When Offir Asher returned to Israel after 18 years in Toronto, he dreamed of building a world-class resort village on the Mediterranean shore. The reward he and his business partner Pini Malka reaped for their trouble was to be tarred as “avaricious real estate developers” by Israeli president Shimon Peres and demonized by environmentalists, led by a high schooler in dreadlocks.
Palmahim beach is a turning point in the relationship between developers and the environmental movement in Israel. It’s a short drive from the city of Rishon Lezion, or “first to Zion,” whose old town center is filled with the trademark four-story stucco apartment buildings common to most Israeli cities built in the pre-state years. Flower pots hang off the balconies, and falafel stands pepper the sidewalks. To the west, Rishon Lezion morphs into a modern Israeli suburbia. Gleaming white apartment buildings scale the skies. The nearby mall’s 26-screen cinema is only outsized by the replicas of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a Brontosaurus that tower over the parking lot.
Perched next to a kibbutz of the same name, Palmahim beach stands out as untouched land against Rishon Lezion’s building boom. That also makes it a particularly attractive resort site.
“Look, you can still get to the beach,” Asher said in late July, as he looked at blueprints on a screen in Malka’s Rishon Lezion office. Since moving back to Israel with his wife and two children, Asher added, he has aged much more than 13 years. His wiry gray hair framed a warm pair of blue eyes. He wore the Israeli casual business uniform of white polo shirt, jeans, and black leather shoes, while Malka wore a pink collared T-shirt and smoked Parliament cigarettes.
It took the pair three and a half years to prepare the plans and brochures for a replica of a Greek village, complete with white buildings, blue shutters, and leggy women rafting across azure pools. It was to be the first Israeli full-on resort village of its kind, and the partners consulted with international brands like Hyatt and Four Seasons to operate it.
Just after Malka and Asher bought their site in 2004, Israel passed a coastal protection law prohibiting construction within nearly 1,000 feet of the seashore. Their resort village would be 300 feet off the coast, but the site had been approved for tourism construction four years prior.
Yet as Asher and Malka fenced off their site and prepared to break ground, all hell broke loose. Within a week, their fences and signs were destroyed, and a group of protesters had set up a tent next to their construction site.
“They started saying we’re stealing the beach,” Malka said.
Adi Lustig was 17 when she visited her favorite strip of beach and saw a fence running across the sand.
“I went home and started looking into what they were doing. We used our own printers to make fliers,” she told me. Within days, she had pulled together a motley coalition to oppose the site and named it the Committee to Save Palmahim. For four months, Lustig and members of her group slept in the beachside protest tent and climbed on bulldozers to stop their digging.
Lustig, now 20, said she launched the Palmahim protest by herself, not through any of Israel’s numerous environmental organizations that later joined the fight. In a recent interview she wore a tattered black tank top and red-and-white striped skirt. Bangles jangled on her wrists. Her campaign to save the beach touched a nerve in Israel.
“It was amazing, the first time [Environment Minister] Gilad Erdan got to the beach and spoke, to see he is with us and willing to help,” Lustig said. For her, the campaign was an empowering moment. “We can’t complain about what the government does if we don’t do anything ourselves.”
But Lustig’s first taste of politics touched off a nightmare for Malka and Asher, who expected gratitude for bringing tourists to Israel and instead faced ongoing vandalism. Malka said his car was scratched and stink bombs were thrown at his house. Asher said the water pipes to his house were cut.
When Knesset members attended the protests at the site, Asher said he wanted to show them the plans. Instead, he said, “They didn’t even talk to us. They walked straight to the protest tent.”
In May 2008, the state comptroller froze all construction at the site and began a year-and-a-half-long investigation into the building deal. That report, never formally ratified, faulted the government for selling the site at half the value the district appraiser had set, for allowing construction too close to the coast, and for publishing partial information in the printed calls for tenders that resulted in only two bidders. Finally, in early July, Israel’s minister of the environment appealed to the government to convene a special session on Palmahim in light of the public interest in preserving the beach. That committee voted to send the plan back to the district planning board, which will likely cancel it.
Yael Dori, who has worked for 10 years as an urban planner with the advocacy group Israeli Union for Environmental Defense, said Palmahim represents a shift in Israel’s approach to public space and reflects the issue’s move into the mainstream.
“The fact that the minister of the environment joined the struggle at the governmental level is absolutely wonderful,” Dori said. “It’s not just some esoteric issue for treehuggers.”
At the mid-July party organized by the Save Palmahim Committee to celebrate what they saw as a victory, Minister Erdan set his sights on another resort project planned for the Betzet beach in northern Israel.
“Palmahim is only the start,” Erdan said. “We need development, tourism, and construction, but we can do it in other places. You can’t move the beach.”
But carrying on the Palmahim fight means overturning other legally approved projects that have been dormant for years in Israel’s highly centralized planning boards. Some developments in Betzet beach, north of Nahariya, were green-lighted as early as 1983 and 1992 and never, or only partially, completed; Palmahim was approved in 2000. Lustig’s successful battle over Palmahim sets a precedent that after a plan is approved, there is still a chance to stop it. For Malka and Asher, of course, this is the problem.
“There are no apartments for young couples, there is a lack of housing, and there are 20,000 missing hotel rooms,” Malka said. “To get a permit in the most trivial place in Israel takes two years. Once it took four months, in the 1990s, and even that’s too long.”
Rishon Lezion Mayor Dov Tzur says it’s not that simple. He supports development—but only if it’s what he calls the right kind. Tzur attended furniture giant Ikea’s opening last spring but threw his weight behind Lustig in the Palmahim battle.
“There is no doubt that tourism and water go together, but the question is where,” he said. “There are seven kilometers of beach here. The army took 6.3. So, there’s only 700 meters of beach left.”
Tzur was one of more than 500 people at the victory party Lustig and the “Save Palmahim Committee” held on the beach. Lilach Kaduri, 33, passed her summers on the Palmahim shore as a kid in Rishon. She came to the party in a green dress with a white flower pinned into her red hair.
“There’s a lot of places here with little ponds and orchards,” Kaduri said on a drive to the beach. She passed a white van parked under a eucalyptus tree and pointed to it. “He has the best malabi (milky dessert) in the world. We used to sometimes just come to buy it and then drive back.”
Palmahim is an inspiring win for environmentalists in Israel, especially in light of their less successful battles. Last week, police recommended indicting former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on charges of taking bribes to allow construction of a 32-story luxury housing complex called Holy Land. Despite protests by environmentalists, that six-tower complex sits on a pristine hill in southern Jerusalem.
But the story of the beach resort also offers troubling insight into a cumbersome Israeli planning system that has not caught up with the increasingly vocal public demand for development-free beaches and open space. “Between 70 and 90 percent of the Israeli population mistrusts the planning bodies, so who is going to manage our land?” asked urban planner Rachelle Alterman, of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at Haifa’s Technion Institute.
Because the resort was legally approved, Asher and Malka are suing the state for $100 million in damages. And until the Israeli planning system catches up to growing public scrutiny of development, the cost of the shortfall will continue to rise.
Daniella Cheslow is a master’s student in geography at Ben-Gurion University in Beer Sheva, Israel. She is based in Jerusalem.