Sea change: 90 percent of Lake Kinneret’s beaches will be preserved in the plan, which was 10 years in the making.

A man admiring the view from Rotem Shizaf Beach, Lake Kinneret.
A man admiring the view from Rotem Shizaf Beach, Lake Kinneret.
Credit: Gil Eliahu

Moshe Gilad 06:10

Every visit to Lake Kinneret brings mixed feelings. On the one hand, I love it dearly. This lake in northern Israel is beautiful and unique. One longs for it, especially now when the water level is impressively high. On the other hand, there are times when it’s easy to hate it, especially because of what we have done to it in recent decades.

Aside from its natural beauty, the lakeshore is dotted with historical sites of global importance. There are sites sacred to Christian and Jewish believers, and sites like the Degania and Kvutzat Kinneret kibbutzim, which were extremely important in the history of modern Israel.

Nevertheless, Lake Kinneret (aka Sea of Galilee) still has a somewhat schizophrenic image, because its past problems are well documented: beaches have been taken over by private individuals; access has been blocked – for instance, on the path that circles the lake – by kibbutzim, churches and resort villages; the lake suffers from pollution, noise and crowds.

But a plan adopted this week by a National Planning and Building Council subcommittee, following a planning process that lasted 10 years, could change the lake’s troublesome bipolarity.

The plan aims to “enable the tourism potential of the Kinneret region and its beaches to be fulfilled and enable public use of the beaches, while maintaining and nurturing open areas; preserving the Kinneret as Israel’s water reservoir, including its port functions; developing and preserving nature, the landscape and religious, heritage and settlement sites, all based on the principles of various master plans and the principles of sustainable planning.”

The leaning tower at the southern edge of Tiberias, overlooking Lake Kinneret.

The team that drafted the plan was headed by architects Ilan Eisen and Zeev Amit.

Anyone who loves the lake hopes this plan will prove to be a historic turning point – or at least an insurance policy for its future, to protect it against harmful development. If implemented properly, the plan could significantly improve what we will bequeath to future generations.

The plan has three main points: First, around 90 percent of the Kinneret’s beaches will be preserved. Some will be used for bathing and recreation, but almost half will be designated solely as protected areas.

Second, construction of two previously approved resort villages north of Route 87, on the Kinneret’s northern shore, will be canceled by agreement. And finally, reclaiming parts of the lake for the purpose of construction will be prohibited.

The plan includes a map showing the division clearly. Some 30 kilometers of shoreline, constituting 45 percent of the total shoreline, will be declared a nature reserve. This section includes the entire north shore and sections of the eastern and western shores.

Another 27 kilometers of shoreline (40 percent) will be used for leisure and recreation, including bathing and camping. These sections are located both north and south of the city of Tiberias, south of Kibbutz Ginosar and along part of the eastern shore.

Five kilometers (9 percent) will be designated as “rural seafront.” These sections belong to the kibbutzim – Degania, Ginosar, Ha’on, Ma’agan and Ein Gev. Leisure and recreation activities will be permitted there as well.

Finally, the 4 kilometers (6 percent) bordering Tiberias will be designated as an “urban seafront.”

The plan also includes guidelines for boating on the lake, in the understanding that boating affects its water quality and ecosystems. Yet another goal is to moderate car traffic near the Kinneret by defining the roads around it as scenic routes intended only as access to the beaches, sites of interest and local communities.

Rotem-Shizaf Beach, on the eastern side of Lake Kinneret.

‘The document we’ve been hoping for’

To understand the plan’s importance, it’s necessary to go back a dozen years. In April 2008, the Knesset approved the Igud Arim Kinneret law, which had just one purpose: preserving the lake’s beaches. The law mandated the establishment of an administrative agency responsible for taking care of the lake, and ensuring public access to its beaches with no payments except for beachside services and parking. This law enshrined the right to free access to the Kinneret’s beaches.

That agency, the eponymous Igud Arim Kinneret, currently manages 16 beaches along the lake. Its director is currently Idan Greenbaum, who is also head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council.

Greenbaum welcomed the new plan, saying it “makes order” out of chaos. Nevertheless, he also has some reservations about it.

“I thought that, looking toward the future, there were grounds for reserving more land for future development,” he said. “For instance, I suggested that more tourism development be allowed between Ha’on and Ein Gev, and even the construction of hotels and resort villages.

“Another key principle, in my view, is that Route 92 – which circles the Kinneret to the east – must be moved. Today, this road is strangling the lake and preventing future development. It should be moved eastward, to the edge of the Golan Heights.”

Hukok Beach on Lake Kinneret.

A third problem, he said, is that the plan doesn’t sufficiently address the needs of the northern shore, where most of the churches are located. With more than 1 million tourists visiting the lake each year, the infrastructure in this area is on the verge of collapse, and it also needs transportation solutions.

Another issue for which there is no solution as yet is the Kinneret Trail, some of whose sections are still closed while others are the subject of constant debate. According to Greenbaum, “There’s a tough war surrounding the trail. We have to find a balance there, mainly as to how the trail passes through the kibbutzim. I believe it has to emerge from the area of Ein Gev and Ma’agan and encircle them. I’m in favor of the right to free passage, but on weekends the residents of the kibbutzim wake up to hikers who relieve themselves in their backyards and play music. It’s an intolerable situation.”

However, anyone who has monitored the Kinneret Trail over the years will be aware that those with vested interests (kibbutzim, churches, resort villages) are still blocking access to a pleasant hike around the lake. Dana Bachar is a manager for the Kinneret agency’s operational branch. As someone who was involved in the new plan for several years, she expressed delight at this week’s decision: “It’s the guiding document we hoped for. It will be used by anyone working around the Kinneret in the coming years.”

Asked about the Kinneret’s problematic image, she responded: “There are some people – and there are many of them – who really love the Kinneret. I’m among them. I was born in Degania and today I live on the northern part of the lake. But I’m also aware of the fact that, despite all the improvements made here in the past decade, parts of the public have a negative image of the Kinneret. For them, it makes no difference how much the situation has changed: they stick to their criticism, which is rooted in the past.”

What has changed exactly? According to Bachar, “The beaches are open now, unlike before. A large number of fences and gates have been removed. The beaches managed by the agency cater to a clientele looking for an inexpensive vacation and charge a token price for parking. The beaches are clean and orderly. They have good infrastructure.

“It was recently decided that all the agency’s beaches are ‘quiet’ beaches – and that’s a tremendous change,” she added. “It’s a challenging issue that’s hard to enforce, but it’s happening. There’s a lot of informational and educational activity being done here. Many beaches have been made accessible. I hope that even those who retain a negative image will give it a chance and get to know a different Kinneret.”