A single moment on August 28, 2003 secured a place in Israel's pop culture history for Nitzanim beach, when singer Ninette Taib won the final round of "A Star Is Born."
In the three years since then, the beach has become the focus of various battles, including ones between the beach operators and environmentalists.
Nitzanim is undoubtedly one of Israel's most beautiful beaches: 800 meters of fine, white sand, removed from roads and towns. The waterline is marked by piles of shells, the water several hues of blue and turquoise. Low tide reveals pools of shallow, warm water ringed by rocks at the southern edge of the beach, from which white egrets retrieve hapless fish.
Behind the beach is the Nitzanim Sand Dune Park: hundreds of acres of nearly untouched dunes home to a wide variety of plant, animal and bird species.
The design of the beach facilities is minimalist: the parking areas are marked with logs and rope, while the structures on the beach the lifeguard station, canteen and bathrooms are mainly wood. A few wooden beach shades no plastic here dot the sand. Unlike other beaches, there are no tracks from SUVs here.
"I've been at a lot of beaches around the world and this is one of the nicest," says Leah Katz, who came from Lod with her family last week. "But it's terrible that you can't go without paying. It's not just the money, it's the fact that they restrict you."
Indeed, Nitzanim is also one of the country's most expensive, at NIS 35 per family on a weekday and NIS 40 on weekends. Sunshade rental is NIS 5, as is a lounger. To avoid paying, it is possible to park outside the lot and walk 800 meters to the beach, or to attempt to enter via the dunes: not recommended for a passenger car.
The beach operators say the parking fees barely cover expenses, which include the lifeguards, cleaning and security.
The Israel Union for Environmental Defense is currently petitioning the High Court of Justice in a bid to force local governments to allow free access to the beaches in their jurisdiction.
The beach is often closed even to paying customers for private events. The "A Star Is Born" final was just one of many regular events held at Nitzanim. The best known is Boombamela, the Indian-inspired New Age festival, which was held for the ninth time last Passover. It attracted about 40,000 visitors.
Three years ago, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel submitted an administrative appeal in an attempt to stop the private and commercial events at Nitzanim.
SPNI officials sought to use Nitzanim as a test case in its battle for free public access to Israeli beaches.
"The case against Nitzanim was intended to do something about the growing phenomenon of holding events on beaches," explains SPNI's Coastal Campaign Coordinator, Nir Papai. The competition was submitted against the Ashkelon Shore Regional Council and the Nitzanim Beach Forum, which operates the beach for the council. After a long legal back-and-forth, the Be'er Sheva District Court rejected the petition but also blocked the holding of private events on the beach, and kicked the entire matter over to the regional planning committees.
It must be noted that the organizers take pains to restore the beach to its pre-festival cleanliness after each event.
Hezi Abada, one of the owners of the company that operates Nitzanim, says the festivals pay for upkeep of the beach. "Without the events, the [cost of] maintenance, cleaning, lifeguard and the showers would cause an NIS 1 million deficit every year."
"We're also the only ones who can protect the beach from sand thieves," Abada adds. "Since we've been on the beach not a single truckful of sand has been taken from here."
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