The environmental activists can barely catch their breath. Last week, they blocked the construction of a vacation village at Palmahim beach, with the government finding it should reexamine the plan. But building plans are threatening elsewhere, from Betzet in the Western Galilee to Nitzanim near Ashkelon. Activists, gird your loins!

The status of the country's beaches changed significantly six years ago with the passage of the law for preserving the shore environment. It restricts building on a strip 300 meters wide along the water line. To implement this, a national planning committee for preserving the shore was set up, known for short in Hebrew as the Volhof. It's impossible to advance any plan without its approval. But the law does not apply to construction approved before it came into effect.

"Ever since the Volhof started taking action, no additional large building plans, like new vacation villages or marinas, have been approved, says Moshe Perlmutter, the shore preservation coordinator at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. "The committee not only stops large real estate developers, but also puts into plans it approves changes aimed at protecting the environment."

The Volhof has approved some controversial projects, including that near Habonim beach for conveniences and a restaurant. There is broad agreement, however, among the environmental organizations that the shores of the Mediterranean, the Sea of Galilee and the Bay of Eilat are more protected than they were before the law was passed.

In most of those plans approved before the law was passed, state or local authorities are the promoters. They can cancel plans and compensate contractors who already bought land, as the government is considering doing at Palmahim.

Where thousands swim

North of Nahariya is the beautiful beach of the Betzet Creek estuary, which attracts thousands of swimmers. In 1992, a large plan was approved for the site for three vacation villages of more than 1,000 rooms, a small lake and an amusement park. The initiator was the Mateh Asher regional council. (At Palmahim, the initiative came from the Gan Raveh regional council. ) In an Israel Lands Administration tender, the land was won by Macpell Industries.

When it became clear to the environmental organizations and the area's inhabitants that the idea was to build the vacation village, there was a public outcry and an attempt to have the government revoke the tender.

The SPNI says: "Betzet beach constitutes a unique pearl of nature and it is rich in nature and landscape values. Building vacation villages would damage the unique nature values as well as the public's right to a free and open beach."

The developers of the vacation village at Palmahim are suing to implement their plan where it was approved; at Betzet the developers tried to reach a deal with the ILA to for alternative land, so far unsuccessfully.

"Since the land exchange deal is stuck, the developers recently submitted a request to build a fence to take possession of the land," says Yohanan Darom of SPNI. "We made it clear to them that it's our intention to fight the implementation of the building plan in every way possible." Yehuda Shavit, head of the Mateh Asher council, says: "We are continuing to support this plan, because it can help us develop tourism in the region." Shavit says it will bring in tourist groups beyond the capacity of local bed-and-breakfasts. The construction will not be on the beach itself, he says, "and of course it has to be done with consideration for the environment."

Balancing business and nature

The Tourism Ministry responded that the Betzet plan accords with a development policy balancing tourism needs and the preservation of the seashore as a natural resource accessible to the public, because it does not permit construction on a 100-meter-wide strip along the beach.

South of Betzet, on the northern edge of Nahariya, there is a building plan (approved before the shore law ) for private homes close to the shore. Concerned greens are tracking moves by the developers. Apparently, they are going to build.

In the southwestern part of the Old City of Acre (which has been declared a World Heritage Site ), the ILA has been trying to promote the South Acre Beach plan for years. It includes drying out a slice of the sea, thousands of housing units, hotel rooms and vacation apartments and a new marina.

The Acre municipality doesn't think this is the right way to develop the city's beaches and backs a different plan, one the SPNI supports. "The municipality's plan proposes drying up a smaller area of the sea, to the line where the shore reached in the past," says SPNI's Yehuda Darom. "There's less construction here, an ordinary swimming beach and a promenade for pedestrians."

In Haifa, a partly implemented plan engendered the notorious Hof Hacarmel building, which many city inhabitants see as a symbol of the construction destroying the beauty of the shoreline. Criticism grew when it became known the building was not being used for tourism but as a residential project. Part of that is still awaiting construction. Now the environmental organizations support a transfer of the building rights to a nearby area that until recently was used by the defense establishment.

Netanya is to see construction of hotel right beside the water, and in Bat Yam, there's a residential building plan for the cliff overlooking the beach, on the border with Tel Aviv.

"In the case of Netanya we are arguing that the granting of building permits should be stopped until an examination by the regional planning and building council is completed," says Perlmutter.

The environmental organizations want to see comprehensive action with regard to building plans approved many years ago - when there was no awareness of the importance of shore conservation.

Eli Ben Ari, a lawyer with the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, says it has a draft law for the planning organizations to reevaluate unimplemented building plans that were approved more than eight years ago. But the Interior Ministry is opposed, he says.

Ben Ari says that legally the planning bodies are entitled to reexamine old building plans on the beaches. "They can use the same principles that were the basis for the government's decision in the matter of Palmahim." There, too, a long time elapsed since the plan was approved, and meanwhile circumstances changed.

The beaches, he says, are a resource in which there is much public interest in preservation. He adds: "Incidentally, I am not convinced there will be a need to cancel a lot of plans, but only a few."

Moving on to Nitzanim

The next big struggle? The greens are looking at Nitzanim beach, north of Ashkelon. Next to the beach a 650- room vacation village is slated to rise. It was approved after the shore preservation law went into effect, in a special master plan for the Nitzanim area. The approval process is underway in the planning committees.

In this case it is not a question of protecting the beach itself but rather of preserving the spectacular sand dunes surrounding it, the last remaining part of the dunes that once stretched along the shore from Tel Aviv to Gaza.

"This plan is an historical planning mistake," says Perlmutter. "Construction in the middle of the dunes area will entirely change the area's character and cut off an important ecological corridor."

The Interior Ministry says the master plan for the Nitzanim area maintains balance between the areas slated for development and the preservation of nature values with part of the area defined as a new nature reserve.

The vacation village, it says, is located between an abandoned quarry, where groundwater lakes have formed, and the seashore. This is an area where the ecological system has already been damaged.

The ministry says: "A road and infrastructures already exist there, and therefore building the village will not require construction of additional infrastructures. In any case, there is still a need for the submission of detailed plans for building the village and it will be built in stages."