This Beautiful Sea of Galilee Beach Will Soon Disappear

Developers are awaiting final approval to build a luxury hotel on the beautiful and unrecognized Amnon Beach. Critics say the project will block public access to the shore and damage a nature reserve

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חוף אמנון בכנרת
Amnon Beach at its present state. Public but unrecognized.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Anat Georgy
Anat Georgy
Anat Georgy
Anat Georgy

A rusty blue gate is all that remains of what was once a large resort village on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee. Locals describe it as “a resort village that was groundbreaking in its day.” The site around Amnon Beach is neglected, with weeds everywhere and trash strewn on the pathway.

The resort, which used to have 96 guest rooms, was demolished recently to make way for a luxury hotel that will feature 180 suites, each with their own private swimming pool. Only one of the original buildings still remains. A staircase leads from the beach to the building, which was once a restaurant and is earmarked for imminent demolition. Over 250 trees are set to be felled to make way for construction.

The beach itself is public but unrecognized. That doesn’t deter visitors, who have set up tents under the ficus trees and are enjoying the quiet, clear waters and fantastic views across Lake Kinneret.

Close by is a nature reserve with all sorts of unique flora and fauna. “This entire place, all this beauty, could be taken away from the public and made part of the hotel,” complains Anat, a resident of one of the nearby communities who accompanies us on a tour of the site. She asks that we not publish her surname. “Look at the presentation the developers prepared,” she says, opening a brochure full of bright maps and illustrations. “You can see how they’re planning to lay everything out, right down to the beach furniture.”

Trees surrounding Amnon beach.Credit: Gil ELiyahu

Anat is part of a group of local residents who have formed a committee and are campaigning to stop – or at least reduce – what they see as major damage to one of the area’s most beautiful natural treasures.

“The planning committee, backed by the Jordan Valley Regional Council, is allowing all the beauty of Amnon Beach to be damaged for the sake of a hotel for the rich,” she argues. “Beyond the damage to a unique nature site, this is the only beach left in the northern Kinneret that is adjacent to a nature reserve. The construction of the hotel will close the beach to the public, and only those willing to pay a lot to stay at the hotel will be able to access it.”

Yael Dori is head of the planning department at the Israel Union for Environmental Defense. She says that “the planning measures taken here defy all logic – and the approval process is questionable, to say the least. The damage caused here will be a tragedy for generations.”

A few weeks ago, the state committee that oversees coastal environmental protection was supposed to have given final consent for the construction plans, but the decision was postponed until at least the end of the month.

“We aren’t optimistic,” a person involved in the battle against the hotel says. “We’re talking about a lot of money. But we’ll fight and we won’t give up.”

The Amnon beach seen from the air.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

In a letter sent to the coastal committee last month, the IUED stated that “the nature of the proposed building plans is wasteful and doesn’t make optimal use of land resources that are constantly being eroded in our small country. Planning of the resort village should be optimized so that it’s able to accommodate as many holidaymakers as possible, while taking into account conditions at the site.”

However, Jordan Valley Regional Council, in whose area the beach sits, says that anyone claiming that the hotel has already been approved is at best deliberately misleading the public and at worst spreading fake news.

The last resort

Amnon Beach lies at the northernmost point of the Sea of Galilee (aka Lake Kinneret) and covers an area of some 800 dunams (nearly 200 acres). It is 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) from Moshav Amnon, and the two are named after the St. Peter’s fish (aka tilapia) that lays its eggs there. About 40 years ago, the Jewish Agency built a resort village on the eastern side of Amnon Beach to provide jobs and income for evacuees from Sinai who had settled in the moshav and other nearby communities. The Agency is believed to have spent tens of millions of shekels setting up the resort village and developing the area.

Various bodies working on behalf of the Agency and the nearby moshavim tried to operate the resort village, but things did not pan out – mainly due to management problems, locals say. At the start of the 1990s, the Agency sold the resort to businessman Yitzhak Tshuva, then an unknown developer from Netanya, for 4 million shekels ($1.1 million).

Billionaire businessman Itzhak Tshuva. 'Tshuva patiently sat on the land, but without investing anything. It paid off for him.'

