Israelis back to vacationing in Sinai: How safe is it really?

Despite travel advisories and the threat of terrorist attacks by ISIS, Israelis have gone back in droves to vacationing in Sinai.

FREEDOM BEACH Camp in Magane Bay is a popular spot for Israelis in Sinai. (photo credit: STEVE LINDE)
FREEDOM BEACH Camp in Magane Bay is a popular spot for Israelis in Sinai.
(photo credit: STEVE LINDE)
Avia Shriki, 26, from Ariel, didn’t know how she was going to spend her hot summer days with her four-year-old son, Bari. He spent part of the summer with his dad, Shriki’s ex-husband, but Bari was scheduled to spend the last week of August with Shriki.
“It’s super expensive to take your kids to attractions like Meimadyon and Luna Park,” she says. “There’s gas to pay for, entrance fees and food. You can’t just sit home all day.”
Shriki had vacationed in Sinai with friends of hers seven times that year, and so she decided to go back again with her son.
“I booked flights, which were pretty pricey, but spending Sunday through Thursday in Sinai cost me only NIS 1,300 for the two of us,” Shriki says. “I wasn’t concerned at all about bringing my son to Sinai – the Bedouin are so hospitable – but everyone around me thought it was a frightful idea. My father was super stressed out and my mother gave up trying to talk me out of it when she realized I wasn’t going to change my mind. My close friends told me, “Wow, you sure have guts. You’re a super cool mama.” My only concern was that he might get bored and wouldn’t have a good time. But he ended up loving it. He played with local children and half the time he could be found riding a camel. I’d brought coloring books with me, but Bari didn’t even take them out of the bag.”
The travel advisories publicized by the Israel Office of National Security (ONS) had no effect on Shriki’s plans.
“The Israeli authorities are always warning that it’s not safe, but I’ve been to Sinai a gazillion times and I think it’s all just politics. The Israeli government wants you to empty your pockets in Eilat, where each attraction costs at least NIS 100. Instead, you could go hang out with the Bedouin, who are poor and could use the business. There’s terrorism everywhere. I saw a post on Facebook last week by one of my Sinai friends that said, “Has the security situation in Israel improved? Is it safe to come back home?”
SHRIKI IS not alone. This past July and August, more than 270,000 travelers passed through the Israel-Egypt border. In August alone, more than 175,000 passed through the Taba border crossing, and over 85% of them were Israelis. It’s been almost 15 years since the last serious terrorist attack took place in northern Sinai and many Israelis are once again vacationing on the peninsula’s pristine beaches. And it’s not only young people who want to go scuba diving. There are entire families with kids and grandparents, too. The prices are tempting and the hospitality top notch.
Sinai Lovers Facebook group is full of messages from people who are looking for recommendations of places to stay and yoga classes to take. They also ask questions about Egyptian visas and other logistics
“I don’t recommend that anyone travel to Sinai,” says Mike Mor, one of the administrators of this popular Facebook group. “I’m not willing to take responsibility for anyone. But if you look at the Office of National Security website, you’ll see that there’s also a travel advisory for Thailand. Israel talks about Sinai just like the rest of the world talks about Israel - it’s been unfairly known as a dangerous place to visit. But I can tell you that 99% of the time, no one is being shot at. Anyone who hasn’t been to Sinai has no idea what the desert really is.”
Mor was one of more than 2,000 Israelis who managed to cross over the border into Sinai during Passover 2017 before Transportation Minister Israel Katz closed the border to Israelis until the end of the holiday in light of intelligence information and an assessment of the security situation at the time.
“There’s WIFI here and I was sitting on the beach one day watching as the political reporter from Israel Channel 2 talked about how dangerous the situation in Sinai was. I looked around me and thought to myself, there isn’t a more peaceful, calmer place on earth. Then the day after I got home, there was an attack in Jerusalem. Every time I hear the [then mayor] Nir Barkat jingle on the radio I think about how illogical we’re being.”
According to Mor, “Sinai is safer than Eilat. In Eilat, there’s much more chance that you’ll get caught up in the middle of a drunken brawl on the promenade. For every story you hear about a taxi driver ripping off tourists in Sinai, you can hear about a similar story taking place in Switzerland. And you can just as easily get food poisoning after eating in a restaurant in Paris. If your main concern is being extricated safely in case of a terrorist attack, well then you should definitely not travel to India.
“You get great value for your money in Sinai, even if you stay in a fancy hotel. The staff here is extremely professional, not like in Eilat where it’s mostly kids who’ve just finished their army service. You also see families with kids, but mainly in areas closer to the border, where they have cellphone reception. I’ve met quite a few Israelis who met and fell in love in Sinai and now they’re back here vacationing with their kids.”
THE ONS leaves no room for doubt.
