Who owns the sea?

The receding Dead Sea has left 50 sq. miles of new, exposed dry seabed that could be developed for tourism, but the PM has not signed the forms registering it as State Land. A seven year saga.

Yoni Rotenberg, | updated: 16:16

OpEds Yoni Rotenberg
Yoni Rotenberg
צילום: INN:YR

The Dead Sea story is an especially sad ecological saga.  The sea recedes approximately one yard every year, leaving behind large stretches of pitted ground and sinkholes that sometimes seem to be the shrinking body of water's revenge.  This endangered salt lake is in no need of additional manmade problems, and certainly not any on the level of the political-legal maelstrom that has been raging around it for several years, although for most of us the issue has remained under the radar.

The Dead Sea's ongoing diminution has created an unusual new legal situation:  50 square miles once submerged in the sea have turned into virgin land over the years.  Existing hotels and tourist locations are now far from the shore, with some of them so far back that they are entirely irrelevant for vacationers interested in the sea itself.  After carrying out a thorough analysis of the situation and researching what could be done to encourage tourism in the area, the state decided to allow the development of the newly exposed seabed for tourism, thereby benefitting local residents by providing employment opportunities and adding revenue to public coffers.

MK  Haim Yellin: "This is not a political law, it is an ideological and Zionist one. Perhaps one day they will understand that this is a Zionist endeavor of the first order. This law is on a plane far removed from political disagreements, which is why both the Jewish Home, Likud and Labor parties have signed it, but despite the fact that they all want to pass the law, their efforts are stymied by the Prime Minister."
The state actually began to implement the development plan about seven years ago, only to find that the entire area, under the jurisdiction of Megilot Regional Council, is considered territory occupied by Israel in 1967 and therefore not subject to Israeli law. "There are two ways for the state to grant legal status to land in Judea and Samaria that is not already registered as private land," explains attorney Boaz Arzi of the Regavim Movement. There is an administrative possibility, which entails simply declaring the area state land. This procedure is less complicated legally but creates a less secure status for the land.  In contrast, there is a legally stronger option of "initial registration" similar to the "tabu" land registration procedure existing within the Green  Line, but before the initial registration as state land can take place, the fact that the land in question does not belong to any private body must be ensured.

Since the land in question is an area that was submerged under water, it seemed clear that the initial registration option would not present any difficulties unless some fictional underwater kingdom  were to suddenly appear, and that there would be no claims of prior ownership.  These facts, of course, did not prevent Arab residents of nearby villages to come forward with various peculiar claims to ownership, such as the claim that their possession of what was once the seashore should grant them rights in the newly exposed areas. Several Arab village councils declared that their ownership of the shores that existed until 1967 gave them the rights to ownership of the new shores created by the receding waters. The civil administration was not impressed by their arguments and instead turned to the Jordanian authorities, cynically asking whether "there had been any Palestinian village" submerged there in the past.

When, after two years, the committee for registration finally held its first meeting, all the Arab claims to ownership of the newly-revealed shorefront were rejected outright. Everything was now ready for the festive registration of the land as belonging to the state. True, once the committee came to that decision, an appeal was filed with the appeals committee, but it seemed that this was only an automatic reaction that would soon be rejected. 

Kalya dry seabed
INN: Megilot regionall authority

However, just as it seemed that the legal saga had come to an end, the political bulldozers went to work. Registering state-owned land in Judea and Samaria requires the signature of the Prime Minister's office and for some reason, that signature did not arrive, nor did it appear during the subsequent five years and up to the writing of this article.

"I had a talk with the Civil Administration and the National Security Council people two weeks ago," Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked told the Besheva weekly newspaper, "and the Civil Administration claimed that there had been an order from the political echelons not to cancel the appeal." The minister saw this obstacle as a simple matter, "maybe something leftover from the Obama period" and added that she had sent Minister Yariv Levin to ask the Prime Minister to cease opposing the registration, encourage the appeals committee to bring its procedures to an end and sign the registration forms.  It is hard to fathom the reason for the Prime Minister's intervention because after all, this registration is only a first step and does not mean annexation. It is a step that has been taken many times in Judea and Samaria without any opposition raised by the international community.

From MK Smotrich to Merav Michaeli

"Aside from one small area that belongs to a Palestinian who built a factory on it, the rest of the lands are those that were underwater from time immemorial," says MK Haim Yellin of  the opposition Yesh Atid party. "These lands belong to the State of Israel, and all that is needed is a declaration to that effect.  All the ministers are for this move, Yariv Levin and Ayelet Shaked are on my side, but the prime minister's office is opposed to it.  The Prime Minister says he does not want to anger the Americans who have not authorized the move," Yellin explains.

