ToI investigates

Netanya accused of abusing fragile beach ecosystem with facility for Maccabiah Games

Local residents and Society for Protection of Nature say city violated national planning committee rules; Maccabiah denies allegations

Sue Surkes

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Aerial view of the Maccabiah compound on Poleg beach, Netanya, July 11, 2022. The access road cut through the dune can be seen on the right. (|Rika Edelman)
Aerial view of the Maccabiah compound on Poleg beach, Netanya, July 11, 2022. The access road cut through the dune can be seen on the right. (|Rika Edelman)

Environmentally minded residents of Netanya on the central coast claim that the construction of infrastructure for the Maccabiah Games in the middle of a recognized ecological corridor could cause irreversible damage to a sandy ecosystem already under intense pressure from nearby development.

The contest is usually held every four years, but it was postponed from last year because of COVID-19. Seen as the Jewish Olympics, it will bring together 10,000 Jewish athletes from all over the world. The official opening is set for Thursday in Jerusalem.

Earlier this year, against the position of the Environmental Protection Ministry, the National Planning Committee allowed Netanya Municipality to skip the building permit process to enable it to quickly build temporary structures on Poleg Beach to host Maccabiah’s beach sports and various entertainment events.

The municipality argued that the case fell under a special provision that allows for the building of temporary structures in “exceptional circumstances,” when they are needed for reasons of “urgent national importance.”

Locals, who have been joined by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, charge that the city violated the conditions set by the National Planning Committee by damaging the sands both within and outside of the area where they were permitted to build.

Maccabiah Games and the Netanya Municipality have rejected the allegations.

The beach structures lie largely within a strip of land meant to serve as an undisturbed green space allowing movement of animals between protected areas.

A map showing the location of the Maccabiah Games complex within a green belt recognized by the authorities as an ecological corridor for a separate, proposed hotel complex.

The green space, part of an ecological corridor that stretches from the Poleg Stream to an important reserve of irises to the north, was declared an ecological corridor by the National Committee for the Protection of Coastal Environments in September.

Area residents had already been fighting a plan for a large hotel complex they say will encroach on a much wider corridor than the one approved.

Ofir Yuval, who has led the locals’ efforts to have the Maccabiah beach venue moved, said city officials could have held the event at existing beachside venues nearby, but chose this spot to “establish facts on the ground and destroy the existing wildlife there to implement the plan for the ugly, ugly hotels. It’s like a deliberate poke in the eye.”

According to ecologists, the area’s dunes and beach provide an important habitat for everything from rodents and small reptiles to gazelles and at this time, in particular, for sea turtles that are coming ashore to lay their eggs.

An access road, covered in a mixture of compacted earth and stones, laid by the Netanya Municipality for the Maccabiah Games. (Moshe Perlmuter, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel)

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority pledged to ensure that the site was returned to its previous state after the games end on July 26. The planning committee has given Netanya until August 1 to remove all signs of the event.

An INPA spokesman said that while this section of coast was neither a nature reserve nor a national park, but under Netanya’s authority, it had supervised the Maccabiah works from the standpoint of protecting nature, especially to ensure a clean and unlit section of beach for sea turtles to lay eggs.

To the best of the INPA’s knowledge, “no material or irreversible damage” had been caused to the beach as the result of construction, he added.

But Prof. Avigdor Abelson, a Tel Aviv University marine ecologist, countered, “Here is an ecosystem with a variety of creatures and as soon as you come and change it, you can’t come after a month, cover it in sand and say it’s gone back to normal. Change is damage.”

The area would eventually rehabilitate, he added, but he couldn’t say over how much time.

He said it was “outrageous” to allow the Maccabiah in an area where sea turtles are known to lay their eggs, explaining that noise and light could deter females from coming up onto the beach, while changes in sand conditions could send those who ventured onto land back to the water before laying any eggs.

Turtles approach the beach any time from early evening on, he added.

Netanya’s entertainment program includes early evening concerts by local stars.

Illustrative – A sea turtle laying eggs on the beach. (Yaniv Levy, Israel National Parks Authority)

The dunes were home to an array of small creatures that hid there, Abelson went on. “They certainly harmed plants and animals there,” he said, referring to the creation of an access road.

The sands being compacted by heavy earth and games facilities were meanwhile located above underground tunnels for creatures such as sand crabs and worms, he continued.

The most aggravating thing was the “disregard for the environment,” he went on. Had proper planning procedures been followed, an environmental assessment of the whole area would have been carried out before any approvals were given.

Without that, the city would be able to claim after the event that there was little or nothing of environmental importance there in the first place.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel documented, together with residents, what it says are violations of the conditions set by the National Planning Committee.