But the village floundered under Tshuva’s ownership as well. At the start of the millennium, the resort homes were rented out to members of the South Lebanese Army and their families for a year, for about $10,000 a day (paid for by the Defense Ministry). Still, the resort village failed to flourish. In fact, for the past 20 years, it has mostly been gathering dust and declining.

“Tshuva patiently sat on the land, but without investing anything. It paid off for him because the plans were upgraded and building rights were added – and that translated into cash,” says a person involved in the local residents’ campaign, adding that “he also used the site as collateral to receive loans.” Last year, he sold the rights to B.T. Kinneret, Dahuki and Tzarum for 65 million shekels, with a lease until 2049.

The new developers decided to demolish the existing resort village and build a luxury hotel in its place. They are now awaiting final approval from the Protection of the Coastal Environment Committee to get the project started. They hired the services of architect Yoel Feigin, who planned the luxury Setai Sea of Galilee hotel some 20 kilometers away, where stays cost between 3,000 and 4,000 shekels a night.

Feigin told the committee that “each room is a kind of small villa with its own private courtyard and swimming pool. It’s similar to the Setai and Beresheet [a luxury hotel in Mitzpeh Ramon] in that it’s a five star-plus hotel.”

One glance at the plans confirms that this is indeed a luxury project with spacious buildings, luscious gardens, pools, waterfalls and tanning beds right on the Sea of Galilee. It also has a rooftop pool overlooking the lake, featuring an island where guests can sit at the bar and enjoy a drink – about as far removed from the original resort village as it is possible to get.

How did a resort village established to help evacuees become a luxury hotel for the rich that may, its opponents fear, take over part of a public beach? Tracing the changes made to the plan for the site raise many questions.

Any objections?

Over the past 20 years, the number of beaches open to the public along the Sea of Galilee has been significantly reduced. More and more spots have been closed in order to make way for private ventures where an entrance fee is charged.

In 2004, the state comptroller highlighted the problem and pointed to serious management failures of the area’s beaches. Failures included beach closures, illegally fencing them off, excessive parking charges and charging the public to use the beaches.

Travelers enjoy camping at the Amnon beach.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

Following the comptroller’s report, legislation was enacted in 2008 to regulate the beaches, leading to the establishment of the Kinneret Conurbation – a state-run body aimed at managing, operating and developing the local public beaches. This authority manages about 15 public beaches and has turned four resort sites around the lake into public beaches.

Later, another state authority, the National Planning and Building Council, decided to conduct an environmental review of all the beaches around the Sea of Galilee. However, Amnon Beach’s resort village was exempted from this review due to a dispute over the ownership of rights to the site. A national zoning plan based on the environmental review – albeit absent the Amnon Beach site – was approved in 2017.

The following year, the national planning council convened for an urgent session on Amnon Beach. Among other things, it discussed upgrading the existing resort village, as well as asking what to do about a marina illegally established on the site.

Council head Avigdor Yitzhaki said during the debate: “This is a beautiful beach; we must ensure that it remains at the public’s disposal. We have surrendered to everyone who wanted to come and park his boat here. This upsets bathers and those who wish to make use of the beach.”

Yitzhaki ordered a ban on boats being taken to the beach. However, the national planning council did approve a commercial marina and recommended that plans for the hotel be expanded to 250 rooms, featuring various levels of accommodation. It also approved the establishment of a glamping site nearby.

However, the plans did not define what “various levels of accommodation” meant, thus opening a door for the developers to decide what level of accommodations they wanted – and they opted for a luxury hotel.

In 2019, a national zoning plan for Amnon Beach was approved, including the expansion of the site for leisure and recreational purposes.

“There were shortcomings in the definitions for the plan approved in 2019,” says the IUED’s Dori. “The designation of half of the site – the part approved for glamping – is in fact woodland. In other words, part of the site the plans apply to is not approved for construction. Furthermore, the plans the national planning council approved in 2019 were just not detailed enough. And the public cannot object or respond to the construction plans.”

How did this happen? Dori offers an explanation for how the national planning council approved the plans. “It is possible that there were people on the national planning council who were blinded by the fact that they canceled the Sappirit Beach resort village, south of Amnon Beach, in order to preserve the environment and didn’t take into account that there would be a cost,” she says.

“On the other hand, while a review of the environmental impact on Amnon Beach was conducted ahead of the debate at the national planning council, the review wasn’t part of the enlarged plan,” she adds.

