Who Owns the Beach? Battle for Israeli Paradise Heats Up

Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael was supposed to build proper public access to the beach within its territory, but 12 years have passed and it hasn’t happened. Environmental groups and activists are already making waves

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The beach at Ma’agan Michael, along the Mediterranean coast between Haifa and Hadera.
The beach at Ma’agan Michael. Getting to it is complicated, and involves driving on bumpy, narrow roads between fish ponds.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Uri Schor, a resident of Zichron Yaakov, is a family man, software developer, surfer and mountain biker. In recent years he has been devoting a considerable amount of his time to an issue that upsets him: public access to the beach at Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael. Schor is the beach’s freedom fighter. A one-man guerilla unit.

He is incredibly organized. He has every document needed to prove the injustice he says is being committed there. He has a mountain of correspondence with the authorities, government ministries and law enforcement agencies. The paperwork could probably cover Israel’s more than 190 kilometers of shoreline. But while there still is no solution, Schor has endless patience. He smiles and explains why all the agencies involved have failed to protect the beach and allow free access to the public.

The beach at Ma’agan Michael, along the Mediterranean coast between Haifa and Hadera, is in fact open to the public, but it is accessible only on foot. The kibbutz makes it difficult for people to reach it, directing people coming by car to paths that are indirect, difficult and even dangerous. Kibbutz residents, on the other hand, have a direct and easy route to what has become essentially their own private beach. Promises that were made over the years to enable beach access for the general public have yet to be kept. The issue is always “being dealt with,” and is still being dealt with to this day.

The Assi stream that crosses Kibbutz Nir David was not mentioned explicitly in conversations with kibbutz members, and even Schor only mentioned it in passing, but the spirit of the northern stream, which is not accessible to the public and is now at the center of a lengthy struggle, hovers over the Ma’agan Michael beach. The lovely beach adorned with palm trees facing Mount Carmel is the small local story. Unimpeded public access to nature sites is the big story.

A woman running on the beach near Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael.Credit: Rami Shlush

I met Schor in the Ma’ayan Tzvi industrial zone along Route 4, and from there we drove in his car on a bumpy road to the beach. First we visited the Ma’ayan Tzvi beach, some three kilometers north of Ma’agan Michael. Early last month the Carmel Coast Regional Council set up a dirt parking area there. Getting to it is complicated, and involves driving on bumpy, narrow roads between fish ponds. But from there, access to the beach is easy. The beach is lovely. The problem is that the parking lot was paved smack in the middle of the Nahal Dalia Estuary Nature Reserve, and it looks awful. The road to it is rough, it looks temporary and there’s lot of garbage scattered on the ground despite the large trash bin.

Then we drove among the ponds southward to another, larger parking lot approximately a kilometer north of the kibbutz. It is pretty easy to get to the beach from there, too, but the roads and the lot are much like what we saw further north.

We then drove straight to the kibbutz gate, which is open during the week, but closed from Friday night until Saturday night. On Shabbat there’s a guard who directs visitors to the circuitous routes we’d traversed. But in the absence of a guard, we simply passed through the gate and turned right, to the large parking lot at the Plasson factory. We passed another open gate, parked, and wandered around the embankment and between the ponds.

At that point Schor had to leave for a work meeting. I walked into the kibbutz. I passed two more gates that were closed to block cars, and then I walked westward along a lovely avenue of palm trees to the beach. The walk from the kibbutz gate to the beach took 20 minutes. It was afternoon. School was over and there were several youths from the local school walking to the beach as well.

I hadn’t been to the Ma’agan Michael beach in years and I’d forgotten how beautiful it was. Palm trees and other vegetation grow very close to the waterline. There are few beaches like it in Israel. When I got to the beach I turned right and walked northward toward the heart statue, which is located a few hundred meters north of the kibbutz, between the ponds and the sea, on a dune that faces the shore. The statue, the work of Moshe Zorea, a member of Ma’agan Michael, has over the years become a popular romantic spot. Lots of couples want to be photographed with it.

Families visit the beach near Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael.Credit: rami shllush

An alternative route

Schor explained the problem: “The beach at Ma’agan Michael was supposed to be made accessible to the public in 2009, as a condition for expanding the kibbutz. The condition clearly stated a public access route would be paved to the beach, with two parking lots in the northern and southern parts of the kibbutz with 100 parking spaces, public roads leading to them from the kibbutz gate, and dirt paths from the lots to the beach. The plan called for preparing this public access within a year, as a precondition for granting the homes residency permits. Twelve years have passed, the homes were occupied long ago, and there’s still no access from the kibbutz to the beach.

