Saving Palmahim Beach

It’s highly doubtful that anyone visiting Palmahim Beach a while back would have taken much notice of the two young women sitting on the sand together engrossed in conversation.

Saving Palmahim Beach (photo credit: RAANAN COHEN)
Saving Palmahim Beach
(photo credit: RAANAN COHEN)
It’s highly doubtful that anyone visiting Palmahim Beach a while back would have taken much notice of the two young women sitting on the sand together engrossed in conversation.
One of these two women was Adi Lustig, who in early 2008 became known as the girl with the dreadlocks whose unbelievable determination saved Palmahim Beach from falling into the jaws of business entrepreneurs who were planning to construct a resort on the waterline. 
Over the years, the beach has become like a second home for Lustig, and she is used to random people approaching her as she sits on the beach. But this time, she had set a specific time to meet up with actress Yahli Elimelech, who is playing Lustig’s character in the joint Haifa and Tel Aviv theaters’ production of Holding Onto Air, written by Raanan Paz and starring Tom Schwartzberg. The show is playing at Arison Hall in Tel Aviv. 
Elimelech and Lustig met for the first time at rehearsals for the show’s first performance in Beersheba.
“This is where everything took place,” says Lustig, as she motions to the beach with an outstretched hand. “This is where my tent stood, and these are the remains of the fence the developers constructed when they were trying to rob us of Palmahim Beach, which belongs to all of us.”
Lustig begins to tear up a little as she describes the events of the past few years. “I still can’t believe that someone wrote a play about me and the battle I led to save Palmahim,” Lustig admits. “And I think it’s so amazing that they chose Yahli, whom I’d never met before, to play my character. It’s a strange but great feeling.”
“Not many actors get the opportunity to portray a real-life person, and on top of that, someone with whom they empathize,” says Elimelech. “I mean, Adi has done so much for all of us.
“Now, we meet up as friends to hang out together on the beach. Both of us are 29 years old, and both of us have fought battles, although mine was a little different from Adi’s.”
What were your struggles?
Elimelech: “Whereas Adi’s struggle took place in the public realm, mine was private. My family and my surroundings were not supportive of my desire to become an artist. They would often tell me that I was choosing a very difficult life, that I’d never be able to support myself. But I insisted on doing my own thing.”
Lustig: “The Palmahim Beach story is not about me,” explains. “It’s a saga that teaches us not to give up our efforts to protect nature, which is something we cannot live without. I was a naive 17-year-old girl at the time, with very little life experience. And yet I succeeded in contributing a great deal to saving the beach, and preventing it from being expropriated from the public, as has happened to most of Israel’s beaches.”
LUSTIG HAS been ambitious since she was little. The youngest of four siblings, she made aliyah with her family from Johannesburg when she was four years old. Her father was a skipper, and her mother practiced alternative medicine. She currently lives with her family in Moshav Beit Oved, not far from Palmahim. She’s been fighting for freedom and justice since she was a little girl.
“I’ve always loved being active, and I’ve never liked talking much about things,” says Lustig. “I prefer doing things.”
“I was never very interested in school. Everyone there just talked and talked. I preferred doing things outside in nature – especially spending time in the sea.”
Lustig dropped out of high school at the beginning of 11th grade.
“It bothered me that we were forced to learn all of this irrelevant information,” she explains. “My conclusion was that the entire purpose of high school was to complete the matriculation exams, and so I figured I’d be better off studying for them in an external program, in which the students were older and more mature.”
For personal reasons, Lustig did not serve in the IDF, and instead joined the “militia” defending Palmahim Beach.
“Instead of serving in the IDF for two to three years like everyone else,” continues Lustig, “my national service lasted nine years. This was my way of contributing to the State of Israel. And actually, my service has not even ended yet – I still carry out my service on a daily basis.”
How did it all start?
Lustig: “One cold winter morning in February 2008, when I arrived at the beach at Palmahim, I saw that the beach had been closed off. An enormous metal fence had been erected, with a large gate that had never been there before. And tractors were aggressively digging up the sand.
“I couldn’t believe that my beach had been turned into a construction site. I was afraid this was going to be just like the natural green surroundings that had been torn up so that they could replace it with the monstrous gray IKEA structure and all the roads and interchanges leading up to it. There wasn’t even a sign explaining what was going to be built.
“I went and asked the guys driving the tractors, but they couldn’t really tell me anything. I finally found out that Palmahim Beach had been sold to private entrepreneurs for only NIS 8 million. I might have been very young at the time, but even then I knew something here was very wrong.”
So what did you decide to do?
