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Beaches were officially opened to the public for bathing yesterday with data suggesting a certain drop in pollution levels and rise in cleanliness of beaches, but not near Haifa Bay, where industrialization and urbanization still present a problem.

Two other issues facing public beaches are plans to build near or on them, and the lack of free access to the public.

Currently there are plans for three tourist villages close to Betzet, Palmahim and Nitzanim beaches - three of the most beautiful and unique sections of Mediterranean coastline, in terms of natural life.

Construction is not planned on the beaches themselves, but environmentalists argue that the projects will restrict access to the public and damage nature and the landscape.

The program at the earliest stage is that of Palmahim. The persons initiating the project are still awaiting the attorney general's legal opinion on the findings of the state comptroller, who argued that the approval was flawed and there are grounds to consider canceling the initiative.

Pollution continues to plague beaches, mostly in the area between Haifa Bay and Acre. A joint Arab-Jewish group in Acre, Green Cell, is organizing beach clean-ups while lobbying for the closure of a pipeline from which industrial refuse is pumped to the sea. "The beach had industrial waste that we collected and recycled, and there is also garbage left behind by fishermen that endangers wildlife - including nets and hooks," says Ilan Suisa-Green of Green Cell.

"We are based on Jewish-Arab cooperation because we pollute together and we need to clean up together," he explained.

Cost and access remain issues on some of the most desirable and beautiful beaches, even though efforts are made to provide free access to the public. Nature preservation groups have embarked on a legal campaign to overturn the practice of charging for access to beaches.

The Israel Union for Environmental Defense says that in at least four cases fees are charged contrary to Interior Ministry regulations. In a letter to the ministry the organization noted that dozens of residents of Ashkelon and its environs complained that the beaches of Zikim and Nitzanim lack the facilities that would justify paying a fee for access - such as lavatories, showers and life guards.

Moreover, Interior Ministry regulations state that in an area where access to a beach comes at a price, another organized beach area will be set up that will be free of charge.

The head of the Ashkelon Coast regional council, Yair Farjun, who campaigned for the preservation of the area, says that "when I was with the SPNI we had to charge fees. It is necessary if we are to preserve the beach and keep it clean."