Shaked may not think the Prime Minister's intentional delay is of much significance, and is of the opinion that  a decision will be reached in the coming weeks, but other  MKs do not share her optimism and have a different feeling about the outcome.  When the regional council heads saw that the registration process was at a halt, they turned to MK Haim Yellin, whom they knew from the time he once spent in the Eshkol Regional Council.

Yellin studied the issue thoroughly and decided on to act on his own to change the situation – starting with last July, he places a proposal for a law called "The law for the lands of the receding Dead Sea" on the table of the Ministerial Law Committee every week. The law includes the demand to declare those lands state owned, avoiding the need for initial registration.  It also includes zoning the land as a tourist site administered by the local councils. An additional fourteen MKs have already signed the proposed law, from [rightwing] MK Smotrich to leftwing] MK Merav Michaeli.

"The exposed lands can be utilized to develop the Dead Sea region and encourage Israeli tourism, but since the State of Israel has not declared them state land, they are not being developed and there is no work taking place on them," reads the explanation accompanying the proposed law. "The process of establishing the status of the lands has been going on for many years. The government of Israel refuses to make a decision to declare these 'recession-created' lands state land, despite the fact that any Palestinian claims to ownership of part of the land have been investigated and rejected by the Civil Administration, and despite the fact that all the experts involved are of the opinion that this declaration is feasible and should take place. It should be recalled that these lands were at the bottom of the sea before the waters receded and therefore there is no fear of past private ownership."

"Refraining from declaring that the 'recession-created' lands are state land leads to an absurd situation, in which the shore line in a strategic location is left desolate and keeps widening year after year, despite the desire of the regional councils to develop it. The Dead Sea region suffers from a lack of demographic, economic and tourist growth, and this stalled declaration adds another blow to the already stricken regional development," the explanation continues.

"Sometimes one passes laws to speed up processes and make the government look at itself in the mirror," Yellin says in explaining his move. "This is not a political law, it is an ideological and Zionist one. Perhaps one day they will understand that this is a Zionist endeavor of the first order. This law is on a plane far removed from political disagreements, which is why both the Jewish Home, Likud and Labor parties have signed it. Still, even though everyone really wants it to pass, that isn't happening because of the prime minister."

Nevertheless, Yellin is careful not to cause a political ruckus or to circumvent Shaked and Levin from the right of the political spectrum, declaring that all he wants is to arouse the government to action. "We place the law on the committee's table almost every week, but I have told Shaked and Levin that I am not going to attack them politically. I could tell them ' you are supposed to be rightwing, why don't you see to it,' but I hate that kind of thing and it's not my style. I put the law on the table as a reminder, not in order to put them on the spot. We put it on the table and they are aware of it. There are laws whose historic value is clear, laws whose worth is too great for political taunting.  The way I look at it is that I gave them the car, now all they have to do is start the engine and get a move on."

Awaiting Minister Levin

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked sets the agenda for the Ministerial Committee that continues to postpone dealing with the subject. In effect, she is responsible for the repeated postponement of the debate on the proposed law. When we asked her for an explanation, she had this to say: "The truth is that I am the person who leaves the law on the agenda each week, while the National Security Council constantly asks me to remove it. In a meeting with them two weeks ago, they explained – and I agreed with them – that there is no need for the law because it is more suitable to register the lands in the state's name. Minister Levin has to speak to the Prime Minister now to tell him to order the appeal rescinded, and then we can move ahead on the registration without needing this law."

Meanwhile, while a debate goes on in the Knesset corridors over whether this is a bureaucratic glitch or a sign of political weakness, the Dead Sea remains desolate and the residents in the nearby communities continue to stagnate. "We should be building massive tourist projects here, the kind that blend with the natural environmental conditions that have arisen here," Yellin says, explaining the need for the process. "The regional authorities are eager to build these projects, and we have to allow them to begin. There are Muslim and Christian sites near the area which can draw large numbers of tourists. We don't have to build on all the area, we can use 10-15 square miles and establish sources of income for both Jews and Arabs. This should not upset the rest of the world, especially if we show them that this is a place where Jews and Arabs work and earn a living peacefully together."

The way the prime minister's office has been dealing with the issue is even more infuriating when one realizes that just a few months ago that very same office backed a recovery and development plan for the northern Dead Sea communities – exactly the place where those desolate miles of shoreline are located and awaiting development. A four-year plan was agreed upon, in which the Finance Ministry pledged to transfer 417 million Israeli shekels to the northern Dead Sea communities. The plan is made up of several parts: Dealing with the sinkholes, developing transportation and funding agricultural rehabilitation – but the largest portion of the budget allocation, 108 million shekels, is slated for developing tourism which is expected to act as an economic launching pad for the entire region.

The residents of the Megilot Council, the smallest council in Israel with only six communities under its jurisdiction, celebrated the decision reached last winter.  However, while the areas with the greatest potential, 50 square miles of land adjoining the shore, are mired in the appeals committee proceedings, this significant budget cannot accomplish what it is supposed to do on the ground.