“The serious threat of terrorist attacks against tourists – including Israelis – continues in Sinai at the current time,” the travel advisory on the website reads. “This follows increased ISIS activity in Sinai in the last few months. The Counter-Terrorism Unit is calling on all Israelis who are currently in Sinai to leave immediately and return to Israel. We are also asking Israelis whose loved ones are currently vacationing in Sinai to contact their family members and to update them regarding this travel advisory.”
“There are two types of travel advisories,” explains Prof. Boaz Ganor, executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at IDC Herzliya.
“The first type is a general travel warning that stems from an assessment that a particular area might be dangerous due to activity that’s taking place there. The second type involves concrete warnings regarding a specific location and time and is based on intelligence information. A professional in the field can distinguish between these two types. As far as I know, the Office of National Security does not create panic for no reason. Even general travel advisories are definitely based on intelligence assessments.
“Caution is taken in Sinai following intel showing that ISIS has lost most of its outposts in Iraq and Syria and is therefore looking to move operations to other areas of the Middle East and North Africa in which it has a foothold, such as Sinai, Libya and Mali. I imagine that the ONS’s assessment is that ISIS wants to show some sort of achievement in the coming days, and an attack against Israelis would be exactly the sort of act it wants to carry out. If my family members asked me if they should take a trip to Sinai now, I would definitely advise them not to go.”
YITZCHAK CHAI, who for 37 years has been the director of the Menachem Begin Terminal (a.k.a. Taba) border crossing run by the Israel Airports Authority, watches every day as Israelis cross over into Sinai.
“All sorts of people go to Egypt – Jews, Arabs, Christian pilgrims….” says Chai. “In 2017, 700,000 people passed through Taba and next year they’re expecting the number to reach 1 million. If no incidents take place, the numbers will keep rising. Families with kids seem so happy as they make their way back home to Israel. After the terrorist attacks in 2004, Israelis stayed away for a while. But two years ago, Sinai Lovers Facebook group was created, and now the number has just snowballed.”
On Passover last year, Chai received the order to close the border crossing for the entire week.
“It’s not my place to express my opinion regarding that decision. On the eighth day of the holiday, a terrorist attack took place at Santa Katerina. There’s been a travel advisory in effect for years now. We hand out flyers to Israeli travelers, but the Israelis who show up here have already made the decision to cross over.”
Chai says that the Egyptians “are not very happy about the travel advisory. I don’t speak with them about it, but I know that they’re unhappy with the situation.”
Adiv Toran, who runs a scuba diving tourism company in Sinai, says the truth is somewhere in between.
“I don’t disregard the warnings or the people who give them. I just think they don’t distinguish between the different areas of Sinai,” Toran says.
“Sinai is huge – it’s three times as big as all of Israel: 60,000 square kilometers. There are serious terrorist threats from the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS, but only in areas that are hundreds of kilometers from the beaches. The south is quiet. Not one Israeli has been hurt since 2004. Of course an attack can take place at any moment, just as it could in Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels and Tel Aviv.”
Toran, 58, worked in hi-tech for 30 years and then decided to change gears. Now he spends his time on his two favorite hobbies: scuba diving and Sinai. He leads a group down there every week. He was one of the two people who appealed to the Israel Supreme Court regarding the closure of the border crossing on Passover 2017. The president of the court at the time, Miriam Naor, ruled that Minister Katz’s decision was legal.
After Passover, the border was reopened and Toran went back to leading scuba diving trips in Sinai. This past Rosh Hashanah, he took his wife, three kids and extended family on a trip to Sinai.
“If I had to pick between being in a terrorist attack in Sinai or in Paris, I’d pick Sinai every time. There’s no way for anyone to know when or where an attack will take place. Anyone who’s nervous about going to Sinai should definitely not go. It’s no fun to be on vacation if you’re not relaxed.”
Liron and Meital Ben Menachem from Herzliya apparently were very relaxed. Last August, they went with their two kids – Noam (three) and Rona (a year and a half) to a quiet place near Nuweiba.
“I hadn’t been to Sinai for 17 years and it was my wife’s first time ever,” Ben Menachem says. “Some of our friends made us a feel a little anxious, but as soon as we left for our trip, we were very comfortable with the idea. It was a Muslim holiday, so there were lots of tourists from Cairo there, and we really enjoyed talking with many of them. The women wore bikinis and they all drank alcohol. We became friendly with a family with kids the same ages as ours, and we became Facebook friends. We’re all planning on meeting up there again next year. We felt very safe and there were lots of security and checkpoints along the way. I believe that the travel advisory is a way of boosting tourism in Eilat.”
The Ben Menachem family is already planning another trip to Sinai with their extended family.
“I recommend vacationing in Sinai to all of our Israeli friends, even though I hope that it stays this quiet and does not get overrun with tourists,” Ben Menachem says with a smile.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.