Sinai magic draws Israelis despite the terror threats

For Israelis, the magic of the Sinai Peninsula, with its beautiful sand beaches and low prices, is strong enough for them to ignore official travel warnings.

al-monitor Tourists are seen on a beach at the Sinai Peninsula, the Gulf of Aqaba, Egypt, July 12, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh.

Apr 25, 2019

On Passover, Jews celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, which traditionally took place around 1300 B.C. Today, some 3,300 years after Jews were slaves to the pharaohs, Israelis are returning to Egypt in droves. The Egyptians of today are very gracious hosts, but Israeli security services warn that a trip to Sinai is still a dangerous adventure.

Loudspeakers set up at the Taba border crossing over the last few days blast the travel warning in a monotonous tone. In a statement released by the National Security Council, which was updated April 23, the threat is described as a "serious travel warning (Level 1)." The statement says, “In addition to [the Islamic State's] activities, al-Qaeda members in the area are encouraging attacks on Israeli targets.” The statement recommends that all Israelis currently in the Sinai Peninsula leave "immediately" and return to Israel. "Anyone wishing to visit the Sinai is asked to refrain from doing so," adds the statement.

But Israelis aren’t too concerned about these warnings, and continue to pour into Sinai. It is estimated that at least 40,000 Israelis, including families with children, will celebrate Passover in the peninsula, 20% more than Passover last year. Some of the vacationers responded to the warnings with amusement and even ridicule. For example, Lee Yaron, who writes for Haaretz, tweeted a photo of the smoke used to get rid of mosquitos in the huts favored by many vacationers. “Extreme measures are needed to deal with an Islamic State of mosquitos,” she wrote. The rush to Sinai also provided Israelis with an amusing new TV star, Hadassah Benizri of Jerusalem, whose interview on Channel 12 mocking the dangers (“There are more Israelis than Egyptians here”) went viral.

As head of the National Security Council until two years ago, Yaakov Nagel recommends that people do not take these warnings lightly. "The fact that there were warnings [in the past], which came to nothing, does not mean that the current adventurers will continue to be so lucky,” he tells Al-Monitor. “Any Israeli entering Sinai is a target for the Islamic State. Israelis have an attitude of, ‘It won’t happen to me,’ but we certainly can’t rely on the Egyptian security forces. I can’t understand the lightheaded attitude of Israelis going to Sinai in droves. If my son wanted to go to Sinai, I’d use force to stop him.”

Sinai has seen some horrific terrorist attacks over the last few years. The most recent attack targeting Israelis, in 2004, resulted in 34 deaths, including 12 Israelis. Then there was the downing of Metrojet flight 9268 in 2015, which resulted in the deaths of 224 passengers, most of them Russian citizens. Recently, the Egyptian government has made efforts to bring back Russian tourists to Sinai. As reported in Al-Monitor, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi even met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on April 6 to discuss this subject specifically. The two men agreed to resume flights from Russia to Sharm el-Sheikh. The list of major attacks in Sinai also includes one on November 2017, when more than 250 people were killed by an Islamic State-affiliated group. And, of course, there are occasional reports of smaller attacks.

“The Sinai travel warning has been around for 12 years at least,” says Yiftah Shua, who manages a popular Facebook group for vacationers called “Sinai: Tips and Recommendations.” He adds, “Terror threats exist in all major cities around the world, including Paris and Jerusalem. There was a terrorist attack in Sri Lanka just days ago, and there was no travel warning there. The only place that is perfectly safe is a nuclear shelter. Of course there’s a risk, but it doesn’t seem much more serious than in many other places around the world, yet tens of thousands of people visit those places despite the risks.”

The Meir family from Yahud went to Sinai on April 29, despite the severe travel warning. Speaking to Al-Monitor from Sinai, they explained their decision: “We were in Sinai in the summer, and we saw from up close that it wasn’t scary. There’s a huge difference between the threats in Israel and the sense of security here, in Sinai,” says the father of the family, Eli, a repairman. “Sure, there is some concern, but what’s the alternative? It’s dangerous in Israel, too. There are terrorist attacks in Paris and London. So what are supposed to do? Sit home scared all day?”

Following an Islamic State attack on Egyptian churches in April 2017, Israel’s security establishment made an unprecedented decision last Passover to close the Taba border crossing. In response, vacationers appealed the decision before the Supreme Court. As far as the Meir family is concerned, the fact that the border crossing has not been shut this Passover indicates that the warning is not real. “When there really was a risk, they shut the border and would not let anyone cross. If they haven’t shut the border now, it must mean that this is just a general warning, not the kind which would prevent us from going [to Sinai],” says Eli.

According to Nagel, who saw the border crossing closed on his watch, this reasoning is weak. “There is a Level 1 warning, the highest level of warning. This really isn’t some game," he says. "I can’t comment on the [current] decision not to shut the border, because I am no longer part of the National Security Council, but in no way is this proof that the risk level is any less serious.”

One of the things that attracts Israelis to Sinai is its geographical proximity, which makes it possible to drive right into the peninsula. Then there are the cheap prices. “We are a couple with two children. This vacation will cost us just 2,000 shekels ($550) for everything,” says Eli. “There are no comparable prices in Israel, not on Passover, and not during the rest of the year.”

Shua admits that cheap prices in Sinai are a big part of the appeal. “The prices really are ridiculous, though of course they go up during the holidays,” he explains. “A holiday in the Big Dune Camp in Nuweiba costs something like 40 shekels in the off-season, and that includes breakfast. A five-star hotel for a couple, with breakfast, costs around 80-100 shekels per person. People can find accommodations at a lower level for 50 shekels. Transportation is really cheap, too. A bus from Taba to Sharm el-Sheikh, a distance of 220 kilometers, only costs about 10 shekels.”

Nevertheless, according to Shua, prices are just part of the story. “There’s a certain magic in Sinai that is hard to explain," he says. "You can feel the tranquility the moment you cross the border. Anyone who comes once keeps going back again and again. It’s a kind of transition from one civilization to another. Personally, I think that living all shut up in a constant state of anxiety is a victory for terrorism. While we don’t encourage anyone to vacation in Sinai, we put the threat in proportion.”

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