The Jerusalem District Court recently rejected an appeal by the Caesarea Edmond Rothschild Development Corporation to build a new neighborhood abutting the coastline at Caesarea.

The judge said that approval of the plan would cause “irreparable damage to ancient remains, harm the cultural heritage of the State of Israel, as well as eliminate one of the important archeological sites of the country.”

Caesarea is the site of a famous port city constructed by King Herod in 22 CE that was once home to almost 100,000 people. Modern Caesarea is home to a more modest 4,500 people.

Yet this dispute between developers and environmental-historical interests is symbolic of a larger struggle over the fate of the nation’s coastline and coastal dunes.

According to a paper by Hebrew University geographer Noam Levin, Israel’s coastal dunes have declined from 462 square kilometers in 1948 to fewer than 185 today.

During the pre-state period the sand dunes were seen as a threat to attempts to carve out Jewish communities in the Coastal Plain, since the dunes used to expand inland at a rate of several meters a year, laying waste potential agricultural land. With the massive development of coastal communities after 1950, such as Ashdod, Ashkelon, Tel Aviv and Netanya, however, the dunes gave way to development and vacation communities.

Today, housing and tourist projects are seen as threats to some of the last remaining large areas of sand dunes and coastal cliffs. For instance, a recent plan for an industrial park next to Ashdod would see construction over an estimated 13 hectares of sand dunes. According to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the project would “reduce open, natural spaces that are home to a wide variety of flora and fauna and damage the largest concentration of sycamore fig trees in the belt of sycamore figs between the Dan region and Ashkelon. This is a unique habitat, resembling nowhere else in Israel.”

Palmahim Beach, another wild portion of the coast south of Tel Aviv, home to a large air force base, was also the site of planned construction, of a vacation resort, that caused a major controversy. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Ministry canceled plans to build a 350-room hotel there.

Plans to build a coastal promenade at Zevulun Beach in Herzliya, however, will proceed despite environmental objections.

The current government has worked to pass comprehensive legislation to protect the coast. In July, the Ministerial Committee on Legislative Affairs approved an amendment to the 2004 Law for the Protection of the Coastal Environment.

Gilad Erdan, the environmental protection minister, declared: “Very little space is left on the beach areas for the enjoyment of the public, and there is no reason to continue to block them with concrete monsters.”

As the Caesarea case illustrates, however,there still exist numerous disputes regarding coastal development. The desire to develop land, especially to build affordable housing, confronts an environmental lobby that would prefer to see no development.

The coastal zone is home not only to unique environmental ecosystems and important archeological treasures at sites such as Ashkelon, Caesarea, Apollonia (Arsuf) and Achziv. Some portions of the coastal zone are dominated by military bases and infrastructure, such as Palmahim, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems north of Kiryat Yam, and the naval base at Atlit. This preserves the sites from encroaching development. In addition, a network of national parks and nature reserves dot Israel’s coastline.

It would be best, however, if the coastal zone became part of a national master plan to create a network of local authorities, planning institutions, and environmental and archeological interests, to create a streamlined planning process for the zone that would prevent piecemeal decisions that affect individual areas.

The current government tried to implement a new streamlined planning process that would be a step in the right direction. Environmental groups opposed this because they believe the network of local committees and recourse to the courts provide them leverage against development. A better system would be to incorporate environmental and archeological objections into a stage of the proposed streamlined planning process, providing a voice to protect Israel’s unique coastal environment.

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