The remains of the Atlit fortress south of Haifa are among the most significant historical and archaeological sites on the country's coast, and the adjoining beach is an important ecological area. However, the fortress, which has been defined as a national park, and the beach - ostensibly a nature reserve - are closed to the public because they are part of a closed military zone.
The Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority and the Hof Hacarmel regional council, within whose area the fortress is located, decided recently to renew their efforts to open the site to the public, with the assistance of MK Ilan Shalgi (Shinui). They are also creating a public committee to promote the scheme and hope to enlist the support of Ami Ayalon, former commander of the navy and of its elite commando unit. The objective: to open the fortress and beach to visitors and eventually make the entire area a public one.
"Every time I drive past the area I looked at this amazing fortress, and thought about the fact that access is barred to the public," Shalgi said. "Recently I decided to look into the matter and see if something can be done about it. The reason was not only to gain public access, but also to ensure that the fortress is preserved and properly maintained."
Earlier this month, Shalgi, who served briefly as environment minister some months ago, visited Atlit in coordination with the Israel Defense Forces. He was escorted by two naval officers whose units train in the area. Representatives of the Israel Antiquities Authority and of the parks authority joined the tour.
Dating from the 12th century, the Atlit fortress was the last Crusader stronghold to be conquered in the land of Israel. It was captured by the Muslims in 1291, when its last defenders fled to Cyprus. Built on a strip of land jutting out onto the bay, the structure features an elaborate system of fortifications, including a 16-meter-high wall and an internal wall with two towers. Parts of the walls and towers have survived, as well as the largest crusader cemetery in Israel.
"Near the fortress is an 8,000-year-old Neolithic village, which is buried under the sea, because the shoreline was once further to the west," says Yigal Wiener, director of the parks authority's northern district. "This is a particularly interesting diving site. The beach area is designated as a nature reserve, and it is one of the most important nesting sites for sea turtles and has a large concentration of water fowl. Not only the fortress, but the beach area and prehistoric village also can only be accessed if coordinated with the military."
The Atlit fortress is not the only piece of the shoreline that has been "occupied" by the army.
The Palmahim beach and parts of the coasts in the Ashkelon and Zikim areas are also under military control, but the Crusader fortress at Atlit is by far the most interesting and important from a historical and ecological point of view. Shalgi has examined with the army the possibility of permitting visitors only on Saturdays and holidays - at first. He says he was told by the navy that the fortress provides a vantage point for observing maneuvers and therefore visits cannot be allowed. Military activity takes place also on Saturdays and holidays, and cannot be stopped simply because people want to visit, military sources said.
"I understand the operational considerations, but I believe a way can be found to permit visits without disturbing the military activity," Shalgi says. "The entrance to the military base can be moved, and a fence can be erected to prevent access and a view of the navy's training areas.
"Of course, funding must be found to finance these solutions, but it's not impossible. I'll try to convene the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to discuss the matter, and at the same time I'll seek funding for the steps that must be taken to allow visitors into the area."
"The Atlit fortress is a designated national park, and we are preparing a detailed plan that when approved will make it a declared park with final conservation status," Wiener explains. "In the past, efforts were made to open the area to visitors, but then the navy would take public figures who supported the project out on boats to tour the area and convince them that it was impossible."
"We believe that before visitors are allowed, the area should be surveyed to examine the state of conservation of the fortress, including the safety aspects," Wiener adds. "In our opinion, access to the beach can be permitted immediately, while taking into consideration the army's operational concerns, and diving tours can be arranged in the submerged ancient village, which will set out from the Atlit coast."
The IDF Spokesman's Office said in response that due to security and operational activity in Atlit bay, the fortress cannot be opened to visitors throughout the year. "It should be emphasized the navy protects the fortress and doesn't train there, and that the fortress is monitored by the Environment Ministry, the antiquities authority, the parks authority and the University of Haifa. Every request to visit the fortress is examined on its own merits, and permits are given several times a year."