“Meanwhile, the kibbutz and the [regional] council have started to set up an alternative route that is long and environmentally unsound. That’s the way that we came. They submitted it three times to the planning committee, in 2007, 2013 and 2018, and it was withdrawn due to the environmental and transportation objections.”

Schor had previously approached all the groups that had vehemently opposed the alternative route, including the Environmental Protection Ministry, but got no response. He is still pushing for the implementation of the opponents’ plan, as presented to the District Planning Commission: Public access to the beach near Ma’agan Michael without paving any new roads or causing unnecessary damage to the beach. He is trying, so far without success, to get enforcement agencies to address the unauthorized roads between the fishponds and the temporary parking lot. Schor mentions that in 2017, a 30-year-old driver drowned while driving on the dangerous route when his car slipped into a fishpond.

Recently, he explains, the Carmel Coast local building committee approved a plan for a new neighborhood in Ma’agan Michael, the Snunit neighborhood, with 84 housing units (the original plan from 2009 called for 52 units there, and the new plan increases this number). The plan puts off addressing the issue of requiring public access to the beach until the occupancy permit stage.

“Past experience shows that finished houses will be occupied, even if they were built in violation of district planning,” Schor says. “This is not an unrecognized village but an established kibbutz. All this is to maintain Ma’agan Michael beach as a de facto private beach for the kibbutz members. This is a serious, ongoing violation of the public’s right of access to the sea. The sea belongs to everyone.”

Houses in Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael.Credit: Hagai Frid

Schor says the current situation is causing serious environmental damage: There are roads passing through a nature reserve, and the unofficial access routes to the shore are harming the dunes. Apart from that there are alleged violations of building laws and the Protection of the Coastal Environment Law.

“The feeling is that no one cares about it,” says Schor, sadly. As he stated in a blog post, “Do you just want to relax at the sea? You have every right. I recommend the nearby Jisr a-Zarqa beach. It’s an amazing strip of beach, accessible by public roads, with a regulated beach and a small fishing port in a beautiful natural bay. You won’t run into fences, gates or guards, just hospitable people and a wonderful beach.”

The longtime friction between the neighbors – Ma’agan Michael, an old and wealthy kibbutz, and Jisr a-Zarqa, one of the poorest and most neglected communities in Israel – resurfaces here. But Schor adds: “In any case, do not use force and do not take it to heart.” He adds: “This is not a contrarian action. It is in the kibbutz’s interest that the general public come to its beach. It is wonderful to host people, especially at the beach.”

The big picture

The environmental group Adam, Teva V’Din has been addressing this issue a lot in recent years. Yael Dori, head of the organization’s planning and beaches department, explained that the group works toward ensuring unrestricted, free access to beaches. Their work has brought successes, but the situation in Israel is getting worse every year, she says. The demand for regulated beaches is huge and the population is growing. Dori believes that more beaches must be opened urgently. The main problem is that local authorities are reluctant to open new beaches because they are unable to finance their maintenance, she says. Maintaining a regulated beach costs about a million shekels ($303,000) a year.

“The problem of beaches within kibbutzim must be solved,” she says. “In 2009, we succeeded in introducing conditions to the plan at Ma’agan Michael requiring access and parking. It was a condition for issuing building permits for the new neighborhood. The neighborhood has already been occupied and the beach is still closed off. The condition was never met.

“We asked several times for enforcement and it didn’t happen. The kibbutz suggested an alternative route, but it’s problematic and would harm the reserve. It was not accepted. The problem is that the kibbutzim refuse to distinguish between public, commercial and private spaces. They need to understand that a solution must be found.”

The beach near Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael seen from the air.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Attorney Tamar Gannot-Rosenstreich, deputy director for policy and strategy at Adam, Teva V’Din, concedes that the Carmel Coast Regional Council seems willing and is working through the Forum of Coastal Localities, but that the problem persists. Activists are demanding that the state intervene and provide funding to open new beaches.

The Adam, Teva V’Din representatives say there is a contradiction between what the kibbutz has claimed in the past – that they can’t approve a route to the beach because it will run alongside the fishponds, which is a safety hazard – and the fact that a parking lot has been paved in the middle of the fishpond area. Gannot-Rosenstreich thinks a comprehensive solution might involve creating a body similar to the Kinneret Cities Association for the Mediterranean shore. “Conceptually we have moved forward, but in practice we’re going backward,” she says. “There’s tension between the desire to allow residents to do business along the shore, but in a way that preserves those few beaches that are undeveloped.”

The people’s sea

Ma’agan Michael is still a cooperative kibbutz, where everyone is party to the decisions and the salary differentials are among the lowest in the world, according to kibbutz chairman Nir Bracha. He says there is no question regarding the issue in principle. “The State of Israel’s beaches must be accessible to the citizens. While there is a minority on the kibbutz that believes the gate must be closed, I believe everything can be resolved through dialogue. Most of the kibbutz supports that position.”

