Checking a boat pier in the south of Lake Kinneret, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel inspector Nissim Asban found the gate he had taken down earlier this year had been replaced by the pier managers.

The removal of the gate had been part of SPNI's public campaign to open the Kinneret beaches to the public and enable pedestrian access around the lake. However, after removing some fences and clearing some paths, efforts now seem to be stalling.

"We took down many fences, but now our efforts have been blocked," he says.

The campaign to open the Kinneret's beaches was launched after the State Comptroller found two years ago that numerous beaches, including public ones, were closed to the public. Regional councils and private individuals had fenced off most of the beaches, and were charging admission.

In addition, some 100 fences had been built along the Kinneret's waterfront, further limiting public access to the lake.

Since then, many fences have been taken down, and the authorities have started laying a path encircling the Kinneret. Courts gave contractors who violated construction laws stiff penalties, and many illegal structures were demolished. But the public did not gain more bathing beaches.

This summer, only about a third of the 56 kilometers of Kinneret beaches is accessible to the public, and most of the beaches charge for admission.

Nir Papai, SPNI's sea and shore preservation coordinator, believes 80 of the 120 fences remain. "We've taken down fences and the state started cleaning up the beaches, but for a while now, nothing has budged," he said. "They talk a lot about doing things, but everything's stuck. I get the impression that they wanted to lift the pressure, and now they're resting."

SPNI activists say the Kinneret path is a means to stake the public's claim in public beaches. So far activists have cleared some 40 kilometers. But people who own lands along the lake have closed these stretches and are blocking passage, even if the waterfront strip is public property.

Litter on the opened beach

It is not easy to walk through those parts of the beach. Last Tuesday on a Kinneret beach north of Tiberias, a group of youths refused to let anyone approach the water. "Get out of here. We're guests of the beach's owner," one of them said, refusing to say who the owner was.

On a nearby beach, some people were having a picnic. "This is a quiet, beautiful place, and it's free. The closed-off beaches charge NIS 60 or NIS 70 for entrance, and there isn't even a lifeguard," said Mussa Abbas.

But at another beach a few hundred meters away, one bather was not pleased. "People broke in here, had barbecues, littered and defecated on the lawn," he said.

Opening the path around the Kinneret has negative consequences as well, admits Asban, the SPNI inspector. "The individuals and companies who operate the beaches are not the bad guys in this story," he says. "They are looking after the Kinneret, while it's the state that should be doing it. Several people have taken over parts of the beach illegally, but these are only a few."

On Passover, the beaches east of the Kinneret, under the jurisdiction of the Golan council, were closed due to a conflict between the council and Israel Lands Administration. Crowds of revelers broke in, and destroyed whatever they could. The vandalism raised gloomy thoughts of what would happen once the beaches were open to the public free of charge.

Jordan Valley Regional Council head Yossi Vardi says, "The council cannot finance the maintenance, security and safety of hundreds of thousands of visitors to the beaches. Our resources are limited," he says.

Vardi is angry at the comparison between the Kinneret beaches and the Mediterranean ones. "A person who goes to the beach in Tel Aviv pays a lot for parking, spends a few hours on the beach and goes home. When a family comes to the Kinneret, they put up a tent on the beach and stay for a few days. That requires cleaning services, water, bathing facilities, security, safety and others. As far as I'm concerned, let the state pay for all that," he says.