Tiberias municipality inaugurated a controversial new city park on Tuesday, in the presence of outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The park incorporates some 15 dunams (just under four acres) of lawns that were planted in contravention of the law, and are being irrigated despite regulations forbidding this. In addition, the lawns were planted in an area where archaeologists say there are antiquities dating back 2,000 years, and the presence of the park will prevent any chance of excavations.

It has been forbidden to plant grass in Israel since August, according to regulations issued by the water authority. As of the beginning of November, it is also forbidden to irrigate public gardens. But the Tiberias municipality, which has a direct view of the shrinking Lake Kinneret, decided a week ago to nevertheless plant lawns in the new park. The Water Authority, for some strange reason, preferred to turn a blind eye. Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra, who was also present at the park's inauguration, said that his ministry is not responsible for the issue of water. "We are approaching winter and hope the level [of water in the Kinneret] will rise," he added.

"The lawns in the park are merely a marginal area of the enormous park, which was planned two years ago, before the water regulations went into effect," a municipal spokesperson said in response. "This is an area that for decades was a waste site, and following extensive development became a heritage and events park, one of the most beautiful in the country. Out of awareness and sensitivity to the water crisis in Israel, we will take steps to apply a process of irrigating all the large areas of gardens, including this park, with recycled sewage water," he added.

An investigation by Haaretz revealed that there is no sewage water recycling plant in the Tiberias area. Moreover, it is forbidden to use water of that kind near the Kinneret for fear that it will interfere with the water quality in the lake.

The park, called "The Tiberias Archaeological Park" and named for deceased Tiberias community leader Ozer "Berko" Berkowitz, is also raising the ire of archaeologists. They say that the park was established in order to make the town's archaeological antiquities accessible to the public, but it has been built over the remains of the very archaeological findings that have yet to be excavated. "They have buried national assets here," said Aharon Amitai, the archaeologist who headed the last season of excavations at the site. "Tiberias was the capital of Jewish culture, and the Mishnah and Talmud were written there. Tiberias was also the last seat of the Sanhedrin, and during the period of the sages the Tiberias Hebrew vowel marks were decided upon," he added.

Amitai added that Prof. Yizhar Hirschfeld of the Hebrew University, who was in charge of the dig at the site until his death two years ago, called the park project "a cultural crime." Hirschfeld's name was not mentioned yesterday at the ceremony, to the displeasure of his archaeological colleagues. "They spoke about archaeology but they forgot the archaeologists," one of them said angrily.

The Israel Antiquities Authority, which supported the project, responded: "Prof Hirschfeld did indeed express opposition to developing the area in the beginning. However, as time went on, he saw the contribution that would be made following the development [of the park] to archaeology and tourism in Tiberias."