Environmental groups in recent years felt they'd made headway in their perennial drive to protect Israel's beaches from development. The number of development plans was declining and the National Planning and Building authorities established the Committee for the Protection of Beaches, which became another tool that supervised and limited shore development.
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But construction plans for the beaches refuse to go away. Not only that, but initiatives have been popping up whose purpose is to chip away at the protections created by planning officials.
One of the most significant threats gathering momentum over the past two years is a series of construction projects that received approval before the Law for the Protection of the Coastal Environment went into effect in 2004.
The law does not apply retroactively to those particular plans, and as time went on, environmental groups such as the Israel Union for Environmental Defense and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel realized that under these plans, large tracts of land near beaches would be slated for development. Efforts to change the situation by amending the law, including one a few weeks back, failed.
Several attempts to revive old construction plans were scuttled in the wake of public protest. One example was the plan for the vacation village near Palmahim beach. Chances are good that the plans for a vacation village in Betset beach in the western Galilee and a large vacation village at Nitzanim beach will also be scrapped. But there are other plans in the pipeline that were approved many years ago.
"In northern Nahariya there is an old plan to build hundreds of housing and hotel units near the seashore," said Amit Bracha, executive director of the environmental defense union.
"There is a plan to expand the vacation village at Nahsholim at the expense of the beach. Plans exist to build a hotel at the northern end of Michmoret. In Bat Yam, someone - we don't even know who - has received a permit to build hotels and housing units as well. One of the hotels slated to be built near the seashore is supposed to be 41 stories high," she said.
In the Ashkelon region, Bracha says, there is an old plan, already approved, to build a three-story shopping mall with a long facade facing the sea. In the Haifa region is a plan to build four more towers as part of the Carmel Beach Towers project.
For environmental protection groups, the part of the project already completed has become a symbol of the damage caused by construction near the seashore. The plan for the additional towers is also part of Haifa's new master plan. Twice the environmental groups failed to stop construction plans on the Sea of Galilee shore - a hotel on the Tiberias shore and a vacation village on Kursi beach.
The solution first attempted by the environmental defense union, with assistance from MK Dov Khenin (Hadash ), was to draft an amendment to the Law for the Protection of the Coastal Environment. The amendment bars construction permits for plans approved more than eight years ago, but it has not yet been implemented. The Committee for the Protection of Beaches would therefore be able to hold an additional hearing about the plan and decide whether it followed the spirit of the law.
But the proposed amendment never came up for discussion in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation meeting two weeks ago. Khenin and environmental defense union members decided to withdraw it once they realized, after a round of talks with ministers, that it was very likely to be rejected. The Environmental Protection Ministry was among the amendment's few supporters.
"The government refuses to learn the lessons of Palmahim beach and Betset beach and protect Israel's rapidly-shrinking coastline," Khenin said. "We will have to go back to a wide-scale public struggle in order to move this amendment forward."
Holding back the tide
Environmental groups fear that in addition to the revival of old construction plans, new plans will also erode the beaches' current protection. These fears stem from attempts to abolish the Committee for the Protection of Beaches as part of the planning and construction changes the government is now promoting. Advocates of these changes see the Committee for the Protection of Beaches as yet another committee that delays construction plans unnecessarily. The decision to abolish it had already been made, but after Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan applied pressure, the committee was allowed to continue functioning. Recently, Interior Ministry officials have been asking that the committee's role be examined and its powers transferred to local authorities.
But environmental groups say this will allow the local authorities' narrow financial interests to be placed above the larger public interest, which mandates keeping the coastline in its natural state and accessible to all. According to the environmental defense union, Israel's residents have access to less than 20 kilometers of beaches where bathing is permitted.
Besides the fight against more construction plans, there is an ongoing battle against the use of tourism projects on the beach as permanent housing. Here, too, environmental groups appear to have made significant headway since the courts ruled that projects such as the Herzliya Marina can no longer be used for private housing.
But lately, residents of the marina project have mounted resistance to the Herzliya Municipality's plan to rent out housing units in the Herzliya Marina to the general public.
The units' owners have submitted a petition to the Tel Aviv District Court claiming that the new plan, according to which apartments may be rented only through the hotel management company, severely compromises their property rights. The nature protection society has decided to support the Herzliya Municipality's position on the matter.