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JERUSALEM: The first cargo ships from Dubai to dock in the Mediterranean port of Haifa last year were celebrated in Israel. Flags waved. Reporters gathered. The Prime Minister walked across the pier and gave a speech on the fruits of the peace settlement.
However, there was no fanfare when oil tankers called at the smaller Israeli port of Eilat on the Red Sea in an agreement with Emirati partners. Instead of washing machines and detergents for consumers, the ships are unloading oil that is to be transported via a pipeline across Israel to the Mediterranean Sea.
According to the companies involved, this land bridge is the shortest, most efficient and cheapest route to transport oil from the Gulf to the west. But the risks to the environment are far too great, say their opponents, who hope to end the deal.
About a month after Israel normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates last September, Israel’s state-owned Europe-Asia Pipeline Company (EAPC) announced the new collaboration.
The contract was signed in Abu Dhabi with MED-RED Land Bridge, a company owned by Emirates and Israel. The then US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was present.
EAPC has its roots in the Arabian Gulf. It was first established as a joint venture between Israel and Iran in 1968 when the two countries were friends. This partnership collapsed after the 1979 revolution that brought the Ayatollahs to power.
The Israeli pipeline is still working both ways, but well below capacity in recent years, energy experts say. With the United Arab Emirates taking over the role once occupied by Iran, EAPC hopes to increase the quantities by “tens of millions of tons per year”.
The influx of ships docking on the fragile coral reefs in Eilat and the large volumes of oil being transported through Israel have outraged the country’s top environmentalists.
Freshly remembered is an oil spill off the coast in February that blackened much of Israel’s Mediterranean coast with tar. And in 2014, one of EAPC’s own pipelines broke, spilling 5 million liters of crude oil into a nature reserve in the desert.
“Most of the details (of the deal) are legally confidential. We only know a little bit, but that little bit makes us very anxious, ”said Noa Yayon, head of the legal department of the Nature Conservation Union.
The Eilat coral reef is unique in that it has proven to be more resilient to climate change with many reefs around the world dying. It is also a major tourist attraction.
But the proximity to the port means that even the smallest leak from a tanker would cause large, potentially irreversible damage, Yayon said.
“We are of course very satisfied with the current geopolitical status with the Arab countries in our region, but we do not believe that this has to go hand in hand with the over-specific risks to our environment,” she said. “We think we can better promote business with these countries, which is based on clean energy, not oil.”
Environment Minister Gila Gamliel sent a letter to Israel’s National Security Advisor last Tuesday saying, “The warning lights are flashing,” calling for the agreement to be lifted.
Too much has been decided behind closed doors and remains a secret, she said.
EAPC has not released details of the deal.
“From a rate of six tankers per year, we expect an increase to more than 50 tankers per year docking in Eilat,” wrote Gamliel. “The continuation of this agreement will be a tragedy for generations, be it due to breakdowns or in a war scenario.”
Gamliel will be replaced with the swearing-in of the country’s new government, and her successor on Monday called the deal a mistake and said the government should oppose it.
EAPC said the new store is part of their routine operations and meets the strictest international standards. Also, the broader geopolitical gains cannot be ignored.
“Israel is expected to benefit greatly from the agreement, which strengthens Israel’s economy and international standing, and ensures its independence and security in the energy sector,” the company said in a statement.
The Society for the Protection of Nature, along with other groups, has applied to the Israeli Supreme Court for an interim order to freeze the agreement. Yayon said the state would present its official position in the coming days.
The Treasury Department, which oversees the EAPC, declined to comment due to the open court case.
A representative of the United Arab Emirates’ National Holding, owned by Petromal, one of the owners of MED-RED Land Bridge, initially made no comment on the matter.

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