The alleged violations include dumping large amounts of earth mixed with stones to support the temporary infrastructure inside the Maccabiah complex; creating access roads outside of the permitted area by digging into the dunes and beach and pouring a layer of the earth and stones mixture on top; and allowing heavy vehicles to drive between the complex and the shoreline without permission, compacting the sand, leaving tire marks and damaging the fragile ecosystem.

The earth and stones would be difficult to completely remove once the games were over, the SPNI said.

City officials told the marine protection organization EcoOcean during a tour earlier this year that they would prohibit vehicles on the strip of sand bordering the sea and would not allow lighting at night except in an emergency or a one-time event, in which case it would be “minimal, goal-oriented, and not directed toward the sea,” according to a letter seen by The Times of Israel from senior EcoOcean staff to the head of Netanya city’s operation’s directorate.

A tractor moves rocks between the shoreline and the area of Poleg beach in Netanya approved for the Maccabiah Games, July 5, 2022. (Courtesy, Yuval Ofir)

But on July 8, a resident photographed the compound lit up at 4:30 a.m.

Lights illuminate the Maccabiah Games compound on Poleg beach at 4.34 a.m. on July 8, 2022. (Courtesy, Ilan Yaros)

Light pollution can affect insect movement, foraging, reproduction, and hunting; the orientation of turtles heading to sea; and the ability of birds to avoid flying into buildings.

While countrywide preparations of facilities for the 21st Maccabiah have been going on for years, Netanya only decided in November that it wanted to be part of the games.

Rika Eidelman, a local activist also involved in the battle against the hotel, said residents were excited to host the competition.

“Our problem is with the location,” she said.

“They say they’ll return the site to its original state, but nobody knows how much time it will take to rehabilitate,” she added. “It’s like cutting down a tree and planting a sapling in its stead. The real question is why one has to destroy it in the first place. They just don’t understand the importance of nature.”

Infrastructure for the Maccabiah Games resting on a mixture of earth and stones at Poleg beach, Netanya, June 30, 2022. (Courtesy, Ofir Yuval)

During the planning committee’s discussion about the request, the Environmental Protection Ministry’s representative noted that if the city had gone through the normal process for getting a building permit, it would likely have failed because of coastal legislation. Zoning for the area only allows for small events on the beach.

The representative, Ayala Geldman, opposed locating commercial stalls, offices, climbing walls, equipment for a “ninja” obstacle course, and basketball courts on the sands within 100 meters (328 feet) of the shoreline, proposing that they be situated to the east of the beach in an area already zoned for development.

Use of the beach, she insisted, should be restricted to facilities, including stands, for beach volleyball, beach soccer, swimming, and surfing. These should be at least 30 meters (98 feet) away from the water to enable the public to continue enjoying the sand and sea, she said.

A tractor digs an access road to the water for fisherman and surfers to the north of an area on Poleg Beach, Netanya, approved for the Maccabiah Games. (Courtesy, Yuval Ofir)

Defending the plan, Netanya’s city engineer, Tal Erez, said that ecological considerations had been examined by an expert in the field and in coordination with the INPA.

Rejecting Geldman’s proposal, the committee voted 13 to 2 in favor of exempting the municipality from the building permit process. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked signed off on the exemption in January.

The facilities Geldman wanted relocated have since been constructed on the beach.

In March, the SPNI and residents appealed to the High Court against the use of the exemption in this case. The court decided not to intervene.

It remains unclear how closely the relevant state bodies have monitored the works or tried to stop those that might violate the conditions set by the planners.

Last week, the SPNI’s legal adviser, Asaf Rosenbloom, appealed to the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and Netanya’s city engineer to halt the works it said contradicted the conditions set forth by the planning board.

The Environmental Protection Ministry’s marine environment director, Rani Amir, replied that the organization should be reaching out to the Interior Ministry, the national planning committee, and their supervisory bodies.

Beachgoers walk by part of the temporary infrastructure for the Maccabiah Games on Poleg beach, Netanya, on July 5, 2022. (Moshe Perlmuter, SPNI)

The Interior Ministry referred The Times of Israel to the National Planning Committee. The planning committee sent the minutes of the relevant meeting and referred this reporter to the Environmental Protection Ministry. The latter said it had contacted the Netanya Municipality and the INPA as soon as works had started to  make sure everything was being done according to the law, and repeated the INPA’s pledge to ensure that the site was returned to its original state after the games ended.

A  statement from the Maccabiah Games said, “The allegations of beach damage are untrue and do not reflect reality.”

“The works at Poleg Beach are carried out under close supervision and in full coordination with the Nature and Parks Authority, which inspects all our actions in the field, while taking great care of the environment and animals in the area and without any deviation from the order.”

Prior to construction, the INPA had removed protected plants and dozens of volunteers had removed more than 12 tons of garbage, the statement went on.

It ended, “We invite the SPNI to contact us directly and enter into an honest and genuine dialogue to discuss their claims.”

The Netanya Municipality said it had no response other than to support what the Maccabiah had said.

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