Dori says it isn’t clear why an environmental review wasn’t conducted for the rest of the site. The local activists are even more forthright: “The members of the national planning council took a decision that benefits the developers at the expense of the public. At the end of the day, it paid off for Tshuva – who sold at a profit – and the new developers.”

People camp at Amnon beach.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

However, Elad Hotels, the company through which Tshuva purchased the resort village, says that over the course of three decades, tens of millions of shekels were invested in efforts to advance development plans, but it encountered endless bureaucratic foot-dragging. “Every time, they would ask us to wait for the national plan that would be approved shortly,” a spokesperson says.

The company says it actually held building rights on over 500 dunams of beach in the area, but gave that up as part of a compromise with the planning council. The company adds that the planning instructions show that the additional rights allocated at Amnon Beach are no different from those granted at other beaches as part of the national zoning plan.

A highway for boats

What is known for certain is that, shortly after the national planning council approved the additional rights for the Amnon Beach resort village, Tshuva sold the site last year. This May, the Northern District regional planning and building committee convened for a hearing on the beach plans. The hearing was attended by the new developers, who sought to build fewer rooms than the number recommended by the national planning council – 180 instead of 250 – and presented their plans for the luxury hotel. They stretched the recommendation for various standards of accommodation to the limit.

The regional planning committee subsequently approved these new plans, even though during the hearing (as reported by the Hottest Place in Hell website), a representative of the Environmental Protection Ministry, Michal Ayik, expressed reservations about the plans. “I’m shocked,” she reportedly said. “This will be a hotel for the 1 percent.” Nevertheless, she too voted in favor of the new development.

The next stage was for the developers to apply for a license to fell trees to vacate the site ahead of construction, even though the plans still await final approval from the Protection of the Coastal Environment Committee. And even though final approval is still pending, the head forestry officer approved the request, based on the approval of the Northern District regional committee.

The head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, Idan Greenbaum, who also serves as chairman of the Kinneret Conurbation.Credit: Gil Eliahu

It was at this stage that the local activists’ committee entered the picture.

“A few people here found out that they were going to cut down trees and decided to lodge an appeal,” local resident Anat says. “We wanted to understand who had granted approval, and why. Some people got together and organized a petition and filed an appeal to the forestry department, which was partially accepted. The forestry department ruled that seven trees would be moved instead of being felled.”

“From the moment we found out they were planning to chop down trees, the battle began,” says Michael Elkayam, a member of the local activists’ committee to save Amnon Beach and a veteran of other social and environmental battles in the north. “But then we found out that the issue was hiding a far greater injustice about to happen: After we delved into the matter, we discovered that after many years of behind-closed-door debates at the planning committees, the final result is that a huge hotel is about to be built.

“Beyond the fact that it has no connection to its environment, it transpired that it is designated for the rich – and that the developers plan to take over a public beach,” Elkayam says. “The Kinneret Conurbation, which is responsible for the beach, claims that this won’t happen. But in the developers’ presentation, we clearly see that they have expropriated the whole section of the beach below the hotel.

“The hotel is also contrary to any notion of sustainability. This is 2022 and we all understand the importance of the natural environment. Yet we’re about to approve a hotel with pools full of chlorine next to every room. That isn’t logical. Think what would happen if there’s even the slightest tremor here: all the chlorine would flow into the Sea of Galilee.”

Local activists also claim that the plan includes, among other things, drying out an area and building a commercial marina. They warn that this would transform a quiet and peaceful beach into a highway for boats that would pollute the environment and pose a danger to marine life.

Stuck up a tree

A question that keeps recurring in conversations with opponents of the plan concerns the head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, Idan Greenbaum, who also serves as chairman of the Kinneret Conurbation.

“Wearing one hat, he’s supposed to represent the interests of the general public and keep public beaches open,” say local activists. But “as head of the regional council, he supports the construction of a large hotel because it will generate taxes.”

Anat cites the example of the luxury Setai Hotel on Ha’on Beach. “That’s supposedly open to the public,” she says, “but nobody actually goes there because everyone knows it’s part of the hotel beach.”

