The controversy over the Asi Stream is just one case of areas designated for use by everyone that are quietly closed off by local residents.

Arsuf beach, in central Israel, September 14, 2020.
Arsuf beach, in central Israel, September 14, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Shuki Sadeh Published on 24.09.2020

The Beit Yanai seaside cliff is one of the prettiest places in Israel. It’s a narrow belt, over 400 meters long, with stunning views of the Mediterranean views. Signs warn of the danger of collapse, but it’s hard to resist the temptation to sit on the rocks and enjoy the vistas.

On the other side of a path are homes of wealthy Israelis, including Amdocs founder Morris Kahn and Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. At the southern end of the cliff overlooking the Mediterranean, opposite Milchan’s house, a fence was put up months ago, blocking access to the cliff. Some of the fence has been destroyed, but the rest is still there. As if that weren’t enough, the road to the beautiful site is blocked by two electric gates. Only a few residents can open them by remote control.

The secretary of Moshav Beit Yanai, Avner Cohen, admits that the road is a public thoroughfare, but says it is only closed in order to keep out a flood of visitors in peak season. “In the summer the whole gang comes, they throw all their stuff onto the beach, they make bonfires on the cliff,” he explains. “This year we took steps to get rid of them. True, it’s closing a public road, but it’s only in the summer, to avoid vandalism. In the winter I open the road. The fence is opposite Milchan’s house because there’s a real danger the cliff will collapse. It’s no joke.”

In the summer the whole gang comes, they throw all their stuff onto the beach… This year we took steps to get rid of them. Avner Cohen, secretary of Moshav Beit Yanai

A gate bars the entrance to a public seaside road in the Hof Hasharon area, central Israel, September 14, 2020.
A gate bars the entrance to a public seaside road in the Hof Hasharon area, central Israel, September 14, 2020. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

David Ferguson, who lives near Milchan’s house, says it’s all aimed at protecting nature. “That’s the way it is in Israel, you can litter, because it belongs to everyone.” According to Ferguson, it’s not a problem that the gate blocks entry to cars. “What’s the problem. You can walk, it’s better, certainly when vehicles are coming and going, ATVs and jeeps driving crazy with all kinds of riffraff driving fast and endangering dog walkers.”

A coastal neighborhood in the Hof Hasharon area, central Israel, September 14, 2020.
A coastal neighborhood in the Hof Hasharon area, central Israel, September 14, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

In recent months battle lines have been renewed over the Asi Stream in the Beit She’an Valley. Kibbutz Nir David, through which the stream flows, also blocks entrance to this rare gem of nature to outsiders. One of the symbols of the protest is the yellow gate that blocks the entrance to the kibbutz and the stream, which, as a natural resource, by law belongs to the public.

Other kibbutzim block access to strips of Mediterranean beach. But the blocking access and taking over of public areas is not exclusive to kibbutzim; the wealthy in Israel know how to do this as well.

Some people take over public space or prevent access just because they need it. For example, Jewish National Fund Chairman Danny Atar took over about one-quarter of an acre near his house in Gan Ner, in the Lower Galilee, building a swimming pool on it. Atar was almost indicted over it, but after years of disputes he agreed to give up the land. Atar got off easy: He paid the Israel Lands Authority only 50,000 shekels ($14,560) for the use of the land for the years he used it, and court fees of 30,000 shekels.

The Asi stream running thought Kibbutz Nir David, northern Israel.
The Asi stream running thought Kibbutz Nir David, northern Israel.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Jacuzzi controversy

Ofra Strauss, whose family controls food maker Strauss Group, and her ex-partner Adi Keizman fought with Tel Aviv over their appropriation of public land in the ritzy Tzahala neighborhood, for a hot tub. They removed it after the city sued them in 2008. Three years later, Yoav Galant, who is now education minister, paid a heavy price for trespassing on public land near his home in Moshav Amikam, when then-Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein barred him from becoming IDF chief of staff over the affair.

It seems obvious but apparently it needs to be said: Taking over public land by private individuals is illegal. If some Beit Yanai residents think a public road should be closed, they must go through channels to request a zoning change.

