From Dead Sea to Dying Sea

To this day, there is no single authority responsible for the Dead Sea; there is no agency that determines how much can be pumped out.

I've been wanting to write about the Lake Kinneret beaches for a while now. Every time I read that because of limits on parking fees, no one wants to bid to operate the beaches, I intended to write about it, yet every time, something that seemed more important cropped up.

But now it's the intermediate days of Sukkot, the countdown on the cartoon bomb has stopped since the prime minister's grand UN show, and I spent the holiday on Lake Kinneret's Amnon Beach. There, I saw that on the side belonging to Yitzhak Tshuva, with its holiday village where rooms cost NIS 650 a night, the beach was filthy and neglected.

When I angrily tried to find out how this could be, it turned out that this was apparently a localized problem, but that unexpectedly, there has in general been a substantial improvement in the state of the Kinneret's beaches over the past three years.

In 2008, after a battle waged by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and other green groups, the Knesset passed a law regulating the beaches (forged by combining bills sponsored by the Finance Ministry and MKs Ophir Pines-Paz and Dov Khenin ). This law provided for the establishment of the Kinneret Administration.

For the first time, there is now a single entity responsible for the Kinneret. For the first time, there is an entity that manages, oversees and protects public and environmental interests. It will take a long time to repair the damage that neglect and corruption has caused Lake Kinneret, but at least one can no longer charge NIS 200 a day for access to the beach: The limit is a few shekels an hour, with a maximum of NIS 60 per day, and there are also 12 kilometers of shoreline open to the public free of charge.

The Kinneret has 55 kilometers of shoreline, of which 35 are under the purview of the Kinneret Administration. Twenty are still privately owned, but in principle, they too are meant to be open and accessible to all.

Israel's Mediterranean shoreline is 150 kilometers long. Of this, one third is held by the Israel Defense Forces. Another third is taken up by infrastructure and the ports. Thus only 50 kilometers remain for the rest of us to enjoy.

In response to a petition by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam, Teva, V'din ), the High Court of Justice forced the local authorities to obey the law that forbids charging entrance fees to beaches that provide basic services, including running water, bathrooms, cleaning and lifeguards. Three years later, the situation still isn't perfect, but beaches along the Mediterranean seacoast have started to be open to the public in an orderly and proper fashion.

In practice, it was only in this 2009 ruling that the Supreme Court first recognized the basic right of every person to enjoy the environment. This right, however, is still completely denied us on the Dead Sea shore.

Two years ago, the Interior Ministry's legal adviser promised to apply the regulation that forbids charging for beach access to the Dead Sea as well, but she has since been replaced. Thus when you travel from Masada to the northern Dead Sea, you will find a total of three accessible beaches, all for a fee. And at 7:30 A.M., they are all closed, even if one is willing to pay the not-insignificant fee.

The northern basin of the Dead Sea has 40 kilometers of unused but inaccessible shoreline. The southern basin has 20 kilometers of shoreline, of which three serve the hotels and 17 are used by the Dead Sea Works company. But of course, lack of access is only the lesser tragedy of the Dead Sea, whose level is sinking by a full meter every year. A third of the water taken from the Dead Sea is pumped out by Dead Sea Works, owned by the Ofer brothers, who have been fighting with the state for a year now over the royalties they haven't paid for using this - our - natural resource.

To this day, there is no single authority responsible for the Dead Sea; there is no agency that determines how much can be pumped out. But the truth is that the public isn't as attached to the Dead Sea as it is to the Kinneret: The fact that it's so inaccessible makes the Dead Sea irrelevant for most of us.

The successful recent efforts to regulate the beaches along the Kinneret and the Mediterranean pose a challenge for the government: It should immediately appoint an agency to be responsible for the Dead Sea, to regulate the hotels and the beaches and put a complete stop to pumping from the sea. The Ofer brothers aren't the only ones who deserve to enjoy this wonder.