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, the reaction from Congress and environmentalists is very different.
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 places.
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 pay."
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.
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.
Stephen Zunes is Middle East editor for Foreign Policy In Focus. He is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003.)