The public campaign against a plan to build a resort at Palmahim beach won a major victory yesterday when the State Comptroller's Office released a report blasting the way the project's permit and tender were handled. The comptroller recommended that the Israel Lands Administration cancel the plan altogether.
Early this year, a group of young activists converged at Palmahim to wage their own struggle to stop the construction of a holiday resort slated for the beach, located in Gan Raveh Regional Council on the coastal plain south of Tel Aviv.
They said not only had there been serious flaws in the project's authorization, but a resort would harm a unique national treasure. Until yesterday their entreaties seemed to have fallen on deaf ears, for the most part.
But the report by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, which was devoted exclusively to the Palmahim project, found many failings in the authorization process and recommended that the preliminary permits already issued be reconsidered. "It seems this is one of the starkest cases of the public interest demanding an additional look at the decisions made," the report said.
In the wake of the report, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan said he would ask the ILA's director to cancel the project, which would include 350 guest units.
The authorization process began in 2000, and three years later a land tender was offered to two development companies, Maoz Daniel and the Evelon group.
The activists began their battle against the project last year. One of them, Adi Lustig, said it was unacceptable that a beach with such tremendous public importance could be handed over to a group of private entrepreneurs without the public's knowledge. "This beach is one of the most important things in my life," she said. "Everyday I come here to see the sunset."
While the activists raised awareness of the issue, Ophir Pines-Paz - then-chairman of the Knesset Interior and Environmental Committee - asked the state comptroller to examine the process by which permits for the resort were issued.
Yesterday's report not only recommends that the project be canceled, but that the state comptroller's findings be handed to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz for further examination.
At the center of the report is the beach's status as a national treasure and concerns that Palmahim's fate could be followed by other natural treasures nationwide. Lindenstrauss lambastes both the ILA and planning authorities for failing to do enough to preserve the beach as a national asset.
In late 2003, the report says, the ILA rushed to offer a tender for the property, shortly before the law for preserving coastal areas went into effect. Lindenstrauss' report also refers to an internal ILA memo in which the deputy tender director is quoted as saying, "Please transfer all the material for an immediate tender - the beach law is going to be passed in the coming days."
The comptroller noted that the law stipulates that coastal construction may be authorized only if it is done in a manner that would limit damage to the coastal environment. "Even though the law went into effect just after the land tender was held and the winning bid chosen, it would have been fitting for the director to consider the principles of the law," Lindenstrauss wrote.
In response, the ILA said, "We believe that the report does not cite serious flaws [in the permit process] that justify it being filed to the attorney general. Nonetheless, the director will consider how to deal further with the matter."
The ILA director must now decide whether to let the developers go ahead with their project, or to consider offering them an alternative site elsewhere.
The developers said their initiative was aimed first and foremost at offering the public a pleasurable resort experience. "The project was launched several years ago with the goodwill and initiative of state authorities and Gan Raveh Regional Council for the purpose of promoting tourism in Israel," they said in a statement.
"The project was planned in such a way as to be integrated into the coastal area, and to allow accessibility to the wider public. The developers understand and respect the importance of preserving the country's beaches and nature, as well as free access for all citizens to recreation spots in the area."
Pines-Paz said yesterday he viewed the report with the utmost seriousness, and believes the matter should be handled by the attorney general and the police. He called on the government to "cancel this dark deal for putting up a resort."
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