“Our country is crowded enough and public space per person is not great,” says Eli Ben-Ari, legal adviser to Adam Teva V’Din– Israel Union for Environmental Defense. “Experience shows that protecting public space is a never-ending battle, but the principle is constant: Entry to public space mustn’t be blocked. What’s public should remain public.”

Galei Thelet Street in Herzliya Pituah is one of Israel’s most exclusive streets, built behind a cliff that overlooks the sea. At No. 46, between the former home of the U.S. ambassador (recently acquired by Sheldon Adelson) and the home of billionaire Teddy Sagi, is a path to the cliff. The path made news recently when Haaretz journalist Chaim Levinson sought to use it as an example of the way natural sites are being closed to the public.

An aerial view of the Herzliya cliffs, August 19, 2020.
An aerial view of the Herzliya cliffs, August 19, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The property line of these huge villas officially ends about 30 meters from the cliff. But the homeowners have planted lawns that give the impression that those 30 public meters are part of their private property overlooking the sea. Thus, passage between the home of businesswoman Irit Strauss and those next door is blocked with thick vegetation. In the public area near her house, grass has been planted and wooden lawn furniture put out. At Sagi’s house, small soccer goal posts had blocked the way until Levinson published his article.

The rich take over

“There’s an area here of about 7,500 square meters that’s inaccessible to the public,” says Idan Ring, a Herzliya resident and an activist for access to the cliff. “Municipality wasn’t here for years; it didn’t arrange access for the residents, and so slowly but surely, with seating areas and tables, the rich took over the area de facto. Nobody will tell you not to go through, but you’re left with the feeling that you’re on these people’s property.”

Nobody will tell you not to go through, but you’re left with the feeling that you’re on these people’s property. Idan Ring, activist, Herzliya

A spokesman for Sagi said in response that “the area of the house’s yard is the same area that [he] purchased some years ago, in the framework of the purchasing the house. We stress that anyone can pass through the back road freely and without interference.” Irit Strauss did not respond to requests for comment.

Houses began going up in the area in the 1960s, but even then there was still a public strip of land between the homes and the cliff. The land had once belonged to an American Zionist group called Kehilat Tzion that had been active in settling the country in the pre-state era. After the organization went bankrupt in the 1980s, the homeowners bought the land to expand their houses. Mayor Eli Landau saw what was happening and announced the city was going to expropriate the land. The matter went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which supported the municipality’s plans.

This story has become particularly relevant now in light of Adelson’s purchase of the U.S. ambassador’s residence. In 1964, master plan deemed it public land, except for the ambassador’s home. That approximately 2,000 square meters, which is adjacent to public land, was defined as private open land “for the U.S. Embassy,” according to the plan. Now that the area has been transferred to Adelson, the question is whether the land’s public status will be restored. That would mean removing the security fence around the house and a swimming pool.

This month, attorney Shahar Ben-Meir demanded that Herzliya order the area restored to public use because the house will no longer be owned by the U.S. government. In response, the city said it would not take any immediate action and that it was studying the precise status of the land and examining the implications of the home’s sale for permitted uses of the land.

“The municipality is seeing to it that no use be made of the area and no construction be done on it, and is looking at possibilities of returning the land to the public,” the city said.

Similar situations exist in all major Israeli cities in places where developers have been required to allocate space for public use when they build a new building. Nevertheless, developers find ways to effectively turn the areas into private property.

The lobby of 22, Rothschild Blvd, zoned as a public space, August 15, 2017.
The lobby of 22, Rothschild Blvd, zoned as a public space, August 15, 2017. Credit: David Bachar

One example is the lobby of the luxury apartment tower at 22 Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. Even though the lobby is designated as open to the public, it’s not apparent that anyone can enter. After TheMarker reported this three years ago, urban activists began to visit. Journalist and graphic novelist Racheli Rottner held her 35th birthday party in the lobby and posted a video showing a hapless security guard threatening to call the police. Shortly after, the lobby was posted with signs saying there were security cameras, that food, drink, pets, bicycles and scooters are prohibited and that “in keeping with safety directives, maximum occupancy is 23.”

