Diving among coral reefs, lounging on colorful pillows by the sea, taking in views of rose-colored mountains, ordering plates stacked high with honey-drenched banana pancakes — Israelis have long made Sinai a favorite vacation destination.
However, the coordinated bombings on Oct. 7 targeting Israeli holidaymakers transformed the getaway spot Israelis longingly refer to as the Garden of Eden into a Paradise Lost, forever tarnished by the blood, mayhem, confusion and fear borne of the deadly attacks.
At least 32 people were killed and 120 wounded in the attacks on Taba and Ras Satan, resorts on the Sinai coast. Among them were at least 12 Israelis, including a mother and her two young children. Six Egyptians and several European tourists were also among the fatalities.
Officials said that at Taba, a town close to the Israeli border, which Israel gave to Egypt in the 1980s, a suicide car bomber blew off a wing of the Hilton Hotel. About 30 miles south, two car bombs were detonated at the Ras Satan site, popular with backpackers.
Thousands of Israelis made their way across the border to Egypt for Sukkot, despite security officials’ warnings of terrorism threats in Sinai. After earlier, repeated Sinai terror alerts amounted to nothing — and convinced that staying home in Israel they were also terrorism targets — many Israelis said they became immune to the warnings.
“Sinai for me meant a certain escape from urban Israel,” said Eitan Einwohner, 33, founder and CEO of a Tel Aviv software company. “There is no [concept of ] time in the desert, and when you see the red mountains and see the scenery, intense in its minimalism, it reduces everything to the simplest.”
It was not just rank-and-file Israelis who were lured to Sinai by the scenery, tranquility and affordable prices. Some high-ranking former and current government officials also ignored the travel warnings and vacationed there. Among them reportedly were reserve Maj. Gen. Ilan Biran, former Foreign Ministry director general, and several Knesset members. The newspaper Ha’aretz reported that Liat Cahanim, National Security Council deputy legal counsel, was wounded in the attack. Two vacationing U.S. Embassy officials were also reportedly lightly wounded in the bombings.
In the aftermath of the attacks, there were heartache and frustration in Israel that the security warnings were ignored. Parts of the media and some members of the government had even scoffed at the alerts.
A fiery debate has arisen over whether a free country should let its people disregard such warnings, or if more drastic measures — such as closing the border — should be taken. At an emergency Cabinet meeting it was suggested that Israel consider adopting a U.S.-style system of color-coded warning levels.
Avi Dichter, Israel’s Shin Bet director, toured the wreckage of what was once the Taba Hilton lobby and had harsh words for those at the official level who did not take the warnings more seriously.
“To my dismay, there were officials who treated the warnings lightly and leveled criticism at us” in the security community, he was quoted as saying in the Ma’ariv daily newspaper. “There is no doubt that this influenced the public, which in turn did not take the warning seriously.”
David Aramin from Herzliya, a 35-year-old who works in the high-tech sector, visited Sinai as often as he could. In the last two months alone he was there six times.
On Oct. 7, he and friends were lounging at their camp when they heard the blasts on nearby Ras Satan beach and saw a ball of fire burst into the night sky. Hysteria ensued, Aramin said, adding that some people followed the Bedouins toward the mountains, others rushed for the sea.
He said Israelis were just recently starting to come back to Sinai after staying away during most of the intifada. The relaxed atmosphere helped people forget any potential dangers, he said.
Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy tried to capture the special magic of the Sinai experience in an article Sunday headlined “Goodbye Sinai.”
“For a growing number of Israelis, a vacation in Sinai was a singular experience that had no substitute,” he wrote. “Something happened to Israelis when they entered Sinai.”
“For the veterans of the place, being in Sinai was much more than a holiday,” he continued. “It was the only place of refuge, a haven from day-to-day troubles, from the terror that is all around us, and an escape from Israelis and from Israeliness, too. Something in the atmosphere of the place created a sense of relaxation that couldn’t be found elsewhere.”
It was also a rare example of interaction between Bedouins and Israelis, a place where friendships and connections were forged.
About 30,000 Israelis went to Sinai over the recent holidays. Some of them did not return to Israel after the attacks, insisting they would not let terrorism scare them away from living their lives.
“You would go and you would not think too much about warnings, because it is not any less scary being in Israel,” Aramin said. “Recently, especially, you did not pay attention to warnings, because there are always warnings.”
Einwohner, who was also staying at a beach near Ras Satan, said Israelis had become complacent about the warnings.
“Looking back,” he said, “I think most Israelis and I fell into this trap a little bit of saying, ‘If there are 30,000 people doing it, how could it be that dangerous?'”
Eran Reinisch, 37, who runs a Tel Aviv financial services business, has been going to Sinai for vacations since he was a child. He has traveled up and down the area, diving its waters and exploring its beaches. It is, he said, his favorite place to unwind. Reinisch describes it as “magic” and touts its “totally different atmosphere.”
He wanted to visit Sinai with his family again this Sukkot. But, concerned by the warnings, they, along with a group of other families traveling together, decided to go to Taba instead of staying further down the Sinai coast as they usually do.
Taba, they told themselves, would be safer. After all, they thought, it was so close to the Israeli border.
When the blast shook the hotel, he and his friends were eating at an Italian restaurant on the beach. Reinisch immediately realized that the explosion was a terror attack and raced to the children’s disco one flight down from the hotel’s lobby, where he had dropped off his 7-year-old son, Roy.
