Turning the Tide on Insuring Free Access to Lake Kinneret

While stricter enforcement is helping to keep access to the lake open and free, local tourism providers warn that the lack of income will affect the maintenance of local sites

A restaurant in Ein Gev on the shore of the Sea of ​​Galilee. The court demanded that the kibbutz remove structures near the beaches, including part of the restaurant.
A restaurant in Ein Gev on the shore of the Sea of ​​Galilee. The court demanded that the kibbutz remove structures near the beaches, including part of the restaurant. Gil Eliyahu

As soon as Eli Gabbai appeared at one of the beaches of Lake Kinneret last week, employees at the site shifted into gear. One of them, jangling a bunch of keys, rushed to unlock a gate that was restricting access. He and another worker explained that they had to close the place briefly for security reasons but that they now intended to keep it open.

Gabbai is the head of the Environmental Protection Ministry enforcement unit for the area surrounding Lake Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s green jeeps are also common sights these days around the lake. In fact, encounters between enforcement officials and operators of beach facilities have become routine.

Sometimes, the beach operators have to be reminded that they have no right to restrict public access to the beach. Sometimes, dialogue turns into the issuing of warnings, or a court date. The members of Kibbutz Ein Gev can attest to the latter, having been ordered by a court to remove structures on the beach, including parts of their famed fish restaurant and the fences around their beach hotel.

While many people welcome the new stricter enforcement of the law, some residents of communities on the shore say that the level of enforcement unjustifiably harms their quality of life. For example, the disruptions that come together with the presence of hikers and holiday makers near peoples’ homes.

Entry fees decline

For years, communities and businesses around the lake have conducted activities that restricted access to the beaches and have charged entrance fees. But, as a result of a public campaign and new laws mandating free access to the shore, there have been marked changes over the past few years. The local municipal association now operates beaches that are free to pedestrians and have relatively low parking fees. The Kinneret Trail around the lake allows pedestrians to circumnavigate the shoreline on foot; and laws that once applied only to Mediterranean beaches have been extended to Lake Kinneret. The Environmental Protection Ministry has also established a special unit to enforce the laws.

The beach near Kibbutz Degania on the southern shore of the lake, once accessible only to kibbutz members, has now been opened up, and fences around cultivated areas at Kibbutz Ma’agan, on the southwestern side of the lake, have been taken down, says Yitzhak Ben-David, the ministry’s head of enforcement. “We want to open as many beaches as possible and we will consider expropriating private beaches to allow access to them,” he says.

One of the main problems in keeping the shoreline open, according to the Environmental Protection Ministry, is the tendency of local authorities to grant building permits, illegally, for beachfront property. For example, according to the ministry, the Jordan Valley Regional Council’s planning and building committee granted a permit for the Karei Deshe Youth Hostel, near the north side of the lake, to install a fence that illegally restricted public access to the beach. However, Regional Council chairman Idan Greenbaum says that the committee issued the permit based on the opinion of a licensed surveyor and would present its arguments in response to the Environmental Protection Ministry’s appeal to the planning and building committee over the matter.

The ministry says permits for illegal construction are also being granted by local authorities retroactively. For example, the permit issued by the Tiberias planning authorities to install a fence at Coco Hut Beach, which impedes free access.

The Tiberias municipality says that such claims have been checked by its legal advisers and were found to be without merit. “The fence does not block access to the beach on foot. All beaches within the Tiberias city limits are freely accessible to the public, official and nonofficial, at no cost,” a statement by the city said.

In recent weeks, the beach at Kibbutz Ginnosar has been a focus of the ministry’s enforcement activities. The unit says an outdoor events site is being operated illegally and that structures have been installed without permits. A fence had also impeded free access to the beach, but has since been removed.

The beach of Ginossar Hotel on the shore of the Sea of ​​Galilee, April 26, 2017.
Gil Eliyahu

“There are two structures that were built without permits, one of which is the base for a wedding canopy,” says Roni Manor, the manager of the Ginnosar Hotel, the other being is a wooden wet bar. “These are structures that have been in use for many years and, if need be, there’s no problem to remove them. It’s important to note that access to the beach is free.” Manor adds that while the hotel does not have a permit to operate its open-air events site, the hotel has received a legal opinion that the facility could be approved in the framework of “exceptional use.” He added: “If the issue goes to court, we will present this position.”

Regional Council head Greenbaum rejects the claim that the local authorities are not enforcing the law at Ginnosar. If the Environmental Protection Ministry thinks the open-air events site should be closed, it should act accordingly, he says.

Local authorities in lakeside communities and beach operators say they are very concerned about the implications of increased enforcement. Ginnosar’s Manor complained over the difficulties of acting in accordance with the law while still maintaining a viable tourist industry. “Entrance fees pay for maintenance of the beach and services for bathers. Now we won’t be able to finance this maintenance,” he says.

Greenbaum says he welcomes the opening of beaches to the public and the Kinneret Trail. “But unfortunately, on the way to applying the environmental protection laws, they forgot that there are communities that have been here for 80 years and more. Their residents are entitled to quality of life.” Insisting on enforcement, he says, “means that yards and gardens have turned into toilets because of the visitors and lawns have become campgrounds and barbecues.”

Greenbaum says the authorities should show some flexibility when it comes to the needs of lakeside residents and stop what he calls aggressive enforcement. “You have to let people live and make a living. You could move the Kinneret Trail to go around communities. And in the case of Ein Gev, an agreement could be reached with the kibbutz where the recreation village could exist alongside free access to the beach,” he says.

When Greenbaum looks to the northern shore, where a number of churches are located which have international connections, and some have fenced-in guest accommodations, he says: “I don’t see such energetic enforcement over there.”

But ministry enforcement chief Ben-David rejects Greenbaum’s claim, and says that the ministry applies the law equally everywhere, “including local authorities, private beach operators and churches.”

According to Gabbai the ministry doesn’t immediately apply sanctions. “First we try to reach agreements to have fences or structures removed that violate environmental laws. Only when we can’t reach agreements do we move ahead to sending a warning and if need be, an indictment or an order to evacuate the premises.”

Ben-Dor sees the court verdict regarding fences and structures at Ein Gev as an important precedent that will strengthen the ministry in its further enforcement efforts. Results could be seen last week already, when the kibbutz dismantled part of its restaurant structure. But he and his unit have another legal test ahead, because the kibbutz filed an appeal in Nazareth District Court against the order to take down the fences.

The kibbutz argues in the appeal that the need for the fences must be taken into consideration in terms of issues such as tourism and the residents’ property rights, and that these issues must be balanced against the public’s right to free access to the beach.