A sign tells visitors the rules for visiting the lobby at 22, Rotschild Blvd, a public space, September 16, 2020.
A sign tells visitors the rules for visiting the lobby at 22, Rotschild Blvd, a public space, September 16, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Recent months have seen another such dispute in Tel Aviv regarding Beit Hanna, a privately owned community center on Ben-Gurion Boulevard. According to the plan, it was to have been an open public square, but in fact tall shrubbery surrounds the area and there are two gates, one from a side street and one from Ben-Gurion. The enclosed area is a coffee shop that shuts down at night, so the only people who can enjoy Beit Hanna are patrons of the coffee shop or people engaged in sports activities there. Supposedly the public can enter through the side entrance, but it’s hard to find it. When the coffee shop closes, the Ben-Gurion entrance is locked and the space is filled with equipment so the presence of a second gate becomes meaningless. A group of residents recently organized to demand that the space be opened to public use.

Beit Hanna is owned by Ronny Douek, who has reputation as an entrepreneur with a social conscience. The place is managed by Yoav Kadmon, who rents the building from Douek. Both men say they are aware of the complaints but insist that the public isn’t being preventing from using the space, and does so. Shortly after TheMarker approached Douek, a small sign was placed in the inner courtyard saying that the area is accessible to the public – replacing a sign in the courtyard stating that it was for the use of Beit Hanna members only. (A spokesman for Douek said he was unaware of the previous sign and in any case it was there only briefly.)

‘Lip service’

“It’s lip service,” a local resident, Rakefet Atzmon, says of the new sign. “A courtyard open to the public isn’t supposed to be closed with two gates with a small note [to inform you its public]. Unlike a public courtyard, the courtyard is locked in the evening,” she said

In response, the Tel Aviv municipality responded that even though its zoning committee had approved plans that include private areas designated for public use, “in most cases the development and public use was not defined in detail.” But, it added, that “in light of experience on the ground” it had decided that in future plans it would “emphasize development of such areas to the maximum possible public benefit.” It said it wasn’t war of any problem at Beit Hanna or other public-private spaces.

In Jerusalem, there are similar cases. In one place, ensconced between the King David Hotel and the luxury apartment complex David’s Village, a small ornamental pool was built. The area can only be accessed by a side street, which certainly is not the way to invite the public to use it.

The matter was reported four years ago in Haaretz, but according to tour guide Esther Sa’ad, who has a degree in planning and takes people on tours of hidden gardens in Jerusalem, nothing has changed since then.

“The hotel locks up the area every night from 8 P.M. to 8 A.M. I have an agreement with the hotel that if the area is locked during the day, maybe they forgot to open it, I call them and they come to open it. They put up signs there that it’s dangerous to enter the water, but my daughter swims there in the summer and it’s very nice.”

In the apartment complex built on the site of the old YMCA soccer field by developer Shlomo Eisenberg is a large park defined as open private property for the benefit of the public. But few Jerusalemites know the park exists, because it’s enclosed between the opulent buildings and can’t be seen from the street.

The old soccer pitch next to the YMCA, Jerusalem, December 22, 2016.
The old soccer pitch next to the YMCA, Jerusalem, December 22, 2016. Credit: Emil Salman

In the Jerusalem neighborhood of Old Katamon the Ganei Katamon project, built by the Hefziba company over the old Hapoel Yerushalayim soccer pitch, the park is slightly above street level and an electric gate keeps cars out. The residents of the area know the park and go there, but children can’t play ball in its spacious confines and not by chance. “The open public space I developed with the topography to prevent ball games,” the project’s architect, Ze’ev Steinberg, said a few years ago in an interview with the architectural blog Hatzer Ahorit.

The Jerusalem municipality responded: “The areas mentioned are private open spaces, that were approved decades ago. They are maintained by the house committees in those neighborhoods. The public has the right of entry and passage. In general, passage is not blocked to them and in cases where they are blocked or closed temporarily closures, it is due to the requirements of public order.”

Public space is part of a human being’s basic rights. Hillel Shocken

“As an architect who deals with urbanism, from my point of view, public space is space that a person can pass through if he’s walking in the city,” says architect Hillel Schocken. “Developers often want to give the purchasers of apartments the feeling that they’ve gotten a private park, and prefer to create a situation where access to these areas is not simple, and if it is simple, they make efforts to prevent it by means of planning. Public space is part of a human being’s basic rights. The moment this space is privatized, it causes real damage to human dignity and liberty.”

Meirav Moran assisted in the preparation of this report.