Campaigns to Save Israel's Beaches May Prove to Be Short-term Victories

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Recent weeks have been particularly stormy for some beaches in central Israel, and not because of the weather. The law on maintaining the coastal environment was supposed to protect the beaches from various construction projects, but it is becoming increasing clear that no Israeli beach is safe from development.

It all started with the Palmahim beach, some 15 kilometers south of Tel Aviv and until recently one of the important environmental success stories of the last few years. Two years ago, local environmental activists, supported by the Environmental Protection Ministry, managed to prevent the construction of what was going to be a 350-room holiday resort built to within 30 meters of the coastline.

But in recent weeks it emerged that the government has still not managed to approve the revised plans for the area, which are supposed to include a new site for the resort village. Now the plans are again going to be placed on the agenda of the central region's Planning and Building Committee. Should the committee decide to approve the plans, it will be necessary to compensate the holiday resort's entrepreneurs, and so far the state has been unwilling to do so. The committee is well aware of this and is therefore liable to go back to the original plans to build the resort village right next to the water line.

It has also become clear recently that the future of municipal beaches in Herzliya and Tel Aviv is far from secure.

In Herzliya, city hall is planning to build a promenade on a segment of the city's central beach where the strip of sand is already very narrow. With the backing of experts, the municipality is vehemently claiming that the promenade will have no major impact on the sandy beach, and will in fact improve access to the beach for residents and visitors. The problem with this assertion is that the beach is not likely to conform to engineering models and expert assessments. Beaches have a strange tendency to go their own way, and when a particularly narrow strip is at stake one would have expected the city to take particular care of it. Yet city hall insists on building the promenade.

Recently, a group of environmental activists in Herzliya petitioned the Tel Aviv District Court against the decision to approve the plans. This week, the court ordered a stop to work on the promenade until further review of the petition.

Also, the bluff overlooking the sea just south of Herzliya sustained heavy damage in the past week when Tel Aviv firefighters decided to train there without bothering to check what effect this would have on the site's many natural and landscape features. They have admitted their error and promised not to repeat it, but the question remains: How is it that not one of those in charge thought to ask about the potential damage to the site ahead of time?

And not far from there, the city of Tel Aviv is planning to expand its beach promenades. The municipality is promoting a project between Gordon Beach and the old Dolphinarium. Plans call for the construction of wooden decks - or, as city hall calls them, "beach balconies" - with seating and stairs going down to structures on the beach, as well as a lower promenade defined as handicapped accessible but also incorporating a bike path.

Last week, city council members Meital Lehavi and Sharon Malki filed an appeal against the Local (Tel Aviv ) Planning and Building Committee's decision to approve the promenade project. One of the central assertions in the appeal is that no analysis to determine whether the project would cause the beach to shrink was carried out.

"A comprehensive analysis must be carried out to make sure that the sands are not significantly affected and that the character of the natural beach isn't damaged," states the appeal. "The plans include the construction of a lower promenade and seating terraces along the promenade at the expense of the sands; no data about the size of the proposed terraces were submitted. The plans for the development of the lower promenade were also not submitted, and the purpose and scope of its use was not made clear: from making the beach handicapped accessible, recognized as a legitimate need, to constructing a bicycle path whose necessity is questionable."

The Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality is calling the appeal a politically motivated attempt to stop the project, without specifying what the motive could be. "The promenade design was analyzed several times before its approval, and all the issues raised in the appeal have been given satisfactory professional answers," stated the city's response.

"As for carrying out an environmental study, this has been provided by the environmental consultant who is working on the project. His conclusions about changes in the shifting sands were that terraces have an advantage over the wall currently in place. We would like to stress that the regional planner at the Environmental Protection Ministry and the [Interior Ministry] Committee for Maintaining the Coastal Environment also approved the plans."

This week also saw some more encouraging news about Israel's beaches, specifically Olga Beach, part of the municipal area of Hadera, a city of some 84,000 roughly halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. After a protracted legal battle, personnel from the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Israel Lands Administration tore down two restaurants illegally built on the beach and restored the area to public use.

A third restaurant, also illegally constructed, remains on the shore, but recently the Supreme Court rejected the owner's request to prevent its demolition. This week the Environmental Protection Ministry announced it would be torn down at the beginning of next month.

Palmahim beach may not have escaped the real estate sharks.Credit: Ilan Assayag

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