Tons of toxic tar washed ashore along Israel’s entire Mediterranean coastline over the weekend in what Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority is calling the episode “one of the most serious ecological disasters” in the country’s history.

The cause of the pollution is under investigation, but it is believed to have been caused by an oil spill from a single vessel off of Israel’s coast. The black tar washed ashore following a significant winter storm. The scope of the incident became apparent when a dead 17-foot whale washed ashore in Ashkelon on Friday.

“Regarding the environmental damage that we are currently dealing with, I have asked that a report on the matter, which is still being investigated, be submitted to the next Cabinet meeting,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night before visiting affected beaches in Ashdod on Sunday with Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel.

Gamliel suggested that the cleanup will be costly and may take months, if not years.

“In order to succeed, we need to raise tens of millions of shekels that will be invested in cleaning the beaches. We have the possibility of suing the insurance company of the ship that is responsible for the pollution and we will do everything to locate it. Our moral obligation to the public is to locate those responsible for the event. Our goal is to open the bathing season on time.”

“We have one beach here that is not very long, 180 km long [112 miles], most of it is now exposed to pollution from a single ship and it probably managed to reach most beaches,” Professor Ilana Berman, head of the School of Marine Sciences at the University of Haifa, told Israel’s Channel 12 News. “Even if they manage to clean what is visible on the surface, a large part of the pollution goes down and sinks to the bottom of the sea and you don’t see it.”

Berman warned that the toxins may have an effect on the marine food chain for many years.

Several volunteers working to clean up the substance over the weekend were hospitalized after inhaling toxic fumes.

In a government statement, individuals were asked to steer clear of the beaches, following earlier calls for volunteers to start the cleanup. “The ministries are asking the public to refrain from going to beaches from Rosh Hanikra, in the north, down to Zikim Beach in the Hof Ashkelon Coastal Council, until further notice due to the pollution of the Mediterranean Sea and the beaches from tar.”


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