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Israeli courts have not mobilized in a consistent and determined way to protect the coast from illegal construction and restriction of public access. But several recent judicial rulings offer hope that the trend may be changing, and this should be encouraged. One of these rulings was a decision by the Haifa Magistrate's Court last month to cancel a plea bargain that would have approved unauthorized construction on the shoreline.

The case involved the indictment of a developer for illegally building a restaurant on Aqueduct Beach in Caesarea. The construction is on land that belongs to the Caesarea Development Company, which was also indicted in the case.

Under the plea arrangement presented to Judge Daniel Fisch, the defendants would admit to some of the charges. In return, the state would freeze demolition orders against some of the structures and the defendants would be given a period of time to obtain the required planning permits for the structures. The justification for the plea bargain was that the restaurant's operation helped to finance services on the beach and keep away hoodlums and drug addicts.

Fisch rejected the plea arrangement, saying it was contrary to the public interest of protecting the seashore. "The beach is supposed to serve the public by keeping the seashore free of construction and obstacles," he wrote in his ruling. "Only a few types of construction are allowed, which does not include expansive construction, and certainly not restaurants that take up hundreds of meters of land."

The judge said that all of the authorities involved in the matter, including the planning boards, violated the law over a number of years in regard to the construction on the beach in Caesarea. Instead of protecting the public's assets, they turned a blind eye or encouraged illegal construction. The judge ordered that all of the illegally constructed buildings be taken down by November.

A month ago, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the builders of the Makom Bayam wedding hall on the Hadera shore. The developers were appealing a Haifa District Court ruling that ordered the illegally-built wedding hall to shut down.

Justice Salim Joubran said that the developers had built a large dance floor, parking lot and access road while fully aware that they lacked the required permits; the building permit they had received did not cover the construction they actually carried out. "In light of the serious damage to the shore environment and the blatant contempt for the planning and construction laws, as well as the need for enforcement in this area, we reached the conclusion that there was no cause to intervene in the District Court's ruling," Joubran wrote in his decision.

The encouraging tidings from the two courts join previous legal rulings that reflect a desire to stop exploitation of the seacoast for private purposes. However, the judicial and enforcement systems are still far from pursuing an effective and consistent policy of protecting the beaches.

In Ashdod, there is still a giant kiosk, part of which was illegally constructed, and in Nitzanim, the beach is still being used for festivals and other events. The Interior Ministry's Planning Authority says there is still no judicial ruling on the legal status of the structures built for these events in Nitzanim.

The public must still fight for the fundamental right to freely walk on the beach. Last week, activists from the Migama Yeroka environmental group walked around the Sea of Galilee, checking whether there was free access to the lakeshore. At the Hof Hagai Hotel in Tiberias, guards prevented them from entering, despite the hotel's commitment (in its approved building plans) to free access.

It was only after the environmental activists insisted and with a hotel manager's intervention that they were allowed to enter the beach that is supposed to belong to the general public. "This is a well-known trick by business owners," the Migama Yeroka activists said. "They forget to explain the law to their guards and they don't allow entry to the beach. Usually, people are not interested in getting into a confrontation and they give up, or they enter after being forced to pay a fee."