Israel volunteers clean the contaminated HaBonim beach, south the port city of Haifa, on 21 February, 2021
Israel volunteers clean the contaminated HaBonim beach, south the port city of Haifa, on 21 February, 2021AFP

Israeli authorities on Sunday warned people to keep away from the country's Mediterranean shore to avoid a massive tar slick, as thousands of labourers and volunteers worked to clean contaminated beaches.

Powerful winds and unusually high waves pummelled Israel's entire Mediterranean coastline over Tuesday and Wednesday, with tonnes of tar staining 160 kilometres (96 miles) of beaches along Israel's Mediterranean coast from Gaza to Lebanon.

The ministries of interior, environmental protection and health urged people to avoid "the beaches for bathing, sport and leisure, until further notice".

"Exposure to tar can risk the public's health," they said in a joint statement.

The tar, which killed many marine creatures, was apparently a result of "dozens to hundreds of tonnes" of oil being unloaded from a ship, according to the environmental protection ministry.

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A massive cleanup operation has been launched involving thousands of volunteers and soldiers on loan from the army.

At the Gador nature reserve between Haifa and Tel Aviv, Nature and Parks Authority ranger Gil Haviv lifted tar debris from the sand, placing them in a garbage bag.

"It's a huge disaster, words can't describe it," he said.

His colleague, ranger Noam Matsri said they must rush to pick up as much of the tar as possible before the weather helped it diffuse into the sand.

"As long as it's cold, it's okay, when it's going to be warm, it's going to stick, it's going to liquify," he said.

Open-water swimmer Melody Cohen said the it was "very depressing, very upsetting to see this type of damage done to our environment".

"What we've seen is only what's on the shores, we still don't know what's going on under the water," she added.

- 'Look to the future' -

On a tour of a beach at the southern city of Ashdod, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the government would allocate funds on Monday to support the cleanup.

Visiting the beach alongside Netanyahu, environmental protection minister Gila Gamliel said cleaning the beaches would cost "tens of millions of shekels" (millions of dollars).

She also noted that Israel planned to sue those responsible -- once they are identified.

"We need to look to the future. This event and similar ones around the world show us how crucial it is to wean ourselves from these polluting fuels, and shift to renewable energy," Gamliel said in remarks relayed by Netanyahu's office.

All but two of Israel's 100 or so public Mediterranean beaches were closed for the winter, with the bathing season due to open on 20 March.

"Our goal is to open the beaches on time," Gamliel said.

The storm not only washed up tar on Israel's Mediterranean shore.

At the Nitzanim beach near the southern city of Ashkelon, the carcass of an almost 17-metre (55 feet) male fin whale was discovered on Thursday.

The Nature and Parks Authority had determined that the decayed state of the whale indicated its death had been some two weeks ago, meaning it could not be related to the tar pollution.

On Sunday, Nature and Parks Authority workers used a tractor and a digger to dig a huge grave in the sandy beach, into which the whale -- of the second-biggest mammal species in the world after the Blue Whale -- was pushed.

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