The descriptions of the place that we’re not allowed to see fire the imagination. Those interviewed for this article competed among themselves in the superlatives they attached to the Crusader fortress in Atlit. Each chose different words to say that the fortress in Atlit is a marvelous, amazing, magical, impressive site, the most beautiful along the Mediterranean coastline.
Some of them showed me photographs of the site. It really looks wonderful. Blue inlets, 800-year-old antiquities, high halls that resemble the knights’ halls in Old Acre, an ancient port reminiscent of the port in Caesarea, a green peninsula with lovely sandy beaches. Anywhere in the world a place like that would long since have become a leading tourist attraction, a worldwide cultural asset and a source of attraction for visitors and livelihood for local residents. Not in Israel. Not in Atlit.
For over 50 years only naval commandos have had an opportunity to see this impressive cultural asset. The peninsula overlooking the Atlit bay became a closed military area in the 1950s, based on a general’s emergency orders. Since then, the area that should be a national park and one of the most beautiful coastal reserves in Israel – with the Atlit fortress, the most impressive and best preserved Crusader fortress in Israel – is totally closed to visitors.
A large Israel Navy base is flourishing there. Occasionally there are stories leaked about a concrete structure, a theater, ceremonies for a unit, people with connections and associates of naval officers who come to relax on the isolated beach, events that took place in the officers’ club in a building that still bears the large sign: “Atlit Museum.”
It’s hard to confirm these stories. After all, the site is top secret. But one fact is unarguable – the Crusader fortress in Atlit is apparently the most interesting place in Israel that we have no chance of seeing.
For about two weeks I had hopes that writing this article would lead me to fulfill an old dream to visit the Atlit fortress. My request to visit the site was rejected, and in response to questions I received the following replies from the Israel Defense Forces spokesman:
Why doesn’t the IDF permit visits to the ancient Crusader fortress in Atlit?
“The Atlit base is the home base of the naval commando unit. Its location and area are characterized by unique operational needs, which require that it continues to operate at its present location. Opening the fortress to the general public would lead to exposing the security activity in the camp and is liable to undermine state security.”
Is there any intention of changing this situation?
“In the past our staff concluded that in terms of securing the abovementioned facility, the fortress cannot be released for public use. Participating in the examination were the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Israel Antiquities Authority, which support preserving the fortress inside the military camp.”
Oldest well in the world
All those who were interviewed for this article, most of them the lucky ones who were able to visit the fortress in Atlit, actually believe that the site can be opened for visits immediately, without any damage to state security.
Dr. Ehud Galili, a resident of Atlit, marine archaeologist in the Antiquities Authority and member of the Protection of the Coastal Environment Committee, invited me for a tour of the beach. We stood at the edge of the narrow pier, opposite the large fortress.
“For 50 years I’ve been participating in archaeological activity along the Mediterranean coast and I’m telling you on authority that we have no other such site. I believe it’s the most important place in the country,” he said.
Galili began a detailed explanation, describing the components of the fortress, the new and ancient buildings along the Atlit coast, and the ancient Neolithic village discovered at a depth of about 10 meters in the heart of the Atlit bay, several hundred meters from the coastline.
Galili pointed to the military base’s fence and explained that it was built on the ancient wall of the fortress. At the foot of the fortress are the breakwaters of the Phoenician port, which Galili calls “one of the oldest and most beautiful ports on the Mediterranean – but nobody can dive in order to see it. The 8,000-year-old historical village which was flooded by the sea is called ‘the Atlantis of Atlit,’ and is the only attraction of its kind in the world.
“This is where the Mediterranean survival system began to development,” Galili explained, with sparkling eyes. “Here we discovered the earliest man-made wells, and the first prehistoric Mediterranean fishing village. Everything is closed to visitors and within a closed marine military area belonging to the naval base.”
Later Galili told about the vestiges of shipwrecked boats that sank in the bay, about ancient salt factories, about unique scenery, fauna and flora and additional natural assets, because of which the entire area is supposed to become a national park. None of that is happening. On the contrary – for years the area has been suffering from neglect in terms of planning, environmental quality and preservation of nature and culture.
“Once the army used to treat these sites with respect, but in the past decade there has been clear deterioration,” said Galili. “We are seeing ongoing damage to values related to culture and nature. Why do the soldiers in a military base have to live on the coastline? Why did they build a theater on an ancient salt-making factory? Why do they have to build an officers’ club in an ancient structure defined as a museum? Why did they build huge concrete buildings slightly south of here right on the water?
“There’s no justification for that. There may be no bad intention here, but there’s clear neglect and deterioration. There is turnover of people serving on the base, and the damage is worsening and ongoing. The claim that the situation is just the reverse – that because the place is a closed military base the antiquities are better preserved than at other sites – is a clear and cynical misleading of the public.”