He quickly found the child, who was covered in a layer of blood and soot. His head had been slghtly injured by falling debris.
Reinisch scooped Roy into his arms and was among the first to cross the border for the hospital in Eilat. A large photograph of Roy, his head bandaged and T-shirt and shorts stained with blood, made the front pages of the Yediot Achronot daily newspaper.
“I was supposed to go diving next month in Sinai, and now I will not,” Reinisch said. “Clearly I have no desire to go.”
by Leslie Susser
The coordinated terrorist attacks on Israeli tourists in Sinai may have some significant, unintended consequences: a deepening of anti-terrorism cooperation between Israel and Egypt and greater Egyptian readiness to guarantee security in the Gaza Strip after Israel’s planned withdrawal next summer.
At first glance, the Oct. 7 attacks were a blow to Middle Eastern rapprochement. It could take years before Israeli tourism to Sinai — one of the few signs of people-to-people normalcy in Israel’s relations with the Arab world — returns to anything like the dimensions of this holiday season.
There was a symbolic blow to peace too: Israeli reporters recalled that the Hilton Taba hotel, targeted by the terrorists, had hosted hundreds of hours of peace talks over the years between Israelis and Egyptians and Israelis and Palestinians.
With one wing of the hotel reduced to rubble, one reporter said the shattered building suggested a scarred monument to failed visions of peace. But some noted another image: Israeli and Egyptian rescue workers sifting through rubble together.
Behind the scenes, top Israeli and Egyptian officials discussed intelligence and other cooperation against the common threat of Islamic terrorism. Avi Dichter, head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, visited the site of the Hilton attack and met with Egyptian counterparts.
Soon afterward, Israeli field agents were allowed to scour the scenes of the Sinai bombings for evidence. They worked closely with Egyptian security agents and were given information from Egyptian interrogations of suspects and eyewitnesses.
This constituted cooperation of an unprecedented nature for Egyptian authorities, who have been wary of cooperating with security agents of what many Egyptians still consider the “Zionist enemy.”
According to initial Israeli intelligence estimates, the three coordinated bombings, one on the Hilton Taba and two at the Sinai resort of Ras Satan, were carried out by Global Jihad, a network of radical Islamic groups directed by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization.
Alhough Israeli tourists were targeted, some Israeli counter-terrorism experts believe the attackers’ primary goal was to destabilize the Egyptian regime.
“Global Jihad’s main aim is to topple moderate Arab and Muslim regimes, like that in Egypt, and bring like-minded Islamic radicals to power,” said Boaz Ganor of the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center.
The attacks were designed mainly to hit Egypt’s tourism industry, weaken the economy and destabilize the regime, Ganor said. If that’s indeed the case, Egypt has an obvious interest in cooperating with all intelligence services, including Israel’s, that can supply advance warning of planned attacks and help target would-be perpetrators.
For most of the 25 years that Egypt and Israel have been nominally at peace, such cooperation would have been unthinkable. A former Egyptian foreign minister, Boutros Boutros Ghali, coined the term “cold peace” to describe how Egypt had resisted normalizing relations even after signing a peace treaty.
Still, despite strong Egyptian criticism of Israel’s handling of the Palestinian intifada, ties had been warming for several months before the Sinai attacks. The most significant upgrading came in late May, when President Hosni Mubarak affirmed Egypt’s readiness to help keep the peace in Gaza after Israel’s planned withdrawal.
Mubarak agreed to beef up Egyptian forces to patrol the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, prevent the smuggling of weapons from Sinai into Gaza and send Egyptian instructors to train Palestinian Authority security forces.
Since then, the Egyptians have been trying to mediate a cease-fire involving all Palestinian organizations, including terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
In late May, Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to set up political, security and economic committees to upgrade all aspects of the countries’ bilateral relationship. The move coincided with the conclusion of the biggest deal ever between the two countries: a contract worth $2.5 billion for Egypt to supply Israel with natural gas for 15 years, beginning in 2006.
Israeli analysts attribute the change in Egypt’s attitude to Sharon’s plan to disengage from the Palestinians. They say the Egyptians are motivated by fear that after Israel’s withdrawal, Hamas will seize control of the Gaza Strip and make it a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism that could spill over into Egypt.
Now, after the Sinai bombings, Egypt has far more reason for concern. There is a palpable danger that Global Jihad would see a Hamas-controlled Gaza as a golden opportunity to establish a land base against Cairo. That gives Egypt added incentive to cooperate with Israel.
Giora Eiland, head of Israel’s national security council, summed up Israeli expectations: In the past, he said, the Egyptians had been lax about cracking down on criminal activities and weapons smuggling in Sinai, and had allowed “hostile elements” to get too close to the border with Israel.
Eiland said he hoped the Egyptians now would clamp down as strongly as they did against radical Islamic groups in Egypt in the 1990s.
But it won’t all be clear sailing. Egypt still sees itself as competing with Israel for regional hegemony, a perception that may lead Cairo to continue its efforts to compel Israel to give up its nuclear capability. And the sharp, often vitriolic, criticism of Israel’s response to Palestinian violence will almost certainly continue, at least in the press and on the Egyptian street.
Eventually, ties between Cairo and Jerusalem could mirror those Israel has with Jordan and Turkey — where, despite abiding popular hostility toward Israel, the regimes work closely at the highest strategic levels.
Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.