Thousands of volunteers help clean Israeli contaminated beaches

The sun is shining and it is 20 degrees, yet today there are no towels and umbrellas on the beach at Ga‘ash, about 15 kilometres above Tel Aviv. The only bathing guests around are wearing gloves, protective clothing and carrying green garbage bags. They collect tar, a sticky black gobble that has washed up on Israeli beaches since last week.

Among the dozens of volunteers are Dafna Judge and Goni Idelman, two thirties living nearby. Although they’ve only known each other for an hour, they look like a played-in duo. With a piece of gauze between their hands, they sift the sand and the stones to remove the caked tar from them. In their garbage bag, they‘ve collected a few pounds of the dirt.

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โ€œ It’s not really getting along,โ€ says Judge, โ€œwe‘ve been working for an hour and the bag is not even half full. But it’s the only thing we can do.โ€

Dead whale

Like these volunteers, thousands of Israelis have travelled to the beaches in recent days to clean the coast. According to estimates, since last Wednesday there have been dozens to hundreds of tonnes of tar washed ashore, presumably due to an oil spill from a ship in the Mediterranean. Also in neighbouring Lebanon, tar was found on the beaches.

The Israeli authorities talk about one of the biggest ecological disasters in the country‘s history, and yesterday closed all the Mediterranean beaches for visitors. According to reports, several people were unwell due to toxic fumes. Also washed up a dead whale, which may have been exposed to oil.

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The effects are indeed serious, says also ecologist Dan Adelist from the University of Haifa, who has been on the beaches in recent days. But the extent of the disaster is still unclear to him.

โ€œ We have found dead sea turtles that are an endangered species here, and other animals have also been killed by the tar,โ€ said the scientist. โ€œBut the amount of dead animals washed up so far is not so far. Although that doesn’t say everything about the impact. Oil is a harmful thing and we do not know how much is left in the sea.โ€

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It‘s not just a matter of cleaning the beaches, says also professor of biological oceanography Ilana Berman-Frank. โ€œSuch accidents have an effect on the entire food chain, on the beach and at sea. Tar and oil block the supply of light and oxygen, which can cause animals and plants to die. The effects of this can continue for years to come.โ€

Living tissue

And also cleaning the beach is not so easy, says director Arik Rosenblum of nature organisation Ecoocean, who has been working with thousands of volunteers over the past few days. โ€œIt’s hard to remove the tar without damaging nature,โ€ he says. โ€œYou quickly draw live tissue, because it‘s so sticky.โ€

In addition to nature managers, the government has now also deployed military personnel to help clean up. But according to the environmental movement, government aid is getting started too slowly and is not enough.

The duty to remain silent

The investigation into the cause of the oil spill is also ongoing. Presumably, a tanker leaked the fuel a few weeks ago. Which ship that was is still unclear. The Department of the Environment announced that they have about ten suspicious ships in their sights.

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But the judge today has forbidden to publish details of the possible offender, โ€œso as not to harm the complex investigation with international aspects at this sensitive stageโ€. Israeli media have appealed against the obligation of silence, and nature organisations are also critical. โ€œWe demand maximum openness about this disaster,โ€ says director Maya Jacobs of environmental organisation Zalul. โ€œAll information must be on the table.โ€

Meanwhile, volunteers and soldiers continue to work to remove the washed tar from the coastline. The duo on the beach at Ga’ash keeps cleaning until dark, says Dafna Judge. โ€œAnd tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, we‘ll come back again. There’s still a lot of work to do.โ€ The cleaning work will certainly take months, it is expected.