Israel's Nature and Parks Authority has announced it would suspend its pilot project for gender-segregated bathing at the Enot Tsukim Nature Reserve in the northern Dead Sea in the West Bank, after the Justice Ministry recommended it do so until legal aspects of this decision are sorted out.
It remains unclear whether the Authority is legally permitted to segregate on a gender basis, and whether this constitutes impinging on spaces which should be open to the general public. According to sources familiar with this issue, it’s doubtful whether this pilot meets legal requirements.
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The Nature and Parks Authority said that it would comply with the Justice Ministry’s position, and that the issue would be examined through dialogue with the ministry. One source said that allowing such segregation would require amendmending the law.
Haaretz reported on Saturday that the Nature and Parks Authority had launched the pilot project, with its first phase to include two days in which only men can swim in the reserve and two alternate days in which only women will be allowed to use the two lower pools in the reserve. In addition, mixed-gender swimming will be allowed at the large pool at the site. The authority said that this pilot was launched following the request of the religious and ultra-Orthodox public, as well as several organizations.
A similar pilot was held in August at Gan Hashlosha National Park, where segregated bathing took place in the afternoon, after normal operating hours. According to knowledgeable sources, the decision regarding Enot Tsukim was taken without consultation with the Civil Administration, which is responsible for the reserve, officially located in the West Bank.
Last month, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber, who is responsible for issues of gender exclusion in public spaces, held a meeting on the matter, attended by representatives of various agencies. At this discussion, the question of the Nature and Parks Authority’s jurisdiction and authority to determine hours for segregated operation was raised, as well as the issue of how extensive were the requests to change the status quo. Currently, reserves are open to the public on all days with no segregation. There was also the question of whether segregation could harm nature and the landscape.
Zilber asked if any consideration was given to possible ramifications of such a change. “Recent experience shows that there is an expansion of segregation to areas in which this was not permitted up to now. This can create a standard for segregation which may become the default option for a public which could enjoy unsegregated services,” she said.
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Representatives of the Justice Ministry’s legal and advisory division warned that there are difficulties in determining such regulations without specific legislation on the matter. “At this stage there are no regulations at all regarding this issue,” they said. The legal department of the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel also cast doubt on whether current laws allow the Authority to effect gender segregation.
According to the Authority’s legal counsel, there have been requests in recent years for segregated bathing, arguing that current conditions do not allow people who are opposed to mixed bathing to enjoy and share nature reserves. He added that the Authority recognizes that determining hours of segregated bathing could have wider implications, given that the area covered by natural parks and reserves spans one quarter of the country’s area, with many of these including water sites. He added that the pilot was done in a “proportionate” manner, with minimal impact on the public that was not interested in segregated bathing.
“One has to take account the growing numbers of groups who come to these reserves without entering the water only because of mixed bathing there. They too deserve to enjoy natural resources,” says a source at the Authority.
The minutes of the meeting show that in addition to Enot Tsukim, segregation is also being looked at for Hurshat Tal and Dor Beach. However, it turns out that despite widespread marketing of the segregation at Gan Hashlosha, the number of bathers there was less than expected. There were also few visitors at Enot Tsukim when it opened for women only last Monday.
She added that in addition to the question of authority, there are other questions regarding the details of implementing such segregation. “This includes safety, protecting nature and landscape and a willingness to extend opening hours for the general public, costs and investing resources. All of these require further study,” she said. Given these problems, Zilber recommended looking into the issues, mainly at the source of authorization for allowing such segregation, before beginning the pilot.