September 2010, Week 2


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Mon, 13 Sep 2010 01:01:15 -0400
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The Other Oil Spill
By Stephen Zunes
Foreign Policy in Focus
September 8, 2010

Leading congressional Democrats are outraged at British
Petroleum and others responsible for the massive oil
spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But that stands in sharp
contrast to their outspoken support of those responsible
for a major oil spill in the eastern Mediterranean in
2006, the largest in that region's history.

On July 13 and 15 of that year, as part of a major
bombardment of the civilian infrastructure of Lebanon,
Israeli planes bombed the fuel tanks for the Jiyeh power
plant on the coast near Beirut, releasing 10,000-15,000
tons of oil.  A giant oil slick spread northward by
Mediterranean currents, contaminated the Lebanese and
Syrian coasts, and went as far as Turkey and Cyprus.
Meanwhile, large deposits of the densest parts of the
heavy oil dropped to the seabed to form black toxic
mats, destroying sea life below.

The ongoing Israeli navy blockade of the Lebanese coast
made an emergency response impossible in the critical
early hours and days of the disaster. Israeli airstrikes
in the immediate area kept firefighters and others away
from the disaster site, while damaged roads and bridges
from other airstrikes prevented crews and equipment from
dealing with the growing spill. With the support of both
parties in Congress, the Bush administration blocked
efforts at the United Nations to impose a ceasefire for
another five weeks. Full-scale operations to contain and
clean up the spill therefore did not get underway until
well into August, by which time the spill had already
stretched hundreds of miles.  As a result, two months
after the spill, only 3 percent of the oil had been
cleaned up. Indeed, it took a full six months before the
spill was even contained. It took a full year before
most of the beaches had been cleaned, primarily by local
young volunteers.

Legacy of the Spill

Lebanese Environmental Minister Yacoub Sarraf called the
spill "the biggest environmental disaster in Lebanon's
history." Scientists, fishermen, and activists were
particularly concerned for local marine ecosystems. Eggs
from bluefin tuna, a species already driven to the edge
by overfishing, are particularly sensitive to such
contamination. The oil covered the beaches just as
endangered sea turtles were hatching, killing an untold
number of hatchlings.

The costs of the disaster, in terms of fishing, tourism,
and cleanup, have been estimated at up to $200 million.
Although the United States provided Israel with the jets
and ordinance that caused the oil spill, the U.S.
government refused to contribute more than $5 million to
the cleanup effort.

The environmental damage was not restricted to the oil
spill. The total fuel capacity of the storage tanks at
the Jiyeh plant was approximately 75,000 cubic meters.
None of the oil was salvaged, meaning that what did not
spill into the sea or seep into the ground burned up.
The blaze lasted 10 days, sending toxic fumes into the
surrounding area, including greater Beirut, with a
population of over two million residents. Plumes of
black smoke were visible for over 40 miles. Ash deposits
covered a wide area, more than a foot deep in some

Contrasting Reactions in Congress

Congressional Democrats in large part recognized the
extent of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and were
outspoken in their denunciation of BP and others
responsible. For example, Rep. Jan Schakowski (D-IL)
declared that "the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf
region is one of biblical proportions, and the economic
and emotional toll on the people there is beyond
devastating," insisting that the "responsible parties
must be held accountable." Similarly, Diana DeGette (D-
CO) declared, "This is a massive environmental disaster
that we are really going to be living with and dealing
with for many years to come.We're really going to have
to hold BP's feet to the fire and make sure businesses
are adequately compensated." Other members of Congress
were clear that they would insure that those at fault
would be held responsible, with Majority Whip Jim
Clyburn (D-SC) declaring that "it is important that BP
be held fully accountable for their negligence" and Rosa
DeLauro (D-CT) insisting,  "We need to make companies

Yet when the victims of a massive oil spill are not the
predominantly white residents along the northern shores
of the Gulf of Mexico, but instead are Arabs living in
the eastern Mediterranean, their perspective is very
different. Shakowski, DeGette, Clyburn, and DeLauro -
along with the overwhelming majority of their House
Democratic colleagues - joined their Republican
counterparts in not only refusing to demand Israel be
held accountable, but actually defending the Israeli
assault. Like most targets of the Israeli war on Lebanon
that summer, the Jiyeh power plant and its fuel tanks
had no relation with the militant group Hezbollah, the
alleged target of the Israeli attacks. Just two days
after the bombing and the resulting oil spill, however,
the U.S. House of Representatives - in a resolution that
passed by a 410-8  vote, referred to the Israeli attacks
as "appropriate action[s] to defend itself." Congress
even went as far as claiming that such attacks against
Lebanon's civilian infrastructure were "in accordance
with international law."

Such an assertion runs counter to a broad consensus of
international legal authorities, however. For example,
Amnesty International concluded, after extensive
research and analysis that included a review of Israeli
interpretations of the laws of war, that the "Israeli
forces committed serious violations of international
human rights and humanitarian law, including war
crimes." The International Red Cross, long recognized as
the guardian of the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of
war, declared that Israel violated the principle of
proportionality in the conventions as well as the
prohibition against collective punishment. Similarly, UN
High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour - who
served as a prosecutor in the international war crimes
tribunals on Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia - noted
how the Israeli government was engaging in war crimes
and Jan Egeland, head of United Nations relief
operations, referred to the "disproportional response"
by Israel to Hezbollah's provocations - such as the
attack on the Jiyeh power plant - as "a violation of
international humanitarian law."

The House resolution also insisted that the Israeli
attacks on Lebanon were in accordance with Article 51 of
the UN Charter, which grants the right of self-defense.
None of the congressional offices I contacted, however,
was able to explain how this kind of environmental
warfare constituted legitimate self-defense.
Furthermore, a reading of the UN Charter reveals that
Article 33 requires all parties to "first of all, seek a
solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation,
conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort
to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful
means of their own choice," which Israel had refused to
do. John B. Larson (D-CT), speaking in reference to
Republican apologists for the major oil companies,
declared, "I don't know how anyone could side with the
CEO of BP over the victims of the Gulf oil spill at a
time like this." He has been unable to explain, however,
how he and his fellow Democrats could side the Israeli
government in this heinous act of environmental warfare.

Political Fallout?

Interestingly, the willingness by such congressional
representatives to accept such large-scale environmental
destruction and other war crimes as legitimate acts of
self-defense did not prompt any major environmental
groups or other key liberal constituencies to withdraw
their support.  Instead, leading environmental groups
endorsed the re-election of scores of Democratic
supporters of Israel's attacks on Lebanon, essentially
communicating that politicians who defend serious acts
of ecological sabotage need not worry about the
political consequences of their actions.

One of the most important lessons of environmentalism is
the understanding of the interconnectedness of the
world's ecology: that we are living on one planet.  The
willingness of so many Democrats in Congress to self-
righteously decry the negligence of BP for causing a
massive oil spill on America's shores only to defend the
wanton destruction of U.S.-provided weaponry that caused
a massive oil spill on foreign shores primarily
affecting people of color may be indicative of a kind of
environmental racism.

If the planet is going to survive, both politicians and
self-described environmental organizations must defend
the environment whatever the geopolitics of a particular
region and whoever the most immediate victims of its
destruction may be.


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