Nearly everyone knows about the Israelis who run riot on airplanes and in hotels, thanks to a few videos gone viral, but they can’t compete with the rudeness and contempt for the law faced by the park rangers who are charged with enforcing the ban on driving on the country’s beaches. Take, for example, the driver who urinated on the patrol vehicle, or the one who claimed that a ranger offered to cancel his ticket in return for a bribe.
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Israel is one of the few countries with a total vehicle ban on its beaches, within 100 meters of the shore. Three years ago the Interior Ministry delegated enforcement of the ban to a new unit within the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, called Hofami. In the absence of effective enforcement, on many beaches off-road vehicles had become a serious safety hazard, in addition to damaging wild plants and animals. The nesting sites of sea turtles are particularly vulnerable in this respect.
The Knesset also pitched in, amending the law so that tickets may be issued to drivers on the basis of identification of the vehicle on the beach, without needing to prove the owner’s presence at the time of the offense.
Hofami comprises just four rangers, each of whom is assigned to a specific stretch of shoreline. They are aided by many other organizations, including the Israel Police and the NGO Or Yarok Association for Safer Driving in Israel, whose volunteers educate beachgoers. Each year, rangers issue around 1,000 fines for driving on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and Lake Kinneret, which has its own enforcement unit – significantly more than in the pre-Hofami era. The fine is 500 shekels ($124) on “regular” beaches and 1,000 shekels for driving on a beach that is a national park or nature reserve.
The rise in ticketing reflects more vigorous enforcement but also a rise in the number of SUVs, due to the introduction of relatively inexpensive models as well as the fact that many drivers remain undeterred despite the increased penalties.
To the rangers, the situation on the ground, or sand, is more important than how many tickets they write. “There’s a significant decline in the overall number of vehicles, and most people demonstrate awareness and understanding,” says Eldad Peled, head of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s enforcement division. “What’s left is mainly the hard core of drivers who won’t give up on driving on the beach.”
The rangers make use of a helicopter and a powered glider, an unmanned aircraft with a camera, to locate vehicles on the beach and photograph their license plates, as well as their own unmarked vehicles.
Encounters with drivers are definitely the most stressful and dangerous element of the rangers’ job. Drivers often conceal their license plates and pull up the signs prohibiting driving on the beach. A few have broken through the agency’s rock roadblocks and chained gates to gain access to protected sites.
On one occasion, a drunk driver who was stopped by a ranger on a beach in the south cursed him heartily and then urinated on the patrol vehicle. On another occasion, after a driver’s repeated pleas to the ranger not to fine him were refused, the driver angrily told him: “It’s because of people like you that the country looks the way it does.”
When that did not help, he photographed the ranger with his cellphone, while at the same time recording himself telling a friend that the ranger had offered to tear up the ticket in exchange for a bribe. The agency took the matter to the police. The camera mounted in the patrol vehicle had recorded the entire exchange, corroborating the ranger’s version of events.
Peled says the agency plans to lobby for widening the protected area of shore from 100 meters to 300. “Then we could protect the sand areas and the dunes, which have a high nature value,” Peled said. One illustration of the need for this amendment can be found in the Hof Ashkelon Regional Council, where the beach cliff was eroded and destroyed as a result of off-road and all-terrain vehicles. In some places, the topography has been thoroughly changed as a result of careless drivers.
The nature authority also hopes to make beach driving an offense that earns drivers demerit points, and also to have a question about the prohibition added to the written portion of the driver’s license examination, in the hope of instilling awareness early on.