Fighting Them on the Beaches: The Greens Protecting Israel's Coastline

When it comes to the coastline, Israel’s environmental movement has racked up some impressive achievements.

Ofer Vaknin

Not long ago, a group of activists from the Green Course (Megamah Yerukah) organization made their way to a building site along the Bat Yam coast. The members protested the plan to eliminate the coastal cliff in favor of a high-rise building, and they tried with their bodies to stop the heavy equipment tearing up a section of the cliff overlooking the sea.

The struggle against the Bat Yam development failed, but over the past few years Green Course and other environmental groups have managed to stop several significant building projects along the coast – most recently in the Carmel coast region.

Last month, the National Planning and Building Commission’s appeals committee rejected the Israel Land Authority’s appeal against the Haifa District Planning Committee decision not to approve the construction of a vacation village near Nahsholim.

The groups most prominent in the struggle to preserve the coastline are the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam, Teva V’din), the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel, the Zalul nonprofit association and Green Course.

There are also local initiatives, notable among them the Ashdod Public Forum for Environmental Quality, and the Blue and Green nonprofit association, which led the battle against the Nahsholim development plan. There are also individuals like Dror Ezra of the Green Party in Herzliya, who battles almost singlehandedly against development plans on his city’s beaches.

A study conducted during the past two years as part of the European Union-funded Mare Nostrum (“Our Sea”) project strengthens the impression that when it comes to the coastline, Israel’s environmental movement has racked up some impressive achievements.

Mare Nostrum examines the regulation of planning and building on the coasts of the Mediterranean and the degree to which these regulations are implemented. Its Israeli coordinator is Prof. Rachelle Alterman from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and the SPNI and Tel Aviv University are also involved.

The Mediterranean shoreline is one of the most densely populated in the world, and the Israeli coastline is the most densely populated of all. According to Mare Nostrum, in Israel there are 39,000 people for every kilometer of shoreline; only Egypt, with 32,000 people, comes even close. Lebanon has only 19,000 per kilometer.

The Mediterranean Sea is the only one to be protected by a special international convention, the Barcelona Convention of 1974. Recently a protocol for the convention on Integrated Coastal Zone Management was ratified, a development that got almost no public attention. However, the Mediterranean coastlines of EU member states do not get enough protection from EU law, as manifested in EU directives, because these directives cannot apply to land laws, which also deal with planning and construction.

According to Alterman, an analysis of the information from the Mediterranean countries shows Israel’s environmental groups are among the strongest and most influential, even in comparison to those of Spain, France and Italy. Not only are they successful in preserving the coastline, she said, they also have high public status.

“There are countries in which members of these groups are under various types of threats, and their members have a hard time finding work,” she said.

Israel is also exceptional in that in addition to a specific law on preserving the coastal environment, it also has a special master plan for its beaches. “Planning concentration makes sense in the case of coastal planning, because beaches are clearly a public product,” she said.

Along with success and achievements, however, there are some basic deficiencies in Israel’s coastal defense mechanisms. While the overwhelming majority of lands are state-owned, substantial parts of the coastal areas are under private ownership, and in some cases these areas are not zoned for construction. The owners of these lands, which of course have a potentially high real-estate value, want to promote construction plans and exert pressure accordingly.

Moreover, according to Alterman, in cases where it is decided to zone the property for public use, the compensation the state pays to landowners is higher than the norm in other countries. She advises the state to buy these lands from their private owners, but when compensation is called for, not to set it in accordance with the owners’ hopes for realizing construction plans.

The Mare Nostrum team’s interim report also pointed to some fundamental problems with the Coastal Environment Protection Law. For example, the law does not guarantee free passage along the shoreline and allows various bodies to gate off areas of infrastructure installations, nature reserves or national parks. A prominent example of this problem is the Atlit fortress, which remains inside a military zone. Not only is there no free access to it, but no one is monitoring its status and it isn’t known whether restoration work is necessary to repair damage that might have occurred over the years.