Maj. Gen. (res.) Ami Ayalon served as the commander of the naval commandos and of the Israel Navy, and later as the chief of the Shin Bet security service. He is very familiar with the base at Atlit and agrees with Galili. “The importance and beauty of the site are clear. Because it hasn’t been treated properly for decades it is gradually becoming eroded. I’ve known the place for over 50 years and it had lovely areas that no longer exist.
“It’s not necessarily human activity that causes damage. The waves, the wind and erosion do their work and there isn’t enough preservation and maintenance. It’s also unfortunate that they haven’t uncovered all the huge subterranean spaces, which I believe are even larger than the knights’ halls in Acre.”
Ayalon’s opinion is clear: “There’s no real reason why the army should continue to be stationed there, certainly there’s no reason to take up the entire area. When I served as commander of the navy I examined the interface between Israeli society and the navy and tried to promote a long-term process to free the fortress for visitors. In my opinion that’s possible and desirable. Those who were opposed were members of the defense establishment and their legal advisers. It’s an organization with interests of its own, which don’t always coincide with the interests of the State of Israel.”
Coastal city without a coast
Dan Chamizer, a resident of Ein Hod and energetic environmental activist in the Carmel Coast area, sounds even more vehement than Ayalon: “I tried several times to lead this battle. The head of the regional council promised, the commander of the navy promised, and nothing is happening. The problem goes far beyond the fortress in Atlit. It’s important to fight for the release of the entire coastal strip, which has been taken over by the army and the Defense Ministry. They stole the beach from this town and it’s heartbreaking. This is a coastal town without a beach – the only one in the world. The Atlit city fathers abandoned the residents and joined the Defense Ministry in a terrible blockage of the coast strip, which is one of the most beautiful on the Mediterranean. It’s a totally absurd situation.”
Chamizer says that in the past the navy commander agreed to allow visits on Shabbat and weekends, but the Defense Ministry rejected this proposal. “They say that visiting the fortress will enable visitors to observe what’s happening on their secret base. That’s absurd. Today I can send up a drone and see everything that’s happening there. I can simply view the base from the neighborhood on the Atlit ridge. The entire world is photographed from satellites, so what importance is there to a visit on this hill?
“The ability to observe the base is an excuse. They’re simply unwilling to move on or to give up the asset. Where we failed was in the effort to convince the residents of Atlit to embark on a public battle. The battle we waged about a decade ago died out due to the lack of involvement of the locals, but it’s an issue that affects everyone in Israel that we should all fight for.”
Chamizer and Galili say that those leading the battle, headed by the local environmental organization Kahol v’Yarok (Blue and Green), proposed a series of solutions. The best compromise and the most practical of them is permission to visit the northern part of the fortress only. Even only on Shabbat or weekends.
“We thought that in that way they would be reassured, because we won’t see their drifting pocket submarines,” says Chamizer.
All these proposals were rejected and nothing has changed. The battle died out.
“There’s nothing behind it except a disgusting real-estate orientation,” says Chamizer, summing up the history of the struggle. “That’s how they’re turning a place that could be a central tourist attraction, with a wonderful income for the residents, into a place that’s dying.”
At the start of the conversation with him Carmel Sela, the head of the Hof Hacarmel Regional Council, sounds determined: “The fortress is amazingly beautiful and it must be opened to the public. We have to be practical and to allow visits. Its historical and cultural importance is clear, as is its economic importance. With modern technology, the excuse for preventing visits is nonsense that no longer applies.”
If it’s all so clear, why haven’t you and the council done more to return the site to the public and to allow visits to the fortress?
“We focused on it a few years ago and made good progress, but then we ran into problems,” replies Sela. “The Greens, with all their battles against me – mainly on issues of construction at other sites – made me lose the desire to work with them on the issue of the fortress, on which we agree. Now I want to start dealing with it again, it’s very important to me and the place is amazing.”
Guy Ayalon, head of the northern district of the Nature and Parks Authority, has several practical solutions.
“The Atlit fortress is one of the unique and most well preserved places we have. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that one can understand the place in the course of a visit. In my opinion, visits to the site can be arranged several times a month. At first these would be group visits, with a guide. The visits will take place over weekends, so that we can meet the initial demand of an interested audience. Afterwards we can more easily conduct negotiations on the future status of the site.
“Today, we should recall, it still has no status as a nature reserve. Although it is designated to be a national park, that’s a process that has yet to be arranged.”
None of those interviewed for the article was willing to bet that in another five or 10 years the general public will be allowed to visit the Crusader fortress that is said to be the most beautiful in Israel.