Whaling is illegal in Israel and off of Israel’s coast.According to tradition, a whale off the coast of Israel swallowed the biblical prophet Jonah and by doing so, miraculously saved his life. That was thousands of years ago, but it seems Israelis are eager to repay the favor.

At a fateful vote which took place at this month’s International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in St. Kitts and Nevis, Israel supported other anti-whaling nations such as the United States and The Netherlands in their campaign to divest from Japanese efforts to resume commercial whaling.

“The Israel position on whaling is clear. Whaling is illegal in Israel and off of Israel’s coast. We were bringing our position to the international fora,” explained Mark Regev, spokesperson for the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

“Israel has a very strong commitment to environmental matters. We’ve got a ministry for environmental affairs whose full-time job it is to make sure the environment is looked after. Whaling is illegal in Israel and when we go to the international fora, we are making those opinions known. That’s why on the whaling issue we lined up with those who believe whales should be protected,” he told ISRAEL21c.

The votes were placed by Esther Efrat, the head of the treaty division at the Foreign Ministry and they were significant.

“Israel’s vote didn’t tip the scales in all directions, but it certainly helped on some of the most important issues,” says Merav Datan, a lawyer and the Greenpeace International political adviser for the region. “The votes did generally go the way we had hoped and Israel?s participation helped pass five out of six resolutions in the way Greenpeace and other conservationists would have chosen,” she told ISRAEL21c.

By 1982, it was already clear that after centuries of whaling, the large mammals were at the brink of extinction. That year, the IWC made a decision that catch limits for all commercial whaling would be set to zero. The law came into effect by 1986, but countries such as Norway and Japan continued whaling. Except for small hunting allowances set aside for indigenous Greenlanders and Alaskan Eskimos, countries such as Japan, Norway and the former USSR have hunted more than 17,000 Minke, Sperm and Brydes whales since then.

According to reports, Japan has been whaling under the guise of scientific research and Norwegian whalers have been flat-out ignoring the zero-kill limit.

Earlier this year, an alert was sent by the US government representatives to Israel’s Foreign Ministry urging Israel to join the US against the commercial whaling industry that Japan and its supporters are planning to resume, albeit legally. The vote was polarized and thus every extra vote would count. At the beginning of June, Israel became the 70th country to join the IWC, paving the way for the critical support in the votes.

One of the defeated measures would have allowed commercial hunting of 150 Minke and 150 Byrde whales in each country’s own territorial waters. It was defeated 31-30. Another motion defeated would have removed the prohibition on hunting dolphins and porpoises. According to a report in The Jerusalem Post, Japan and supporters did manage to pass a symbolic resolution saying the commercial hunting moratorium was temporary and unnecessary.

But Japan’s credibility has been seriously questioned. Groups such IMMRAC (Israel Marine Mammal Research & Assistance Center) and Greenpeace confirm media reports that Japan had been vote-buying from countries in dire need of development aid. These are countries with zero-interest in the whaling industry, some of which are land-locked.

Previous attempts to revive commercial whaling by Japan, Norway and Iceland were defeated in 2005 in Korea, reports indicate, but since then both sides have engaged in intense lobbying to build support at the annual IWC meeting. The IWC is an international organization dedicated to protecting the world’s largest mammals. Since 1986, it has banned whaling for all but scientific purposes. Countries such as Japan and Iceland have used this exception to continue hunting whales, by selling the meat after conducting the most basic of scientific tests.

Israel has no whaling industry per say, but its involvement with the IWC is expected to position Israel as a marine conservation leader for the Mediterranean Sea.

“Israel is paying more attention to environmental issues at the international level and this is meaningful,” says Datan, while pointing to the country’s own non-profit organization IMMRAC devoted to preserving cetaceans such as whales, dolphins and porpoises.

It was IMMRAC’s Drs Dan Kerem and Oz Goffman who ultimately gave the endorsement for Israel’s participation at the IWC. They concluded that there is no reason why Israel should not join the commission for the purpose of voting on this important issue.

Mia Elasar, a committee member at IMMRAC told ISRAEL21c that she hopes Israel’s participation will mean the country will put its heart into local issues, such as those addressed by ACCOBAMS (Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area).

“The recent vote against whaling is expected to put Israel on the local map. It shows us that there is a place to really vote for preserving Mediterranean marine mammals,? says Elasar, who hopes Israel will take the reigns and lead awareness to marine conservation.

“There [at ACCOBAMS] we can really make an impact. This authority will affect seals and dolphins, which are a threatened species in the Mediterranean more because of fishing and less of hunting.”

“There are whales in the Mediterranean,” Elasar confirms. “There are six species to be found off the Israeli coast. The main problem with conservation of marine mammals is that their reproductive rates are slow. What we are doing now we will only get back in 10 or 20 years. The animals will disappear if we don’t watch it.”

The Mediterranean is an intercontinental sea located between Europe, Africa and Asia. Marine life has become increasingly threatened by habitat degradation mostly due to fisheries, ship traffic, and pollution. According to the World Wildlife Federation, the Mediterranean Sea is home to the world’s second highest percentage of endemic species, including the Posidonia sea grass and the critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal. Species also include 28 cetaceans, the 100-million year old loggerhead turtle, and the commercially important blue-fin tuna and swordfish. But currently, less than 1% of the Mediterranean is protected.

What are Israel’s plans? Together with organizations such as IMMRAC, Greenpeace is bidding to make a giant international park out of the world’s marine waters. “We want to make 40 percent of all the Mediterranean into a network of marine reserves,” says Datan. “That would mean no take zones for fishing and no mining or extraction of resources in specified areas.”

Further East, Japan plans to go ahead and kill 50 humpback whales in 2007 and 2008.

“We need some champions to take the lead and there is no reason why Israel couldn’t be one of those champions,” notes Datan who agrees that Greenpeace in Israel is more than just about whales.

Canvassers for Greenpeace can be found bobbing up and down Tel Aviv’s trendy Sheinkin streets and in Jerusalem at the busy Zion Square. This year, Greenpeace is promoting ocean conservation through a “Defending Our Oceans” tour. In addition, the famous Rainbow Warrior ship is expected to visit Israel in August.