Crusader Castle Closed to All but Navy Frogmen

Avi Shmoul
Avi Shmoul

The Naval Commando unit stationed at Atlit is building on the water line, in direct contravention of Interior Ministry regulations that expressly forbid construction within 100 meters of the water line.

And not only is the army building on the water line, but its base at Atlit includes what is considered to be the world's best preserved Crusader castle, an 8,000-year-old Neolithic fishing village, and the only natural bay in the country other than Haifa's - and for security reasons, these are accessible only by the troops stationed at the base. And they use the castle, which was never conquered, and thus remains in pristine condition, for unit parties.

Green activist groups are fully aware of the Israel Defense Forces' violations of environmental regulations, as is the Israel Lands Administration, which technically owns the naval base land, near Atlit.

"We're a state with security problems, which can't force the defense establishment to make public the material connected to the construction," says Eli Ben-Ari, a lawyer affiliated with the Israeli Union for Environmental Defense. "Israeli law doesn't seem to cover the army, and the campaign is doomed, due to lack of information. Even the new law for the protection of the coasts, which is supposed to protect nature, includes a clause that prevents enforcement of the law on security facilities."

A senior officials in the Society for the Protection of Nature says that "the main problem is the army operates without any supervision when it comes to construction. We hired an expert and reached the conclusion that the construction will harm the environment and the vital principle of not building along the water line. The army made us sign statements that prevent us from revealing the information we had access to, so we are not even able to talk about it. Everyone involved agrees that the building could go up somewhere else that is not on the water line, but nothing can be done to the army. It's above the law."

At Kibbutz Neveh Yam, which has been planning a tourist facility near the army construction, they feel impotent. "The construction could be a disaster for our ability to develop tourism," said a source in the kibbutz secretariat.

"They're adding facilities in an illegal fashion, without giving us the fair chance to respond. We can only assume something's irregular. For all we know, we shouldn't have hired an architect to prepare the plans for a facility that could be rendered off limits for tourists by the army's facility," the source said.

The country's zoning and construction laws do not apply to army bases and allow construction on the water line without any restrictions, as long as it is the army that's doing the building. The IDF can trample environmental regulations without any government or public agency able to stop it. Formally, army construction requires the approval of a special tripartite committee, including a representative of the ILA, the defense establishment and the Interior Ministry. But the army can declare that the committee not convene, after receiving authorization to build a base.

In the past, the IDF damaged the castle but the subject was silenced. The army used the castle for private affairs by members of the veterans of the naval commando, with their families getting special permission to spend weekends at the base, including use of the private beach and an old stone house owned by the Antiquities Authority.

"Atlit Bay and the area of the castle are the responsibility of the Antiquities Authority and are designated nature preserves," says Ehud Galili, head of the underwater archaeological unit in the Antiquities Authority. "We're trying to build a positive relationship with the army, to set up some kind of supervisory mechanism, so the army takes care of repairing the damage. So, for example, when they decided to build a shed near the castle, which would hide the area from the public, it was done without the tripartite committee's approval. And nothing could be done about it."

"There's no reason in the world why the fence at the castle shouldn't be moved 400 meters south, since they aren't using the castle itself. And their claims of `field security' are absurd, since any foreigner could simply rent a house in Atlit and look into the area, the same way it can be done from the castle," he said.

The only group that is trying to negotiate with the army to prevent the construction is a non-profit organization called Blue and Green, with a membership of residents from the Carmel coast area who want to preserve nature in the area. They wrote to the Navy Commander a year ago and complained about the construction of permanent facilities at the base. But that got no results. "For years people believed the IDF would preserve the environment," said Giora Shaham, an Atlit resident who belongs to Blue and Green. "But it turns out that ambiguous immunity didn't give the IDF protection from mistakes. It's too bad the defense establishment can't be put under systematic supervision."

The Defense Ministry and the IDF spokesmen refused to comment, as did the ILA. The Interior Ministry said that the issue is a matter for local authorities. Atlit Mayor Shaul Shamai did not comment. The Environment Ministry also remained silent.

The base, with its various natural assets, includes a castle built in 1217 that is considered the largest of the Crusader castles built on the coast. It was totally preserved because it was never defeated by the Muslims.

A dozen meters underwater in the natural bay at the Atlit base is an 8,000-year-old neolithic village where 65 skeletons have been found along with a water well.

North of the castle there's a small Phoenician port, including breakwaters and floors, also considered among the best-preserved in the Mediterranean. And on the beach itself there are salt-drying quarries dating back 2,500 years.

"This is one of the most beautiful sites in the country," says Galili. "But it's been taken from the public, which isn't even aware of the quality archaeology that's in the hands of the army, without supervision. Under the castle, for example, is an entire defense system, full of tunnels that the knights could ride their horses through. Opening the castle to the public could make Atlit a world-class tourist attraction."

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