Crude oil streams through the desert in southern Israel, near the village of Be’er Ora, north of Eilat on Dec. 4, 2014. Millions of liters of crude oil have bubbled up from a broken pipeline to flood 200 acres of a desert nature reserve. (Stringer/Reuters)

Crews swaddled in white biohazard suits have been dunking nozzles into streams of oil, racing to soak up the ooze seeping into the desert valley floor here, two weeks after a major spill threatened one of Israel’s most precious habitats.

Officials are calling it the worst environmental disaster in the nation’s history — a literal blot on a landscape that harbors some of the hardiest known plants and animals, which live in an impossibly difficult environment.

The spill is bad news for the brown babbler, the Balochistan gerbil and the striped hyena, all denizens of the acacia savanna, which is already stressed, having to make do with an inch or so of rain a year and daytime summer temperatures that average 104 degrees.

On Dec. 4, a pipeline that carries oil between Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba and Ashkelon on the Mediterranean Sea burst. The company that operates the pipeline says it does not know what caused the breach. The Israeli Environmental Protection Ministry’s “Green Police” are investigating.

Five million liters — about 1.3 million gallons — gushed from the buried pipe, bubbled up to the surface and crossed Highway 90 like a black river at high flood.

Rivulets of crude from an oil pipeline that was breached during maintenance work creep across the desert in southern Israel on Dec. 4, 2014. (Israeli Enviromental Protection Minstry /European Pressphoto Agency)

The oil then snaked in hundreds of rivulets across the Evrona Nature Reserve, slowly flowing downhill through the dry wadis and streambeds into the very heart of the preserve.

Photographs taken from drones and helicopters show dark capillaries on yellow sand. And at the center of it all are the acacia trees, the keystone species giving life to everything else in this unfriendly terrain.

Researchers at the nearby Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, who have begun to monitor the effect of the spill, report that small animals, such as the short-fingered gecko, were initially “drowning in the oil, unable to escape.”

Desperate Israeli park rangers have tried to scare birds away from the site to keep them from getting coated with crude. The rangers have collected acacia seeds that fell into the oil so that animals will not eat them.

The reserve has been closed to visitors, in part to protect them from noxious fumes.

Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu toured the spill area last week. “There’s a series of actions that need to be done, and we’ll allocate the funds necessary for saving the site, which is a precious jewel of our country,” he told reporters.

Work crews have hauled away thousands of tons of contaminated soil, but scientists want to limit the use of bulldozers and other heavy equipment in the preserve, concerned that they could make things worse.

Environmentalists initially feared that rains last week would be heavy enough to wash the oil 12 miles down to the seaside city of Eilat, which boasts some of the northernmost coral reefs in the world. As it turned out, the rains were not torrential, and a hastily constructed earthen dam stopped the oil from moving farther south.

The magic and the curse of this place is the dearth of precipitation and the high rate of evaporation — it is hyperarid.

“Nothing is supposed to grow here. It is too dry,” said Elli Groner, an ecologist at the Arava Institute. “It is an incredibly fragile ecosystem where life is just clinging to the edge.”

What gives life are the rare floods, which allow groundwater to collect, a drop here and there between grains of sand, just a few meters below the surface.

The groundwater collects at the center of the preserve, which is where the acacia trees grow. “Which is exactly where the oil flowed,” Groner said.

The trees provide food, refuge and habitat. Birds eat the seeds and grab the insects. The sandy soil beneath the branches is marked with paw prints left by foxes, hyenas and the caracal, a desert lynx. Gazelles use the trees for shade and browsing.

The fear is that the oil may suffocate the roots of hundreds of these acacia trees, or poison them, causing a collapse in the system. The trees are already under stress, with the climate having grown steadily drier over the past half-century and road construction and agriculture — based on pumping water from aquifers too deep for the acacias to tap — having subtly altered the streambeds. The spill may be a final insult.

Scholars are not sure whether the acacia trees will survive. Nobody has run this experiment before.