Friday, October 12, 2007

Israeli tourists in the South Sinai

Israelis go places in groups. Along with six family members and a friend, I was among the many thousands of Israelis who traveled to the Sinai in the Sukkot holidays.

The hold of the Sinai on its dedicated visitors can mystify people who don't feel the attraction. Accommodations are primitive, and there's not much to do.

The quiet attracts some of us. So does the beauty of the desert. So do the colored fish in the Red Sea, although these and the corals that shelter them seem to be dying off as a result of destructive local fishing practices. The big attraction, I think, is that the Sinai can function for Israelis as an alternate universe where pressure and tension don't exist. The local people are friendly, and there's no news.

Awad, a Bedouin who works at a nearby beach, offered to sell us hashish the first morning we were there. We turned him down. Awad returned every day to offer other services. One day our group hired him and his small truck to drive down the coast for snorkeling. On our final morning, Awad reserved a taxi to the border for us and took a commission from the driver.

Families with young children and some German tourists frequent the resort village where we stayed. Six U.S. dollars per person pays for a night's lodging in a straw hut known as a "hoosha." The price includes the use of communal showers and toilets, and a sumptuous buffet breakfast for which the place is known. The hut has mosquito netting but no bed. Air-conditioned cabins with toilets, showers and beds are available for $35 a night, which includes breakfasts for two or more people.

The food has to be trucked in from Cairo every day. Not much grows in the South Sinai except hashish.

We paid for everything in cash. Egyptian pounds, Israeli shekels and U.S. dollars were all accepted, and credit cards weren't. At one restaurant, we ran up a tab for several days. They repeatedly assured us that we could come back and pay another day. The night before we returned to Israel, we walked over to clear the debt. Mussa, in charge of the accounts, brought out a folio-sized ledger book in which was written every item we had ordered, down to the last falafel and soft drink. We shook hands after he accepted the money.

Our group stayed at Nuweiba, almost an hour's drive south of the Egypt-Israel border. We planned our trip with friends from Tel Aviv who were part of a different group at a nearby beach. One night we organized a dinner on the beach with about 25 Israelis taking part.

Unlike typical Sinai resorts where the workers are local Bedouin and the overseers are Egyptians from Cairo or other big cities, our beach had an all-Egyptian staff. A manager explained that this is because the local Bedouin work according to a different sense of time.

The Egyptian workers joined in soccer, volleyball and ping-pong with guests. These workers are mostly from one village and do not display the nasty anti-Israel attitudes of Egypt's intellectual and media elites, or the surliness of some of the white-uniformed officials who process tourists at the borders.

One guest expressed surprise that the cook who makes omelets and crepes at breakfast was not a Bedouin. Other workers started teasing the cook by calling him "The Bedouin." Later he offered facetiously to prepare his Israeli guest a good cup of Bedouin coffee.

It is evident that not a lot of love is lost between the Bedouin population of the Sinai and their johnny-come-lately Egyptian rulers. Egypt did not get control of the formerly Turkish-ruled area until after World War One. A recent report by the International Crisis Group criticizes the Cairo government as systematically favoring Egyptian settlers over the native Sinai Bedouin.

The Egyptian government rounded up hundreds of Bedouin after suicide bombings killed more than 30 people at the Taba Hilton hotel and on the Nuweiba coast the night of Oct. 7, 2004. More roundups followed bombings at Sharm el-Sheikh in 2005 and at Dahab in 2006. The total of Bedouins arrested has been reported as high as 2,500.

No attacks have occurred in 2007, and Israelis have been returning to the Sinai.

Someone who may be in a position to know told us that the current calm in the South Sinai results from a deal which the government has made with the Bedouin tribes. According to this story, which lacks official confirmation, the Bedouin have committed themselves to inform on anything that smacks of terror activity, in return for which the Egyptian government will refrain from interfering with local drug trafficking.

The Sukkot visits of Israelis to the Sinai took place despite an Israel government warning to stay out of Egypt. Although we have had a peace treaty since 1979, Egypt ranks second only to Iraq among 20 Arab countries which our government's Counter Terrorism Bureau has declared as too dangerous for Israelis to enter.

News reports indicated that 40,000 Israelis visited the Sinai at Sukkot. As a percentage of Israel's population, this tourist traffic in a few days is more than the proportion of U.S. citizens who vacation in Jamaica or the Bahamas in an entire year.

--Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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