Israelis vacationing in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula appear to be paying little heed to urgent warnings by the National Security Council’s (NSC) Counterterrorism Bureau to return home immediately. Sinai hoteliers say that despite the warnings on an imminent attack rooms are mostly full.
“We are fully booked. Most of the hotels are fully booked because it is known that the Israelis are issuing warnings nearly every week, so no one is respecting their view,” Samar Ali, the owner of Nakhil Inn near Nuweiba, told The Media Line. “This is the Garden of Eden, a little paradise.”
In an unusual move for the NSC’s Counterterrorism Bureau, it issued the warning on Saturday, saying they had a “very high concrete warning” of an attack. It called on all Israelis to immediately leave the peninsula and to contact their families to let them know they are safe.
“We have obtained intelligence that terrorist organizations from the Gaza Strip are plotting a terrorist attack against Israelis vacationing along the Sinai coast,” the warning said.
The warning comes amid growing lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula, which abuts Israel. Al-Qaida and Palestinian terrorists are using it as a launch pad for strikes against Israel and disgruntled Beduin routinely attack the pipeline that delivers natural gas to Israel and Jordan. Egyptian forces have failed to keep order since former president Hosni Mubarak was toppled over a year ago.
Nevertheless, Egyptian officials are accusing Israel of trying to harm the country’s tourism industry just as it is starting to recover. The number of tourists visiting Egypt rose by a third to 2.5 million in the first quarter of 2012, compared with the same time 2011 when the Egypt's revolution kept visitors away.
Maj.-Gen. Khaled Foada, the governor of South Sinai, said hours after the NSC warning was “mere rumors that Israel launches from time to time, especially as tourism in Sharm el-Sheikh recovers.” Sharm el-Sheikh on the peninsula’s southern tip is Sinai’s biggest resort.
Quoted by the Egyptian State Information Service, Fawzi, the head of the Chamber of South Sinai Hotels, said that the hotel occupancy rate in Sharm el-Sheikh has reached 68% for the first time since the revolution.
Still, many Israelis, thick-skinned to terror attacks, have ignored the warnings to visit the popular resorts on the Red Sea. A large number of them are Israeli Arabs and may feel immune to being targeted by terrorists. So far, there has been no mass exodus from the Sinai.
“This warning is having no effect at all. It’s all very calm,” Ali said.
Sabin Hadad, spokeswoman for the Population, Immigration, and Borders Authority (PIBA), which monitors border crossings, told The Media Line that since the warning more Israelis entered Egypt than left. Eighty-eight Israelis had returned while 212 entered Egypt since the warning was issued.
Vice Premier Moshe Ya’alon, a former IDF chief of general staff, said that Sinai has turned into a “problematic zone used by al-Qaida and other terrorist elements from the Gaza Strip and Sinai.”
In the last month alone, two Americans, two Brazilians and three Koreans have been abducted by Beduin tribesmen, although all were released unharmed. At a currency exchange store in Sharm el-Sheikh, a French tourist was killed and two other people were wounded when Beduin robbers and police officers got into a firefight there in late January.
South Sinai security chief Mahmoud Hefnawi reportedly said that Egyptian security forces were “escorting tourists from the moment they enter the district and until they leave. Security forces are present in all tourist attractions to ensure the visitors' safety.”
A day before the Israeli warning, the British Foreign office updated its threat assessment about Sinai saying that there was a “high risk of indiscriminate attacks including public places frequented by expatriates and foreign travelers” in the Sinai. Over a million British citizens visited all of Egypt in 2011, but it was not clear how many went to Sinai, a popular resort area.
Over the years, the Sinai has been the scene of terrorist attacks, including the 2004 double car bombing of the Hilton Taba that killed 26 people and wounded 160. Nevertheless, the coastal area continues to draw tourists who flock to the sunny beaches and amazing coral reefs. Two weeks ago, Movenpick Resort in Sharm el-Sheikh’s Naama Bay reopened its doors after an extensive refurbishment.
“We are exited to be back in this highly popular resort destination” said Adel Bibars, the hotel’s general manager. “This resort is ideal for guests seeking relaxation as well as the more active guests looking for sports or the bustling nightlife of Sharm el-Sheikh.”