Visiting Sinai

According to Globes, more than 40,000 Israelis walked or drove across the Taba border crossing from Eilat to Sinai this Passover.

Israelis wait in line to go to Sinai through the Taba Crossing (photo credit: YEHUDA BEN-ITAH)
Israelis wait in line to go to Sinai through the Taba Crossing
(photo credit: YEHUDA BEN-ITAH)
Despite an advisory against travel to the Sinai Peninsula issued by the National Security Council Counter-Terrorism Bureau, Israelis flocked to the popular holiday destination during Passover – in what some have dubbed “a reverse Exodus.”
According to Globes, more than 40,000 Israelis walked or drove across the Taba border crossing from Eilat to Sinai this Passover to enjoy the sun, swimming, snorkeling and diving, staying in huts and hotels at reasonable rates. One report estimated that over 85,000 people will pass through the crossing, in both directions – 20% more than last year.
The Counter-Terrorism Bureau issued a new warning this week, urging all Israelis already there to return to Israel immediately.
Noting that there is “a serious threat of the perpetration of terrorist attacks against Sinai tourists, including Israelis,” the bureau said it “strongly recommends that all those wishing to go to Sinai refrain from doing so.” But, it added, the decision is ultimately “at the discretion of each person and their sole responsibility.”
The Hebrew daily Yediot Ahronot even ran as its main front page headline on Tuesday: “Leave Sinai!”
“Israeli security officials have expressed their frustration at Israeli tourists traveling to Sinai, ignoring warnings of imminent threats from ISIS and al-Qaeda cells active in the area,” the report said.
Sinai has been a popular destination for Israelis ever since Israel captured the territory in the Six Day War and reopened the Taba crossing in 1982, following its peace treaty with Egypt three years earlier.
Resorts run by Bedouin in southern Sinai were packed with Israelis until October 7, 2004, when 34 people – including a dozen Israelis – were killed, and dozens more were wounded in terrorist bombings at the Hilton Taba and Ras al-Satan campsite.
Then, on July 23, 2005, 88 people – mostly Egyptians and one Israeli – were killed and more than 200 were wounded in a series of terrorist bombings in Sharm e-Sheikh.
During the 2017 Passover holiday, Israel took the rare step of suddenly closing the Taba crossing for 11 days due to warnings of a terrorist attack. Egypt has been battling cells affiliated with ISIS and al-Qaeda – believed to be based in the mountains of northern Sinai – for several years, with only partial success.
Since then, it should be noted, Egypt has boosted security at the Taba crossing and in southern Sinai to an unprecedented level, with armed soldiers at checkpoints throughout the area.
The question then, is this: If there is a real and imminent danger of terrorist attacks, why does the government suffice with a travel advisory? If indeed, Israeli lives are at stake, shouldn’t it simply close the border? If there is actual intelligence information – as there was in the recent atrocity in Sri Lanka – why not take action?
The answer, we suspect, is that Egypt profits from the flourishing tourism to Sinai, and when Israel closed the border two years ago, the Egyptians were furious. For its part, Israel wants to encourage its citizens to enjoy Eilat and spend their money there, rather than crossing into Egypt.
By not closing the border, the government can always make the excuse – if there is a terrorist attack – that it issued a warning which was not heeded by Israelis. This does not clear it of responsibility, though.
If it has concrete information, it should do more to warn the public. A travel advisory is not enough, evident by the tens of thousands of Israelis who travel there every holiday.
As Jews celebrate Passover, which marks the Exodus from Egypt, we should not be quick to condemn those who visit Sinai, one of the most beautiful places in the world.
The security situation in southern Sinai, where most Israelis stay, has been calm and stable for 14 years. While that doesn’t mean it will stay that way, if the government is aware of concrete terrorist plots, it should simply close the border.
Until then, it should not just clean its hands by instilling fear in those who want to visit a place of paradise. Real threats demand real action.