Israeli tourists and Egyptian hotel owners frustrated
Salama Salim has run the Sawa Camp between Taba and Nuweiba for the past 13 years, and Passover, when the Israelis come, is usually one of his best weeks. This year, Israel closed the border crossing into Sinai on the eve of the Passover holiday, warning of an “imminent terror threat,” and urging all Israelis already in the desert peninsula to immediately return. The border in the opposite direction remained open.
Islamic State has carried out dozens of attacks in Sinai over the past few years, although the target has usually been Egyptian police. This week, Islamic State attacked a checkpoint near St. Katherine’s monastery, killing one Egyptian and wounding four. The attack comes just two weeks after terrorists killed 45 people in two church bombings, and days before Pope Francis visits Egypt.
In Sinai, many of the Bedouin owners of the desert camp said they were disappointed with the Israeli decision.
“Lots of people had booked and they cancelled because the border was closed,” Salim told The Media Line. “But I don’t think it was dangerous. Israelis like to come to Sinai and we want them to come.”
One of his guests, Adi Hemo, a Jerusalem school principal, agrees. Hemo was already at the Sawa camp with his wife and four children when Israel closed the border for entry into Sinai. He said they briefly considered cutting their vacation short.
“We only heard about it the next day because out of ideology we don’t have internet on our phones when we’re there,” he told The Media Line. “One of my daughters was scared and said, “Why don’t we do back?” I said to her, “Look around, it’s quiet,” and we decided to stay.
Hemo said an eight-day stay for all six of them, including the beach huts and all of their food and drink, cost $660, about what one night in the nearby Israeli Red Sea resort town of Eilat costs. His family has vacationed in Sinai frequently, although this was their first time in several years. While their daughter was doing her compulsory military service, they knew the army would not let her go to Egypt. Instead, he said, the vacationed in Europe, which has been the scene of numerous terror attacks.
Every year, the Israeli government issues travel warnings for Sinai, and every year, Israelis ignore them. Last year, in 2016, about 20,000 Israelis crossed the border into Sinai over the Sukkot holiday in the fall, and a similar number last Passover. That was a 20 percent increase over the previous year. This time, perhaps because the government knows that so many people ignore their warnings, the border was actually shut.
Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982 as part of the peace agreement with Egypt, and since then Sinai has been an attractive tourist destination for Israelis. It has a laid-back vibe, and the Red Sea diving is among the best in the world. Many Israelis have been going to the same beach camp year after year.
Linda Epstein has been going to the Freedom Beach Camp in Ma’aghana Bay, 45 minute drive from the Taba border, several times a year, for more than 20 years. She’s known the current owner since he was a teenager, and he often opens the site only for her. This year, she says, she spent five days with a friend –snorkeling, reading and playing scrabble in the quiet beach camp. And while there may have been a specific terrorist threat, she says the Israeli government could have acted differently.
“I think the government likes to believe they take responsibility for all Israelis everywhere in the world and that’s true to a certain extent,” Epstein told The Media Line. “If they are willing to go to the jungles of Brazil and the Himalayan mountains to help Israelis, why are they afraid to work with our neighbors to make sure that Israelis can enjoy the paradise next door.”
The Israelis attracted to Sinai tend to be peace-loving, hippie types, who make a concerted effort to meet their Arab neighbors. Gil Zohar, an Israeli tour guide and journalist, has been to Sinai “at least 100 times,” he says. Sometimes, he and his wife Randi even make money off the trip, renting out their home in Jerusalem while they relax in Sinai for less than bring in.
This year, they have a trip planned for next month, assuming Israel opens the border by then. Zohar says the closure also has political implications.
“I like to meet people from all over, especially Arabs,” he told The Media Line. “The (Israeli) government has bamboozled the people into thinking the Arabs are the enemy. I think the politicians are the enemy. This government doesn’t want Arabs and Jews to get to know each other.”