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Drawing a line in the sand: A new law to save the seashore

One idealistic high school student prevented development on Palmachim Beach. Who will protect the rest of Israel's coast?
Palmachim Beach. (Anne Gordon/The Times of Israel)
Palmachim Beach. (Anne Gordon/The Times of Israel)

This week, Israel’s beaches dodged a bullet. For several hours, the press followed what appeared to be a massive oil spill heading towards Israel’s coasts. It turned out to be a false alarm. But after a tanker leakage sullied the beaches a year ago, the news reports were enough to remind many Israelis of just how small our coastline is — and how vulnerable it remains.

To be precise: Israel has 196 kilometers of beachfront along the Mediterranean. In terms of public accessibility, this number is inflated. About a quarter of the beaches contain military and industrial installations – which are closed. For the majority of Israelis who live in crowded urban conditions, the 146 kilometers of remaining seashore offer a rare haven of respite from the congestion and pressures of life. Here they can gaze at a vast horizon and think “big” about life and our place in the universe.

There’s nothing new about open spaces offering comfort and inspiration to the people of Israel. Scripture is fully cognizant of the healing power of the ocean. Psalm 96 proclaims: “Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof.” For those of us packed into Israel’s densely populated cities, the salubrious powers described in Psalm 118 resonate today more than ever: “From the enclosed, I called out to the Lord. God answered me in the open spaces.” Many of the five million Israelis living along Israel’s coastal plain understand that the only open spaces readily available to find such inspiration is the seashore.

When I began working on issues involving coastal zone management and conservation, there were more than three centimeters of coastline per Israeli citizen. But the population is growing. Today, that number is about 1.5 — and in 30 years, it will drop to 0.8 cm. per person. One would think that given this acute scarcity Israel would be parsimonious in its allocation of this precious natural resource. And the truth is, we try to be.

During the 1990s, when I was running Adam Teva v’Din – the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, about a third of our litigation was dedicated to stymying coastal development plans. Although for the most part we were successful, the few cases we lost were extremely painful. Magnificent beaches were lost… forever. They highlighted the need for a systemic solution.

And thus, was born the 2004 Protection of the Coastal Environment Law. Written by the organization’s public interest attorneys, the Knesset and the government adopted this critical statute. It protects the coastal area from development a full 300 meters from the shoreline unless a special permit allows for construction at a distance of 100 meters — a provision generally limited to cities that are already built at that proximity. The lands within the the100-meter line are to remain unobstructed for people to enjoy. For the most part, the law has been effective in stopping a litany of projects that were then in the planning phase that would have usurped the coast from the general public.

The problem is that the law did not apply retroactively. Development plans that had been approved prior to 2004 remained valid. It turns out there are over 200 of them. And while most remain dormant, occasionally, business interests revive them and begin to implement massive construction contiguous to the Mediterranean.

This was the case in the battle to preserve the Palmachim coast south of Tel Aviv. Adi Lustig was just a high school student in Rishon Lezion in 2008, when she discovered the plans to start building a resort in the beloved beach on which she had grown up. What started as the lone protest of an idealistic teenager, camping out on the beach expanded into a national campaign. It eventually captured the attention of then-minister of environment Gilad Ardan, who went to work. The development plan was canceled, although the legal battle over the associated compensation continues to this day. (Apparently, the developers do not think that 60 million shekels is enough.)

Unfortunately, not every beach has an intrepid, adolescent champion. And critical coastal areas can be lost. That may be the fate of the Poleg Coast in the south of Netanya. An old plan is about to be resuscitated that will not only encroach on this expansive beach — a favorite not only for locals — but nationally, for surfers. The development also will essentially truncate a narrow ecological corridor that allows gazelles to cross from the city’s small Iris sanctuary to the Poleg nature reserve. Netanya activists filed legal action to enjoin but lost the first round in the District Court. We can only be hopeful that in the appeal, the Supreme Court will be more conscientious in interpreting the procedural flaws associated with the plan’s adoption.

The obvious lesson here is that once again, we need a comprehensive solution. It is tactically unwise and substantively inappropriate to rely on individual interventions. That’s why I submitted a bill this week to Israel’s ministerial committee for legislation that would cancel all coastal development plans approved before 2004 until they are reviewed anew by the relevant planning commission. The amendment was originally written by  Adam Teva V’din general counsel Elli Ben Ari. Either the plans would be approved, canceled (with compensation to the developers), or altered by giving the developers alternative lands — farther away from the sea line or in a different location.

Not surprisingly, the Ministry of Environmental Protection is extremely supportive, but other ministries are not. After voicing lip service for how much they love the beach and the sea, several found innumerable reasons to challenge the proposed statute. A decision by the ministerial committee was delayed for two weeks giving my staff and me an opportunity to scramble to assuage bureaucratic concerns and make the necessary compromises.

Israel’s beachfront is not going to grow. Indeed, with the Mediterranean Sea rising about 10 mm a year, it is actually going to shrink. It is well that we all ask ourselves: where exactly is the next generation of children going to play? Where will lovers stroll and visionaries dream? Development pressures are increasing. It is time that we literally draw the line in the sand — and make sure that Israel’s seashore remains a national treasure forever.

About the Author
Professor Alon Tal is a member of Israel's Knesset representing the Blue and White Party, a veteran environmental activist, and an academic based at Tel Aviv University's Department of Public Policy.
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