling licenses and environmental monitoring will be highly problematic.
To its detriment, Israel’s leaders have had a singular focus on military security in the maritime domain. Apart from freedom of navigation and defense against Israel’s enemies, Israel’s policy in the Mediterranean has focused on protecting the natural gas fields and related infrastructure. This focus has come at the expense of other vital interests such as gas production safety, law enforcement, preparations for disasters (both natural and human-caused), and the effects of climate change. Information on these issues, which could be collected by the Israel Navy, should be shared with agencies such as the Shipping and Ports Authority and its Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) and the Environmental Protection Ministry. 
It is critical that Israel adopt a broader/unified approach to the maritime domain. Ignoring or downplaying the non-military issues of the maritime domain, as the current ecological disaster highlights, is the major source of Israel’s maritime domain blindness.
In keeping with its international obligations, Israel has a draft plan to respond to environmental incidents, but this plan has yet to be even discussed at the Transportation Ministry. In the event of a disastrous oil spill, there is a natural tendency to focus on identifying the polluting ship. But as experience has shown, the chances of identifying that ship decrease significantly with the passing of time. 
In addition, containment is essential. The responsible authority should have the capability to contract with private contractors, as is the current policy with Israel’s ports, and to access equipment capable of spreading chemical dispersal agents. Under no circumstances should containment be carried out directly by the Environmental Protection Ministry, which is a governmental regulator and lacks the capacity to address this type of event.
What can be done to overcome maritime domain blindness? As with other developed countries, Israel must formulate a broad maritime policy and strategy, identify the government agency tasked with responding to maritime incidents, and enumerate the responsibilities of the Israel Navy. The navy could develop a maritime picture that will serve other agencies in similar incidents, and/or manage the national response to accidents in Israel’s maritime domain. 
Finally, the Israeli government should decide whether to establish a coast guard with responsibility for dealing with emergencies. This new entity would coordinate the actions of all first responders and deploy the needed services. And the sooner the better.
In Israel, environmental issues are gaining in importance. Following a unilateral government decision to place the Leviathan gas rig, which would tap Israel’s largest gas field, near the coastline, grassroots resistance emerged in nearby towns. Under various forms of popular pressure, the government agreed to move the rig further to sea. Moreover, as climate change emerges as a global imperative, the role of fossil fuels – including natural gas – become a focus. Decarbonization is a further reason to have a unified national approach to the maritime domain.
Prof. Adm. (ret.) Shaul Chorev is director of the Maritime Policy and Strategy Research Center at the University Of Haifa.