Environment: Battle for Palmahim Beach has became a symbol of national consensus for conservation effort for country’s coastline.
By SHARON UDASIN
Though it is just a sliver of beach on Israel’s southern Mediterranean shores, the lush sand dunes of Palmahim Beach have become an icon of the larger public struggle to keep the remaining fragments of their beloved beaches untouched.“I want to create a massive movement of people that has this very focused mission,” says Dana Lustig, an activist who has been fighting to protect Palmahim for years. “It starts with the beaches and then moves into the water and then on to many other things we can do as a whole united group.”After public protests that rallied the country’s biggest green groups and Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan together in the summer of 2010, the government nixed existing plans to construct a large resort on Palmahim Beach. Before this decision, however, the project’s developers had already purchased the land and received government approval for construction of the leisure complex.Two-and-a-half years later, no financial compensation agreement or site alternative has been decided on, and the project has therefore returned to the tables of the Central District Committee for Planning and Building – a step that is rattling the activists who originally fought against the plan.Last week, in anticipation of a central district steering committee meeting that occurred this Wednesday, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel launched a campaign that called upon Erdan and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to maintain their original promise to protect the Palmahim coast. Working with SPNI are a wide range of other environmental organizations, such as Adam Teva V'Din (Israel Union for Environmental Defense); Green Course; Shatil; the Committee to Save Palmahim Beach; and the Israeli Forum for the Preservation of Beaches. Through the campaign, members of the public have so far submitted over 6,000 letters to the ministers on the Hasdera petitioning website.Leading a rally on behalf of the Palmahim fight on Tuesday afternoon was Prof. Alon Tal, chairman of the Green Movement and No. 13 on the Knesset list for the Tzipi Livni Party. At the beach that day, he played the guitar for supporters while he and Livni sung a duet of the Israeli folk song “Hofim” (“Beaches”).“I think that Palmahim became a symbol of the national consensus for a significant conservation effort for Israel’s limited coastline,” Tal told The Jerusalem Post that day.AdvertisementAt a steering committee meeting of the Central District Committee for Planning and Building on Wednesday morning, representatives from the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority presented a plan to transform the entire Palmahim region into a national park and nature reserve. Under this plan, if the steering committee and then the full central district committee decide to grant their approvals, the stretch of coast alongside Kibbutz Palmahim would become national park land and the coastal area from south of the kibbutz to Ashdod would become an untouchable nature reserve.In addition to proposing the nature reserve and national park transformation, the INPA and Environment Ministry officials also suggested granting an alternative location to the Palmahim resort developers – a smaller site across the street, next to the Palmahim air force base. The officials stressed, however, that they were confident that the developers would not be happy with this suggestion and that the only “real alternative” would be financial compensation.The steering committee members, however, did not immediately make any decision about the proposals, an Environment Ministry spokesman said.Lustig, 27, was one of the founders of the initial struggle that began several years ago to save Palmahim Beach from a resort complex planned on its sands. She now intends to use that original – and still ongoing – campaign as a launch pad for a nationwide coastal preservation fight on behalf of the public.“It was my sister and I that started the whole Palmahim struggle a few years ago,” Lustig, who grew up in the nearby town of Beit Oved, told the Post on Wednesday.For her new project, Mishmar HaYam (Sea Preservation), Lustig is receiving funding and expert guidance through the American Express Young Professionals program. The kickoff for her new campaign, which directly involves Palmahim, is a 47-second YouTube video rallying famous Israeli personalities in a last-ditch effort for the beach.With sand sifting through a person’s hand in the background, the video begins with quotes from Netanyahu and Erdan.First is a quote from Netanyahu, from July 4, 2010, which reads: “The country’s beaches are a unique natural resource and we must ensure that they continue to be open for the use of the general public.”Next come the words of Erdan, from June 13, 2010: “The coastal strip of Israel is supposed to serve the greater public, and it cannot be that only captains of industry will benefit from this unique and limited natural resource.”After these statements, a number of famous faces – including actor Tal Friedman, singer-songwriter Keren Peles, musician Mosh Ben-Ari, media personality Avri Gilad, singer Shai Aviv, former model Lior Miller and rapper Mooke (Daniel Niv) – all appear, saying “You promised,” one after another. At the video’s conclusion, Dana Lustig and her sister, Adi, emerge with the sea in the background, reiterating that the ministers must not break their promise to save Palmahim.THE ENTIRE Palmahim coastal area is 41.4 hectares (102.3 acres), with the chunk of land purchased by the resort developers encompassing about 7.2 hectares, Lustig explains. While the developers paid only NIS 8 million for their piece of land originally, Lustig said that they are now demanding NIS 400m.in order to cease the project. The government – particularly the Israel Lands Authority and the Finance Ministry – do not want to fund any compensation agreement, according to Lustig.“They are asking for an amount that isn’t reasonable with anything they’re planning,” she says.