The Problem Washing Up on Israel's Coastline

Times and policies have changed, and this week’s decision to turn part of Palmahim beach into a national park instead of a vacation resort marks a major change. Yet threats from tourism to Israel’s open beaches and coastline remain

Nir Kafri

The peaceful hill at the northern end of the Palmahim beach was supposed to be radically changed a long time ago. A large part of it was planned to become a vacation resort, the perfect place for a tourist – at least in the eyes of the developers – to enjoy the Mediterranean. But now it will most likely become part of a national park, after the District Planning and Building Committee took another step in that direction on Sunday.

The turning of the vacation resort at Palmahim into a national park was a major victory for environmental organizations – and the public – but it is just one example of a much larger problem. A large number of similar projects were approved along Israel’s coastline years ago, but have never been built. The question in principle is how much of the shoreline can be sacrificed for tourism purposes, and debate over these projects will require the Environmental Protection Ministry to deal with more than just the Palmahim site.

A plan to turn the beach south of Tel Aviv into a nature reserve must be submitted to the National Planning and Building Council for approval, since it requires a change in the national master plan for tourism, which stipulates that part of the area will be zoned for hotel projects such as vacation villages, the local planning committee decided Monday. The committee also decided that before the national park could secure final approval, the company that had planned to build the vacation village must receive financial compensation. The company had been awarded an Israel Land Authority tender for developing Palmahim Beach.

The ministry released a policy document in advance of the committee’s meeting concerning the building of vacation resorts in general. The ministry decided it was no longer enough to deal with such plans on an individual basis, but also needed to present its principles of protecting the beaches and coastline, said Galit Cohen, head of the planning and sustainability division in the Environmental Protection Ministry. “Not to say where not, but also where yes,” she said. “We understand there is also a need for vacation resorts.”

The position paper identifies 14 locations with planned resorts along the coast, with thousands of rooms. Building all the proposed projects would certainly cause serious damage to Israel’s beaches. The ministry states that almost all the plans should be canceled, and only those within existing communities should be allowed so as to preserve contiguous open areas of beach and shoreline without any construction.

Approved in principle

The plans for resorts stretch from the Betzet beach north of Nahariya to the Zikim beach just north of the Gaza Strip. All told, the plans include the construction of 4,000 rooms for tourists. Some of the plans have yet to pass all the stages of final, official approval, while others – in particular those at Betzet and Palmahim, were officially approved years ago in principle by the planning authorities, but the detailed plans were never approved and no building permits were ever issued.

Only two such resorts have been built along the Mediterranean shore in Israel, in Moshav Dor and adjacent Kibbutz Nahsholim, and these two are slated for expansion in the ministry’s plans.

In most cases, the resorts are to be built on land just along the beach, or near the 2,300 meter strip – which is the distance from the shoreline the present law requires for construction. But since these plans were approved before the present law took effect eight years ago but were never implemented, a special planning committee for preserving the coastline will have to convene to discuss what to do in each case, and reexamine whether the existing plans are in keeping with the updated principles of preserving Israel’s coastline and beaches.

The law also applies to plans approved before the law took effect. The problem is over the compensation that may have to be paid to the developers with the building rights approved in the past, though a number of possibilities have been proposed such as granting the developers building rights in other places, further from the coast.

Other places where such construction plans along the coast exist, in various stages of approval, include Sdot Yam, Shavei Zion, the northern and southern outskirts of Netanya, Neve Yam, Caesarea, Michmoret, Ashkelon and Nitzanim.

The largest plan for a vacation resort is in the sand dunes at Nitzanim, between Ashdod and Ashkelon. The Israel Lands Authority had planned a complex of resorts with 900 rooms next to the nature reserve, within the open space near the beach. The ILA has already begun an environmental impact survey as required by law, but for now has decided to freeze the plans – though has yet to cancel them officially.

The plans that have already been approved came before the change in the law and policy. The new policy is clear that priority is to be given to the public aspects of the beaches and preserving open and contiguous spaces along these beaches.

“When discussing vacation resorts, you tend to imagine small buildings that integrate into nature and have a low environmental signature,” wrote the Environmental Protection Ministry. But in reality these are complexes that include large amounts of construction for masses of people, and change their environment significantly.

Expanding existing sites

While the ministry agrees that there is a need for such rustic tourism sites near the coast, it says the answer is building the resorts inside existing communities near the shore – or at the outskirts of other communities already planned for development. Large complexes with hundreds of rooms should never be allowed, such as the one planned for Nitzanim, says the ministry.

For example, the ministry says a resort at the northern end of Ashkelon should be considered, but nowhere else in the south or center of the country. Another possibility is renovating abandoned buildings at Shavei Zion, between Acre and Nahariya in the north. It recommends a camping site at Achziv, where there used to be resort that has closed. It is also willing to allow expansion of the existing sites in the Carmel coastal area at Nahsholim, Dor and Neve Yam with more rooms – but only within the existing boundaries of the sites. The ministry objects to all the other projects. In any case, the guiding principle is that the public will have access everywhere to a wide and open beach.

One problem with the demands to change the resort program is that the Tourism Ministry does not agree, and continues to support the construction of such resorts. In a policy paper published a few months ago, the Tourism Ministry said there is a serious shortage of rooms that would allow the public to enjoy the beaches that belong to them. It said there were a number of available locations with valid building plans and approvals to build over 1,000 rooms, and today only some 200 rooms meet the description of inexpensive places to stay near the beach.

The ministry said it would encourage the building of a number of the projects for people who cannot afford to live near the beach or stay in expensive hotels in the big cities. Sustainable development for tourism also includes providing the possibility of lodging near the sea. The ministry also said the developers would be required to provide access and facilities at the beaches to the entire public, such as toilets, showers and drinking water; and would allow more people to enjoy the beaches.

Development does not mean closing off the beaches, the Tourism Ministry emphasized. “Because of objections that are not based on familiarity with the details of the plans, the development of the coast that could be integrated into the surroundings and improve the access to the beaches has been prevented,” said the ministry.

“I know they say this will lower prices,” said the Environment Ministry’s Cohen in response. “But it will still be expensive to stay in these resorts and the beach is something people need free access to.”

“We need to consider the balance between development and preserving the coastal environment in a manner that nature and the landscape will be preserved, and in particular preserve the public’s access to the beach,” said Tourism Minister Uzi Landau. “There are cases such as this in Nahsholim, in which there is an area that has already been disturbed as a result of development and there were debris hazards. It is far enough away from the beach and therefore we have decided in this case to appeal the decision against the cancellation of the plan.”

The planned resort north of Kibbutz Nahsholim was rejected by the Central District Planning and Building Committee, and the environmental organizations and residents of the area had already celebrated a major victory – but the Tourism Ministry and ILA are appealing the decision and are asking to approve the plan. The planned resort is outside the 300-meter strip of coastline in which construction is prohibited, but environmental activists still consider it to be too close to the sea in this case.