Lustig: “Well, I figured that so long as they hadn’t built any foundations yet, everything was still possible. My sister Libby and I printed up flyers inviting people to come join the first protest on the beach.
“This might sound funny, but among the 20 people who showed up were the entrepreneur, the contractor and some of their buddies. They’d come to taunt us, asking us if we really thought we had a chance to change anything.”
AFTER THE protest was over, Lustig decided to put up a tent and sleep there on the beach, even though it was wintertime. She ended up staying there for five months.
“We knew it was illegal to leave a permanent structure there, so we kept moving the tent around. It wasn’t easy living, though, and after three months, our tent was burned down by the Israel Lands Authority. They’d loaded some of our stuff on their truck. They’d taken advantage of the fact that I’d been at meetings all morning. What a horrible day that was! 
“When I came back, I saw a huge fire burning. I was so astonished, I broke out in tears. Any innocence I still had disappeared after that bitter moment. I couldn’t believe that a governmental body had been responsible for this violent act. We’d been accused of trespassing, even though the tent had been moved from place to place. They accused us instead of the developers, who’d already begun building just 30 meters from the edge of the sea, which is illegal. It was like a slap in the face.”
The ILA claimed that they’d “removed a tent installed by intruders, and that after the tent was removed, there was a great deal of debris left on the beach by the intruders. And because it would have been problematic to remove the items, they were burned on the beach; in an effort to prevent them from contaminating the rest of beach, they’d burned them. They claimed that they hadn’t burned any equipment.”
Lustig recalls a whole host of additional unpleasant occurrences and moments of loneliness.
“One evening when I was returning from my studies at the external program, I saw that thieves were going through my stuff. When they noticed me, they ran away. It’s sad how they could even contemplate stealing from me when I had so little.”
What did your family think about what you were doing?
Lustig: “My sister Libby hung out with me there most of the time. My sister Roni was a super-big help with everything tech-related, including posting on Instagram and taking photographs. My brother was away in South Africa. My mother was amazing, too, and was always helping with everything. She took care of all the financial aspects.
“What takes place in just a few moments on the stage was actually an arduous campaign that lasted years. Many people doubted that we would succeed in our struggle against people and organizations with so much power and money. But when people come together and support each other, we became an incredibly strong entity. We succeeded in getting 350,000 signatures on our petition. People came to support us from all over the country. Many even brought us food and equipment.”
LUSTIG PRAISES the late state comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss for his support of their struggle. She also commends former MK Ophir Paz-Pines and MKs Dov Henin and Gilad Erdan, when he was environmental protection minister.
She was awarded the Prize for Excellence in the Field of Social Services in Israel by former president Shimon Peres.
“That was a very exciting but confusing moment,” Lustig recalls. “I was overjoyed to receive the national award, but at the same time I couldn’t forget that it all started with my antiestablishment struggle against a state-run organization. What I discovered, though, is that the Israeli government was willing to take responsibility for its mistakes.”
The final decision to cancel the plan to build a resort on Palmahim Beach was finalized only two years ago.
“That wasn’t good enough, though. We went ahead and applied to have the zoning changed from land intended for recreation to land belonging to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
“Our struggle has given others impetus to fight for issues that are important to them. Whenever people contact me, I try to help them as much as possible, especially when it comes to legal struggles over Israel’s beaches.”
Have you ever considered going into politics?
“In my mind, I’ve been active in politics since that first day on the beach. Politics doesn’t have anything to do with being right-wing or left-wing.”
How do you currently make a living?
“Well, I give lectures, which allows me to carry out my volunteer activity. I feel like my purpose on this Earth is to work hard to make our planet a better place to live. Environmentalism is so important. I used to feel like I skipped my youth, but now I realize that this was exactly how my life was supposed to progress.”
ELIMELECH, WHO plays Lustig in the play, and who grew up in Jerusalem, “a city without a sea,” came to acting from the field of dance. 
“I identify so strongly with Adi’s character, that I began experiencing strong feelings of anger toward actor Kobi Aderet, who plays the entrepreneur in the play. I think he’s a great guy and actor, but the closer we got to the show date, the more I found myself picking fights with him, as if he really were the man responsible for all the bad things that happened at Palmahim.”
Do you think the play truly reflects what happened in real life?
Lustig: “For the most part, yes. There’s a scene with my father’s character that they added in order to make the play more dramatic. My parents are divorced, and my father was not always around a lot. When he found out that I was sleeping on the beach, he called me and scolded me. In the play, they describe the interaction a bit differently. But, you know what? The actors did such a great job, and I even cried when I watched the show.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner. 
The next showing of ‘Holding Onto Air’ will be in February. For more information: 
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