“If they want to build this amazing resort, that means they want to develop the whole area,” she stresses, noting that without the addition of all kinds of infrastructure, the resort would remain an inaccessible island.The entrepreneurs behind the project are Ofir Asher of the Evelon group and Pinchas Malka, CEO of Maoz Daniel. In response to a telephone call from The Jerusalem Post, Asher directed the Post to his company’s lawyer, Rafi Navon.Navon immediately denies that the developers had asked for any specific financial compensation value, and says that the figure of NIS 400 million presented by Lustig is entirely inaccurate.“No one from the government has been approaching us – the opposite, in fact,” Navon says. “We are writing them letters and they are not responding.”In these letters, Navon says that the developers have been calling for the government to allow them to build, to do what was prescribed by law. The government had issued a public tender for the Palmahim resort project and this team purchased the land from the country for NIS 8 million, according to Malka. That NIS 8m is but a fraction of what the companies have already spent on engineers, an architect and other project costs, Malka tells the Post.The companies agreed in the summer of 2010 to provide the government two years to suggest an alternative plan. That time period expired several months ago, he explains. The government had originally planned the Palmahim resort area as a part of Tama 35 (National Master Plan 35), and according to Tama 12, such a plan can only be substituted with a program of equal size and proximity to water, he adds.But because no one from the government is talking to him, Malka said he is unable to say whether he would agree to a compensatory settlement. “I can't consider something that nobody offered to me,” he continues.The developers were not invited to the steering committee meeting on Wednesday and had no knowledge of the nature reserve plans or of the alternative building location suggested, Navon and Malka stress.“If you want to offer something, let us be part of this discussion,” Malka says. “We have sent letters to Netanyahu and Erdan and have told them, ‘If you want us out, please let’s go and negotiate.’ Nobody is coming back with an answer.”The hotel is not supposed to be right on top of the water and is actually planned for an area of the beach that is currently an illegal parking lot, Malka explains. This spot originally received support from the INPA because the organization deemed it much less ecologically critical than other beachside alternatives.“So what has changed today?” Malka asks. “Nothing – just politics because some kids are shouting and sending letters.The reason they made the plans in the beginning was that Israel needs places for tourism.”In response to a query from the Post, an ILA spokeswoman would only say that there has been no contact with the developers thus far and that she would make journalists aware of any compensation agreement, should one occur in the future.Details from the Palmahim project’s official development website describe the initiative as unparalleled by any other resort that exists in Israel – a site that will “combine history and modernity” with breathtaking views of the ancient Yavne-Yam port town.Alongside the resort would be arts and cultural workshops and a home for international summits, which are all able to benefit from the natural environment there.The hotel would be of five-star standards, designed to accommodate 1,200 people in 350 rooms of varying sizes. Within the facility would be a swimming pool, a sauna, 16 treatment rooms, a fitness center and a sun deck. There would also be a spacious conference hall, five meeting rooms, a VIP area, advanced technological capabilities, public parking and beach access for the disabled.Next to the hotel would be a museum of underwater archeology, as well as an area planned by the Israel Antiquities Authority with ancient wine presses, mosaic floors and an Antilia well.PART OF an overall plan to rehabilitate the Nahal Sorek region, the hotel will help preserve a historic site and save antiquities that are currently in danger of destruction, the developers argue. Designed according to the principles of green building, the resort would involve gray water recycling and the use of solar energy.Environmental groups and local activists, nonetheless, continue to see the project as anything but “green.”Going forward with her coastal awareness campaigns, Lustig stresses the fact that what halted the Palmahim building in the first place was that “the whole public came together.”“Everybody agreed that there are not many more beaches left,” she says. “We say Palmahim, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of 30 kilometers left out of 200 kilometers should be developed.”Having grown up with Palmahim as her “home beach,” the building plans there were a clear first target for her efforts and those of her sister. But now she wants to expand the campaign to fighting for “every single beach in Israel.”“I’m just a citizen that cares who wants to take forward what we did in Palmahim,” she says. “We learned a lot in Palmahim and we gained some public trust.”Since there is “not much beach left,” Lustig’s focus will be on any beach where building plans arise. Some specific targets on her radar at the moment include Nitzanim, Nahsholim, Habonim and Zikim, she says. In future fights to save the coast, however, it will be impossible to spend five years to protect each beach – and Lustig therefore plans to rally hundreds of people like herself to her cause, she explains.“It’s never-ending; We never know where another plan is going to emerge,” she says.Organizations like SPNI and Adam Teva V’Din are powerful bodies whose support is critical to the beach preservation war, but perhaps even more crucial is the participation of a “massive movement” of the public itself, according to Lustig.“Because Israel is right on the coastline and there isn’t an Israeli who doesn’t love the beach,” she says. “Most of us came through the ocean to Israel. We need to have respect and know when enough is enough.”
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