Letting the Israeli Government Off the Hook?

On December 3rd, 2014, during construction work connected to the new international airport next to the community of Beer Ora, 15 minutes north of Eilat, an oil pipeline belonging to the Eilat Ashqelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) erupted and poured 5 million liters (around 1.3 million gallons) of oil into the Arava Valley flowing into the Evrona Nature Reserve. The Evrona reserve is home to a variety of fauna and flora such as gazelles, lizards, storks as well as the ubiquitous acacia tree, keystone species of the Arava which forms the Arava Institute’s logo. The immediate impact to the reserve and to the local human settlement, Beer Ora, of malodorous oil fumes in the atmosphere, while extreme, passed relatively quickly. The long-term effect on the reserve of the damage caused by oil sludge sinking into the soil may take years to assess. Soon after what many have called Israel’s worst environmental disaster in history, the Arava Institute and the Dead Sea & Arava Science Center were asked to study the reserve and make recommendations on how to approach cleaning up the site. In parallel to cleanup and research, a group of residents of the Arava Valley including myself, initiated a class action suit against EAPC and the Israeli government for the environmental damage the spill caused. EAPC is a for profit company which owns the pipeline and which has deep, though murky ties to the Israeli government. The Trans-Israel pipeline, a joint project of Israeli investors and Iran was built in 1968, in order to transport oil from Iran to Europe saving Iran the cost of shipping the oil through the Suez Canal by offloading oil in Eilat, pumping it to Ashkelon in order to reload it on tankers. With the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, the Iranians broke ties with Israel and the pipeline fell into disuse. Most of the residents of the Arava were completely unaware that in 2003, EAPC, had made a deal with Russia to begin pumping oil from Ashkelon to Eilat in order for Russia to supply Asian markets. The Trans-Israel Pipeline goes right by my kibbutz, in between our homes and our fields. Were a similar disaster to take place near Ketura as the one which happened in Evrona, our livelihood, the flora and fauna around the kibbutz and possibly our lives would be endangered. This week the government of Israel asked the Israeli district court in Beer Sheva for a summary judgment before the beginning of the trial to be removed as a defendant in the case claiming it is not responsible for the negligence which led to the environmental disaster. Building a 254 kilometer, 42 inch in diameter, pipeline across the southern part of Israel cannot be implemented without the full cooperation and deep involvement of the Israeli government. Brokering major business deals with Iran or Russia to pump millions of cubic meters of oil across Israel’s Negev Desert could not be accomplished without the full agreement and complicity of the Israeli government. EAPC was given rights to build the pipeline based on specially enacted laws (similar to Israel Chemicals’ rights to mine the Dead Sea). The State of Israel and EAPC are currently in an international dispute with Iran over the pipeline and the initial investment made by Iran. The Israeli government contended that it could not reveal to the public the full extent of its involvement in the management of EAPC due to “court ordered secrecy” but was only willing to discuss the issue in a one sided hearing before the judge (excluding our lawyers). The court has yet to issue its decision of whether or not to let the government off the hook, but the Israeli government’s claim of its right to keep secrets from the public about its responsibility for the management of an oil pipeline that pumps oil across the Negev and the Arava endangering Israel’s environment smells worse than the oil spill itself.

David Lehrer

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