Op-Ed | The Rockets Reminded Us: A Fire Could Ignite in Haifa Bay at any Moment

The rocket fire from Lebanon last week made it clear that we cannot leave PEI’s oil storage facility in Haifa Bay. Foot-dragging is the default response, but there are solutions that can be implemented immediately to prevent the risk to human life.

Rony Erez, Ha’aretz , May 25, 2021

Between the Lag Ba’Omer tragedy on Mount Meron, the collapse of the bleachers in a synagogue in Givat Ze’ev, and the barrage of rockets from Gaza, the expression “the writing was on the wall” has become a battered cliché. But one of the messages written on this shared wall could burst into flames. It would be a severe mistake to ignore this message as well.

Last Wednesday, four rockets were shot from Lebanon toward Acco and the Krayot area. In case you forgot, the storage facility for the oil tanks of PEI (Petroleum & Energy Infrastructures Ltd.) is located in the Krayot. The tanks are just 200 meters away from a residential neighborhood in Kiryat Haim, which is also the location of Degania elementary school, as Sarit Golan Steinberg, Chair of Igud Arim Haifa Bay Municipal Association for Environmental Protection, noted in an interview with Calcalist. Slightly southward is a complex called the Bazan complex, which houses the Haifa petrochemical industry (refineries, Carmel Olefins, Gadiv). A direct hit on this complex could cause a disaster. The threat scenario, a term that security officials love to use, predicts extensive damage to the residents of Haifa and the surrounding area (based on estimates by the Shafir Committee, established following the Second Lebanon War). We saw a promo of what could take place in the round of violence a few days ago, when a rocket shot from Gaza hit an oil storage tank belonging to PEI in Ashkelon.

Maybe I shouldn’t be writing this? I don’t want to give our enemies any ideas. But unfortunately, I’m not disclosing any new information here. The writing on the wall has been written and publicized everywhere. The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) estimated in 2019 that Haifa Bay is a preferred target for Hezbollah. Former officials at Rafael published a private opinion in 2017 entitled “Bazan as a Security Risk.” The State Comptroller’s Report for 2016 included comments directed at PEI of faults in their treatment of hazardous materials close to the population. The Comptroller also pointed out to all those involved that government decisions regarding regulation of the company’s operations had not been implemented. In 2007, the Shafir Committee published its report stating that the bay is a barrel of gunpowder waiting to explode, to paraphrase it.

On April 26, the Committee of Directors of Government Ministries recommended evacuating the petrochemical industries from Haifa Bay within “about a decade.” You need to be wearing very pink glasses to be encouraged by this recommendation. In a country when even rigid deadlines turn out to be flexible, there is a concern that the public will not be able to enforce compliance with this distant goal. Furthermore, in addition to the recommendation from the Committee of Directors, a minority opinion was also submitted from the Budget Department of the Finance Ministry, who did not accept the Committee’s conclusions.

Foot-dragging and leaving the dangerous situation in the bay as-is are currently the default response. We cannot allow this to happen. There are solutions that can be implemented immediately in order to prevent the risk to human life. The dangerous facilities should be immediately moved to safer areas, some of which are underground. Alternately, these facilities can be rocket-proofed. In addition, action should be taken to replace all of the types of fuels in the industry to energy from renewable sources. In this way, it would be possible to build an independent energy industry that is almost completely immune to outside damage, and doesn’t emit substances hazardous to humans and to the environment into the air either.

We must not accept the reality to which we have become accustomed, and a prominent example of this is the story of the ammonia tank (removed from the bay after a struggle that took years), in which the owners of the pollution-producing factories controlled their employees like hostages. The transition to sustainable energy requires state and public attention to the plight of the employees as well, to ensure them alternate employment, sponsor professional retraining, and offer other solutions.

Less than a year ago, there was a terrible explosion in the Beirut port, resulting in the deaths of over 200 people; over 6,000 were wounded and about 250,000 were left without a roof over their heads. The reason for the tragedy was the explosion of thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate that was stored negligently. To this day, it is unclear who the cargo belonged to exactly, but what is very clear is who failed: the state of Lebanon. After all, this is one of the most fundamental sections in the contract between citizen and state. The citizen expects the state to protect it and its dependents from bodies or processes from which the individual person cannot defend himself – other countries, entities attempting to harm him, huge corporations that could pollute his environment in order to earn a profit.

Lebanon, to the dismay of its citizens, is a failing country that is incapable of upholding its contract with them. From time to time, we are exposed to the fact that the State of Israel also breaches this contract – allowing situations in which the lives of its citizens are unprotected.

When security and safety measures are ignored, the weak and underprivileged are the first to suffer. In economic terms, there is no one who will argue with the fact that security is a “public product” that the government must provide to it citizens. Privatization of security means that the wealthy could purchase better protection for themselves than those who lack the means, and in some cases, at the expense of those who lack the means. This means that social and economic gaps in Israel could translate into the difference between life or death for some citizens.

This gloomy state of affairs is evident from the list of casualties of the rockets fired by Hamas at Israel during the last round of warfare: a father and daughter in an unfamiliar Arab village; three foreign workers; a disabled man in Ramat Gan. The protection necessary to save their lives was not within their reach. Although the blame for their deaths must not be removed from Hamas, at the same time, the fact that the state failed to protect them should not be hidden either.

The state in which we dream of living puts life and protecting life at the top of its priorities. Promotion of polices based on social justice and environmental justice is the optimal way to build such a state. It is possible and necessary to begin to move the petrochemical industry out of Haifa Bay.

The author is the Co-CEO of the Heschel Center for Sustainability


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