10/28/2011 13:55

Protecting our environment should not lead to the trampling of private business rights.
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It took nearly four years of protests, including a petition signed by more than 28,000 concerned citizens, a human wave one-kilometer long, and regular picketing. But finally the objective was achieved.

Grassroots activism, a testament to the power of civic involvement, succeeded in nixing the building of a huge vacation village that would have included an amusement park, an artificial lake and a commercial center sprawling on over 200 dunams (20 hectares) of prime Mediterranean seashore.

If the project had been built, large stretches of Betzet Beach, some of the most beautiful beachfront in the North, would have either been scarred by commercial development or made inaccessible to the wider public.

Activists were fighting an uphill battle. The developers had already won a state tender. The project had the backing of Mateh Asher Regional Council head Yehuda Shavit. It had already been approved by the Israel Lands Authority and had reached the final stages before construction could begin.

But public opposition was unstoppable. Bolstered by support from organizations such as the Society for the Protection of Nature and the Israel Union for Environment Defense (Adam, Teva V’din), residents in the North managed to convince key politicians and government officials to scrap the plans. Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan and Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias convinced newly appointed Israel Lands Authority Director Benzi Lieberman to enter negotiations to get the companies that had won the bid to stop work at Betzet.

Nor was this the first time a group of citizens had come up against big business interests and won. About six months ago, the cabinet ruled to freeze a plan to build a 350-room vacation village on the Palmahim Beach, which, as in the case of Betzet, had also received all the necessary building permits. In fact, the Palmahim beach had already been fenced off and contractors had begun preparing the area for construction. Nevertheless, after over two years of demonstrations the public convinced the cabinet to order the regional council responsible for Palmahim Beach to halt the project.

The successful campaigns against the projects at Palmahim and Betzet, alongside the socioeconomic protests over the summer, are all signs that Israeli society has undergone a profound change. Civic responsibility and empowerment of the “little guy” – the foundations of any healthy democracy – are taking the place of apathy and indifference.

Though activists have stopped large building projects in the past such as the Safdie plan in west Jerusalem and a proposed settlement in the Gilboa area, the Palmahim and Betzet victories are unique in the sense that activists managed to halt projects after they had been approved by regional building councils.

However, Palmahim and Betzet also raise questions about how best to balance free market forces with environmental responsibility. The construction firms behind the Palmahim and Betzet projects have undoubtedly invested millions of shekels in planning and development over the years. And if they had been built, the projects would have created jobs and tax revenues and attracted tourism.

The building contractors might be accused of putting their narrow business interests before environmental concerns, but they did not break any laws. All stages of development received official authorization.

At the same time, Palmahim and Betzet beaches are priceless resources that belong to the public, and the public, via grassroots protests, made clear it does not want its assets auctioned to the highest bidder, even if it means forgoing the economic benefits offered by the projects.

Therefore, while it is perfectly legitimate to freeze the Betzet and Palmahim projects in the name of environmental protection, it is absolutely imperative that building contractors be compensated for their losses and that alternative building sites be found. Protecting our environment should not lead to the trampling of private business rights.