Greenbaum is furious at such claims. “The plan approved by the government determines that a hotel is to be built on the ruins of the historic resort village that was abandoned 20 years ago,” he says. “So, it’s not clear why they want to stop the establishment of the hotel. This debate has already been decided by the planning authorities.”

According to Greenbaum, representatives of green organizations who took part in the hearings understood that the new development will not damage the local environment. And the fact that it is a luxury hotel being built there is, from his perspective, irrelevant. “This is a site that lawfully belongs to the developers – and it’s no one’s business what’s built there,” he says. “We need accommodation solutions suitable for every budget around the Sea of Galilee, from the most basic camping sites through to luxury villas for those who can afford it. Our role is to make the Kinneret accessible to all.”

What of claims that parts of the beach will be expropriated for the hotel? As far as Greenbaum is concerned, this is simply not true. “The public beach will remain a public beach,” he asserts. “In any case, the hotel is set back from the beach and isn’t right on the beachfront. No one will harm the public beach, no one has asked to do so and no one is planning to do so.

“The Kinneret Conurbation is the body that operates the beach and will open it in the future,” he continues. “The same goes for the Kinneret Trail, which passes through the beach. The conurbation has already proved in a number of public battles, together with other enforcement bodies, that it’s determined to protect the public interest.”

Greenbaum also rejects criticism about trees being felled at the site. “The majority of trees to be cut down are invasive trees or worthless ones. Those of significant value will be moved in accordance with the decision of the forestry department. The local activists have climbed up a high tree themselves here. Furthermore, the developers have committed to planting better trees at the site and have deposited a 1.5-million-shekel guarantee to make sure they do. So where’s the problem?”

Greenbaum also disagrees with accusations that he has a conflict of interests given his two roles. “The hotel is not on the site governed by the Kinneret Conurbation, but on the site of the Jordan Valley Regional Council – and therefore I relate to it only as head of the council. The conurbation is responsible for the public beach, which is not and will not be part of the hotel,” he stresses.

He also decries what he sees as erroneous information being distributed by local activists, especially in regard to the commercial marina. “The marina doesn’t belong to the developers and won’t be operated by them,” he says. “Anyone who understands anything about the Sea of Galilee knows that there’s a serious legal prohibition on parking motor-powered boats that can harm the natural marine environment. Along the entire Kinneret, boats are kept in designated parking areas and can only be lowered into the water in designated spots. There’s no parking area in the Amnon Bay and there’s no ramp there, so that won’t happen. A commercial marina of this type allows for perhaps only one boat to support canoeing, but most of the operations are for kayaks and windsurfing.”

According to Greenbaum, any possible activities there will be operated by the Kinneret Conurbation. “As of now,” he says, “no decision has been taken with regard to the operation of the marina – and therefore this is much ado about nothing.”

“On the one hand, people talk about the need to bring in investors to develop the area around the Kinneret to create jobs and create a regional economy. But then, once there’s a developer willing to invest money and who doesn’t ask for benefits beyond those determined in the national plan, they are turned into public enemies,” Greenbaum continues, “We’re fed up of people sitting in the center of the country and pretending to take decisions for the periphery and its development.”

Despite Greenbaum’s claims, after a tour of Amnon Beach and the former resort village, it is hard to see how the public beach can stay open next to the hotel compound, which is locked between the glamping site and the commercial marina.

“The developers will take over the beach,” one local business owner predicts. “There’s no question about it. A hotel like that, with the prices it will charge, needs a promenade. Anyone who thinks they’ll leave the beach open for the public to hold barbecues doesn’t know what they’re talking about. They’ll also build and operate a restaurant, so everything will be theirs and the public will have to make do with the current beach at Amnon that fills up really quickly.”

In response to this story, a spokesman for the national planning council said: “Contrary to claims, within the framework of the national plan for the Kinneret beaches, the council worked to annul plans for the establishment of a resort village and a boat pier in an area of environmental sensitivity, and transferred the building rights to an area where development already existed.

“With regard to claims concerning the planning process, the plans went through all the planning stages, including publication for public objections. The building and development plans were debated before the Northern District regional planning committee, which found that the plans integrate into the existing environment. At the next stage, the plans will be heard at the Protection of the Coastal Environment Committee. These hearings are open to the public.”

No response was available from the developers B.T. Kinneret, Dahuki and Tzarum, or from parent company Pie Siam Ltd.

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