Israel’s security bloc, including the Army, Navy and intelligence services, were caught off guard by the claims made by the country’s environment minister about Iran’s alleged responsibility for the mystery appearance of hundreds of tonnes of oil tar on Israel’s Mediterranean Sea coastline, Israeli media have reported.

At a press briefing on Wednesday, Gila Gamliel said that authorities had identified the Emerald, a Libyan-owned, Panamanian-flagged tanker, which was said to have turned off its radio transponder after sailing into Israel’s exclusive economic zone, proceeding to pollute Israeli waters on February 1 and 2 before heading north toward Syria, loitering there a while and then making the trip back to Iran.

Gamliel said her ministry had strong “circumstantial evidence” that the Emerald was the ship responsible for the spill, ruling out the possibility that any other vessel could be to blame. The official admitted, however, that her ministry has yet to obtain the necessary “forensic evidence” to back up the allegations.

According to Haaretz, the Israeli military, which has been heavily involved in spill clean-up operations, was not aware of Gamliel’s claims before she made them. Nor were Israel’s powerful intelligence agencies, or the Navy. The Ministry of Environmental Protection reportedly did not contact them to assist in their investigation.

On Wednesday night, Channel 13 reported that the country’s defence establishment “does not share [the] assessment” presented by Gamliel, and described it as “striking” that neither the Mossad nor the military were involved in the probe.

An unnamed senior security official told the Kan broadcaster that Iran does not appear to be directly involved.

Rani Amir, the chief of the ministry of environment’s marine protection department, appeared to distance himself from Gamliel’s accusations of deliberate Iranian culpability, telling reporters at Wednesday’s press conference that the leak may have been intentional.

“We believe that the aim of the ship was to smuggle oil in a covert way from Iran to another country. The movement of the ship, turning off its identification systems, moving around Latakia port [in Syria] makes it very clear that the aim was to ship crude oil on a substandard ship,” Amir said. “We think the leak that affected us was not during the transfer of oil from Emerald to smaller ships but either a deliberate leak – that is to say terror – or an accident,” he added.

Tehran has yet to comment on Gamliel’s claims, but has recently denied a separate Israeli allegation that it had attacked an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman last week. On Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh accused Tel Aviv of suffering “from a hysteric obsession regarding Iran.”

Thousands of volunteers, employees of Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority, and soldiers have been involved in the tar cleanup operation, which affected some 160 km of the country’s Mediterranean coastline, including local wildlife, and impacted part of Lebanon’s coast as well. On Tuesday, officials announced that some 120 tonnes of contaminated sand and refuse had been removed from beaches in northern and central Israel.

MarineTraffic lists at least three major oil tankers named the Emerald, including a Panamanian-flagged tanker currently situated in the Persian Gulf, a Malta-flagged vessel located in the Aegean Sea, and an Argentinian-flagged ship currently moored in Buenos Aires.

However, in its report on the incident, Haaretz indicated that the Emerald accused of involvement in last month’s spill is a former Libyan state-owned tanker that’s been owned by a company in the Marshall Islands since at least December 2020.

Israel’s location north of the Suez Canal makes its coastlines a major artery for the global sea-based trade in oil. Last week, a Financial Times investigation discovered that some 210 vessels passed within 50 km of Israel’s coast between 10 and 12 February alone, among them 35 tankers and three LPG carriers.