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We Shall Fight for the Beaches

It wasn't so long ago that Israel's beaches were safe, accessible areas - apart from nuisances like racket balls whizzing by people's ears and jellyfish getting too close to the shore. However, that state of affairs is becoming increasingly rare with ongoing violations of protective laws.

It wasn't so long ago that Israel's beaches were safe, accessible areas - apart from nuisances like racket balls whizzing by people's ears and jellyfish getting too close to the shore. However, that state of affairs is becoming increasingly rare with the ongoing violations of all the laws and regulations intended to protect the public areas of the country's coastline.

About five years ago, the Knesset enacted a law prohibiting vehicles from entering the shoreline area, a strip extending about 100 meters from the waterline. The law was supposed to be enforced primarily by the relevant local governments. Nevertheless, Israel's beaches continued to be wantonly abandoned to vehicles of all sorts, mainly all-terrain vehicles. The phenomenon is most prevalent on the beaches beyond the urban areas, but exists on the beaches of North Tel Aviv. Vehicles travel on the beach between the bathers. As they move to and from the beach, these vehicles destroy the cliffs, some of which are also being laid waste by extensive construction along the beaches.

The local governments and the Interior Ministry are well aware of what is going on but they take little action. Inspectors are rare on the beaches, and the few efforts that have been made to prevent vehicles from entering beach areas have ended in failure. The Tel Aviv Municipality set up a row of boulders to stop vehicles from entering but the drivers soon moved them and continue to trample the beach and the law.

Not long ago, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense sent a letter to the interior minister, reminding him of his duty to enforce the law, but the Interior Ministry has already received several similar requests and reminders, which , so far, have had no effect.

A newer phenomenon that is becoming increasingly widespread is the closing of sections of beachfront for many hours in order to hold performances by singers and for private family affairs. This has become common practice on a number of beaches, notably Mikhmoret near Haifa and Nitsanim near Ashkelon. The operators of the beaches maintain that they did not prevent free access to the beach while these events were in progress; but it is far from clear how a visitor can enter a fenced-off area without an invitation or without paying a high price for a ticket to see a show of some kind.

Illegal construction also continues to eat away at the beaches. A kiosk towering four stories high - without exaggeration, this is one of the world's biggest kiosks - has been built on the beach at Ashdod. Construction in this case deviated by hundreds of percent from the permit the contractor received. The structure was ordered demolished a year-and-a-half ago, but in the meantime, it is still there. The court is due to consider the request of the owner of the "kiosk" for a two-year extension so that he can obtain the permits he needs for what he built.

A representative of the Interior Ministry suggested that the structure be okayed retroactively and that the top floor be considered a "technical story." (The official later released a clarification stating that he had not intended to intervene in judicial proceedings.)

Given the impotence of the law enforcement agencies, the green organizations, with their meager resources, have become almost the only ones trying to stop the elimination of Israel's public beaches. Recently they obtained an important judgment from the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court declaring that parts of the "Sea and Sun" project in Tel Aviv, which were established in an area where construction is prohibited, have to be demolished.

The Interior Ministry and the local governments, who should be doing the work, do not appear to attach much importance to the public's right of free access to the beaches or to the need to prevent illegal construction on them. Indeed, some local governments actually encourage the holding of privately organized events on their beaches. About a month ago, Ehud Reich, the director-general of the public body that runs the Ashkelon beach (which answers to the Hof Ashkelon Regional Council), asked the Israel Lands Administration to cooperate with him against the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which has gone to court against the closing of the beach for these private events. Reich praised these events, saying they "bring joy to the people of Israel."

The environmental protection groups are now lobbying for the Protection of Beaches bill, which has already passed its first reading in the Knesset, and which, they say, will prove more effective than the laws now on the books. However, the main problem is not a shortage of laws but a worrying shortage of law enforcers.