Putting Up a Tent City in Paradise

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Habonim Beach.
Habonim Beach.Credit: Rami Shllush
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

A group of staff members of the Israel Land Authority made their way about two weeks ago to a large tent on the Habonim Beach south of Haifa, with equipment in tow to dismantle the tent and clear it away. Before the tent was removed, however, the ILA staff was beseeched by a young man who asked that they leave it on the beach. “I need some rest after my army service,” he said. “I’m more ecology-minded than a lot of people, and I’ll protect this place.”

The people from the ILA refused, however, saying that they had come to put an end to squatting on public land. The tent and the other personal belongings and debris that had been left there were cleared away before the ILA staff proceeded on to other tents, where they issued warning letters to their occupants, giving them notice of their impending eviction.

Tent city

In recent summers, an entire tent city has sprouted up on the stretch of coastline between the Habonim nature reserve and Neveh Yam, up the coast to the north. Dozens of tents, sometimes more than 100, have stretched along an expanse of more than a kilometer. In practice, some of the “residents” of these tents assume exclusive control of the area for several weeks.

It’s not difficult to understand the attraction of this place, which would certainly be in the running for one of the country’s most beautiful stretches of coastline. It features inlets lined by soft sand and a completely open stretch of land, where there is no construction and where the Carmel Mountains are visible in the distance.

Daniel Spencer and Ami Edelstein at Habonim Beach.Credit: Rami Shllush

“All you need to do is look around you to understand why we’re here,” exclaims Itai Ziv, a man in his 20s who had been living in a tent on the beach for weeks. “It’s quiet here and I can relax and do things that I hadn’t manage to do, like read books. A community routine has developed here with shared meals and yoga classes.”

‘Iron-clad rule’ about garbage

If there is a community here, Daniel Spencer is one of its long-time residents, having come to the spot for the past six years in the summer with his friend Ami Edelstein. They came equipped with a tent and settled in for a stay of several weeks. “This whole period reflects a different dimension in our lives,” Spencer says, explaining that in previous years, it was a place to unwind after the army and then after an extend trip abroad and now from life as a university student. Nitzan Shalev, the “resident” of a nearby tent, says members of his family come for visits over the weekend and sleep there as well. Edelstein adds, “We have an iron-clad rule about leaving the place cleaner than the way we found it.”

The tent city has sprouted up on a stretch of beach where there are no services, including no trash removal, drinking water or toilets. Although the local government in the area, the Hof Hacarmel Regional Council, does periodically clean the area, during the periods in which people spend weeks and even months living there, it becomes an unsightly mess, with mounds of garbage and even toilet paper rolls hanging from nearby bushes.

Old couches, remnants of torn tents and other personal items sometimes give the visitor the sense that this is a temporary refugee camp. And then there are the motor vehicles, which are barred by law from the beach, bringing personal belongings to the site.

Habonim Beach. Credit: Rami Shllush

Ultimately the ILA came to the conclusion that it had to act to curb what had become a takeover on a temporary basis of public land by private individuals. And Eran Livneh, the ILA regional land preservation director, added that there have even been people who have rented out some of the public beach for private events, earning money in the process and barring access to the site to others.

Menace to pregnant sea turtles

The ceaseless activity along the stretch of coast is not only an obstacle to other people, but also poses a challenge to the delicate ecosystem of the area. This is one of the beaches where female sea turtles have been coming to lay their eggs, but they now are being deterred by the lights and the noise. (Staff from the Nature and Parks Authority collect the eggs and move them to a protected location.)

The ILA doesn’t have the staff to make daily patrols of the area and generally makes do with weekly visits, during which they serve some of those on the beach with eviction orders. Livneh says his agency can only hope to reduce, not end, the presence of squatters on the beach, saying that some of those on the beach show an awareness that they could be removed at any moment. The presence of long-term beach residents continues, he adds, until the High Holy Days. The staff of the ILA acknowledge the need that people have to enjoy the beach, but they are not prepared to allow the current situation to continue.

Searching for solution

“We need to find a way for people to be able to come and relax at the beach without the tents taking over the public space,” says Shai Karp, the assistant director of the ILA’s land protection division. “Perhaps [it could be done] by establishing special overnight parking lots in designated places where there would be rest rooms and trash removal, and where it would be specified which equipment could be brought in.”

In the meantime, it will be the upcoming fall weather that will restore peace and quiet to this stretch of beach, but if a way isn’t found to establish overnight facilities that the inhabitants of the beach find attractive, they will be back again on the beach itself next summer.

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