How can the public be allowed access to the beach?

“We are in the process of arranging authorized paths to the beach. People who want to get to the sea do not necessarily have to go through the kibbutz gate. You can reach the beach without coming in, and in this respect we are different from other cases,” Bracha says. “We do not have a river crossing the kibbutz. To date, at the Israel Land Administration’s request, we have set up a 1.5-square-kilometer parking lot north of the kibbutz. As far as we’re concerned, this is the right solution. In the future, a safer road will be paved there. We know we are responsible for the welfare of those coming to the lot and driving between the fishponds.

“We want it to be a beach that attracts a lot of people. We will add signage, palm trees and accessories, and I hope we get permission to drain one fishpond to increase parking, but this must come from the regional level with state funding. Ma’agan Michael should not be funding beach maintenance. We will allocate our territory, but we won’t fund it. The council doesn’t have a budget for this, either. We must balance between the needs of people and the needs of nature, heritage and history,” he says.

Assif Isaac, chairman of the Carmel Coast Regional Council, lives in Kibbutz Hahotrim. He has held the post for two and a half years, and describes the beach issue as one of his biggest challenges. The regional council has the longest shoreline of any of the country’s local councils – 45 kilometers, including the regulated beaches at Neveh Yam, Dor-Habonim, and the aqueduct near Caesarea. Isaac says that council plans to open a new regulated beach at Hamivtzar beach in Atlit.

Uri Schor, the beach's freedom fighter. Credit: Yuval Baracha

“The shore is not ours, it belongs to the entire people of Israel. It was our luck that we live near it,” says Isaac. “The beach at Ma’agan Michael isn’t closed either; you can walk to it freely, but you can’t drive through the kibbutz. The problem there is lessened by the fact that the beach isn’t close to the homes. There are places where it’s more difficult and you have to find the right balance that everyone can live with. It’s through dialogue, not violence.”

Does driving between the fishponds at Ma’agan Michael make sense?

“I’m in favor of any solution that balances the needs of the kibbutz members and visitors,” Isaac says. “But if we offer parking at Plasson and someone is hit by a factory forklift, they will blame us. We set up some of the roads between the ponds because we do not want to deny anyone access to the beach, but it is a partial solution.

“Our council has 33,000 residents. Last year, 3 million visitors came to our beaches. Admission to all the beaches is free, and the state provides minimal support for beach cleaning. On a normal weekend we remove 70 tons of garbage from the beaches. It costs us 5.5 million shekels a year. Nevertheless, the beaches are an asset and not a burden. All our beaches have been awarded a blue flag [meaning they meet Foundation for Environmental Education standards]. Ours is the first council in the country with beaches at this level.

“There is a conflict,” Isaac continues. “Our goal is to tell the public exactly what is allowed and what is not allowed. In the futon section of the beach [where people can stay for long periods of time], we formulated a complex but consistent arrangement and were successful. I’m pleased about reports from the Nature Authority of a 50 percent increase in turtle egg-laying.

The beach at Ma’agan Michael, along the Mediterranean coast between Haifa and Hadera.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“We have to mention another element in the equation: Every Saturday the beach is jammed. What if an ambulance needs to come through because someone drowned? It has no chance of getting in. We pay police every weekend to clear the roads. This resource, the beach, is sorely lacking, and a national beach authority would be a good solution,” he says.

‘We support accessibility’

The Environmental Protection Ministry said in response: “The ministry supports making the beaches accessible to the general public through public transportation as well as by building public parking lots and arranging access to them. However, in open areas, accessibility should be set based on minimizing damage to the coastal environment and the open spaces behind it.

“At Ma’agan Michael, the area recently added to the parking lot is not part of the coastal environment. Statutorily, it is approved for public parking for beachgoers, and conforms to the kibbutz’s approved master plan. However, the parking lot set up several years ago apparently does not conform to an approved plan. Works performed without a permit or contrary to plan are offenses under the Planning and Building Laws, and the authority to enforce this lies with the Carmel Coast Local Planning Committee and the real estate laws enforcement unit.

“The kibbutz was indeed obligated to pave a road in its territory in accordance with the approved route. After the kibbutz decided not to do this and to submit a new plan to the planning authorities to change the route, the Environmental Protection Ministry objected. The ministry considers the environmental and public interests, and in this case was not convinced that the proposed route is better environmentally. This issue is being re-examined to find the best solution in terms of safety, public policy and the environment.

“With regard to the parking lot in Ma’ayan Tzvi west of the fishing park, this issue is being clarified by the ministry with the local planning and construction committee.”

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