Experts: Israel has ‘no strategy’ to manage Mediterranean ‘lifeline’


The Mediterranean Sea provides the gateway for 99% of Israel’s imports, contributes 80% of Israel’s drinking water through desalination, and provides natural gas to help power the country. Yet there is no maritime strategy, no single body that coordinates and responds to marine activity, and no borders defining Israel’s exclusive economic zone, which stretches some 370 kilometers (230 miles) from the coast, experts said Wednesday.

Israel suffers from “marine blindness,” Rear Admiral (Retired) Shaul Chorev, who heads the Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy Research at the University of Haifa, told a conference at the Peres Center in Tel Aviv.

The Navy is well equipped to protect maritime sovereignty and security, with satellite and radar information, aircraft and drone patrols, and ground sensors to detect any irregular activity, Chief Col. Sasi Hodeda told confab. of the Israel Aircraft Industries marine unit. .

But the military is not allowed to deal with a long list of other maritime issues, Chorev stressed, from accidents at sea and pollution events to smuggling and illegal fishing.

Other developed countries have some sort of coordinating body for maritime affairs, the conference said.

In Israel, by contrast, responsibilities for different aspects of managing the sea, beaches and cliffs – many of which are eroding – are divided among nine ministries and a plethora of state organizations, ranging from the Israel Ports Authority and from the Tax Authority to the Mediterranean Coastal Cliffs Preservation Government Company and various planning agencies, and no one has overall responsibility.

Teacher. Shaul Chorev, Director of the Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy Research at the University of Haifa. (Courtesy)

V. Admiral (retired) David Ben-Bashat, a former commander-in-chief of the navy, said he had tried unsuccessfully in the past to lobby for the creation of an Israeli coast guard who combine the military and civilian roles.

“I’m not sure everyone understands how important the sea is to us,” said Ben-Bashat. “The European Union celebrates a Sea Day every year in a different country. We used to have a sea day, but that stopped. Most countries have a minister of the sea.

V. Admiral (retired) David Ben-Bashat. (Courtesy)

Ben-Bashat said he put a plan to create a maritime forum on hold when he learned that the National Planning Council had gone outside its normal remit and produced a policy document a year ago on management. of maritime space.

This document (in hebrew), explained Dalit Zilber, head of the planning council, mapped areas of potential conflict as well as opportunities at sea, including security, marine agriculture, production and distribution of natural resources such as gas, communications, desalination, natural and environmental sciences, maritime transport, sport, research and defense of cliffs.

The town planning council proposed one of three options: the creation of a maritime authority, a council or a voluntary inter-ministerial steering committee for the sea. The council favored the former, but the government did not accepted that the third, Zilber said.

Dalit Zilber, head of the National Planning and Building Council. (Screenshot)

The committee will serve as a “one-stop-shop” for issues relating to cliffs, beaches and the sea, Zilber continued, but while “nice” it was not a substitute for a proper maritime authority with legal expertise and teeth.

Deputy Defense Minister Alon Shuster said that following the massive tar spill that hit Israeli shores in February, there was now more communication between the defense and protection ministries of the environment. His staff were trying to find out how the security forces could cooperate more formally in the event of civil disasters, he added, saying “the tar was the trigger.”

Following the discovery of the February spill, some 15,000 volunteers helped coastal authorities, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and nonprofit marine conservation organizations EcoOcean and Zalul clean up the sands stretching from Rosh Hanikra in the north to Nitzanim in the south. The sale of Mediterranean fish was temporarily suspended and the beaches were closed, with the first 17 not reopening until March 7.

Israeli volunteers clean up tar from a beach following an oil spill that covered most of Israel’s Mediterranean coast with tar on February 22, 2021 (Flash90)

The spill was ultimately attributed to an uninsured Syrian ship, the Emerald. The London-based International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund has agreed to compensate the state for the damage caused.

The Department of Environmental Protection is pushing for legislation that will anchor a national program – and budgets – for oil spill preparedness and response.

A draft bill, which has completed its public and ministerial consultation stages, comes 21 years after the government agreed to adopt such legislation. Passing the bill is one of the ministry’s highest priorities, the ministry’s chief executive, Galit Cohen, said.

Bits of tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea washed up on a beach in the Gdor Nature Reserve near Michmoret, Israel on Monday March 1, 2021. The cleanup of the catastrophic oil spill that blackened the sea much of the country’s eastern coastline is expected to take months. (AP Photo / Ariel Schalit)

Cohen said the ministry’s marine protection unit was preparing to spend substantial funds on equipment and personnel to be better positioned to deal with future marine spills. He was not waiting for additional legislation or government budgets, she said. The money is said to come from a marine pollution prevention fund, which still contained several tens of millions of shekels. In order to cover additional cash, the ministry was considering increasing the fines imposed on polluters.

Cohen said the results of a committee of ministry directors general set up to probe the treatment of the February oil spill would be released in the coming days, with recommendations and details of the budgets needed going forward.

The Leviathan natural gas platform off Israel. (Albatross)

Efforts to pass a marine areas law to determine authority for aspects of marine management failed to pass through the Knesset, the conference was told.

The latter was largely thwarted by the unwillingness of the Ministry of Energy to cede all control to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. To date, oil and gas exploration in Israel’s Exclusive Economic Zone does not require any study of environmental risks.

The conference was an initiative of Hila Ehrenreich, former director of the Mediterranean Costal Cliff Preservation Government Company.


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