Although local environmental organizations have been critical of the support extended by government agencies to real-estate developments along Israel's Mediterranean coast, preliminary findings of a European Union cross-border project indicate that Israel is doing a good job of protecting its shores.
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A team with participants from Greece, Malta and Spain, as well as Israel, has for a few months been examining development and zoning policy and implementation in coastal areas of Mediterranean countries. Jordan is also involved in the project, even though it does not border the Mediterranean.
The Mediterranean region, in addition to being a prime region for tourism and shipping development, also has among the most densely populated coastlines in the world.
In 1976 the EU adopted the Convention for the protection of the Mediterranean Sea against pollution, known as the Barcelona Convention. The Protocol on Integrated Coastal Zone Management in the Mediterranean entered into force in March 2011 but has not yet been translated into law in every Mediterranean state.
Prof. Rachelle Alterman, who holds the David Azrieli chair in architecture and town planning at the Haifa Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, is the founder and coordinator of the three-year project, called "Mare Nostrum" (Latin for "our sea").
Other Israeli participants include the Haifa Municipality and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.
While acknowledging that the project is in its early stages Alterman says some comparisons between countries in the region is already possible.
"One can say that the protection of the coastline in Israel, from the perspective of planning and construction, is good compared to most of the countries on the Mediterranean, with the possible exception of France," Alterman said.
"In Israel there is a clear delineation of an area 100 meters from the coastline where construction is prohibited," whereas in other countries the standards are vaguer, she says. "There is also better enforcement [in Israel] against illegal building. Israel's performance is even more impressive when you consider that the pressure to develop the coast here is greater than in most countries."
Alterman says illegal coastal construction is widespread in Spain, Turkey and Greece, noting that Greece is under pressure from the EU to regulate development along the coast as part that country's bailout program.
In Israel, Alterman says, the real turning point came nine years ago with the passage of coastal protection legislation. Much of the credit for pushing through the laws goes to Israel's environmental movement, which she says is stronger here than in most Mediterranean states.
Alterman notes, however, that these laws failed to include a provision to retroactively withdraw approval for beach resorts. She says the fact that much of the Israeli coast is publicly owned is an advantage but is critical of the Israel Lands Administration for not stopping such plans, which involve relatively small areas, and compensating the would-be developers.
Environmentalists have said their concerns go beyond projects that have been grandfathered in and include newer plans, such as those to develop the coast in the far north of Tel Aviv.
In his annual report, issued this month, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira said the ILA should reexamine development plans that were approved before the stricter regulations went into effect and stop them from going ahead.
The ILA spokeswoman told Haaretz the agency opposes allowing old plans to go forward for a resort at Nitzanim Beach, between Ashdod and Ashkelon, in the south. With regard to Betzet Beach, in the far north, where plans also predated the coastal protection law, she said the situation is complicated by the fact that a developer was awarded a public tender for the land and has demanded another plot in exchange as compensation.