More Dangerous Than Sinai

Even if the defense establishment has solid information about Sinai, the timing of its warnings is problematic, after four years of warnings in which not a hair of the tens of thousands of Israelis who went to Sinai was harmed.

The anti-terrorism unit of the National Security Council has seemingly done its duty. It has "specific information" about an intention by terrorists to attack Israelis in Sinai, and it has shared this information with the public, for whose security it is responsible. The fact that the information was released on the eve of the holidays, at a time when 100,000 or so Israelis are planning to go to Sinai, is undoubtedly due to the fact that the information reached the unit just now, and not to any other, covert reasons. Still, the warning raises a number of questions.

This is not the first time in the past four years that the anti-terrorism unit, with its panoply of officers, has issued similar warnings, though this time the warning is said to be "graver than usual." If Israelis decide nonetheless to spend the holiday in Sinai, as would indeed appear to be the case, it will mark the continuation of a very unusual phenomenon here: Israelis are ignoring the warnings of the defense establishment, casting doubt on its considerations and not being automatically persuaded by its rationale.

One day, at Passover 2003, after about two and a half years in which Israelis stayed away from Sinai, they returned to its beaches. Despite the security warnings, 15,000 Israelis spent that Passover in Sinai. No fewer than 60,000 visited Sinai over the summer. At Passover 2004, 27,000 Israelis went to Sinai, and last summer a total of 160,000 Israelis spent time there.

That flow of people, despite the warnings that remained in effect, was almost the only manifestation of defiance by Israelis of their defense establishment. It's too bad this healthy skepticism isn't applied in other cases, as well. For example, must we automatically believe the defense establishment when it says that all 14 Palestinians who were liquidated last week by missiles fired at a soccer field were Hamas terrorists? And could it be that Tali Fahima, the Jewish Israeli woman who has been placed in administrative detention (arrest without trial) for four months, didn't do what she is said to have done? Maybe Mordechai Vanunu, the nuclear whistle-blower, isn't all that dangerous? Or Iran, either?

Even if the defense establishment has solid information about Sinai, the timing of its warnings is problematic, after four years of warnings in which not a hair of the tens of thousands of Israelis who went to Sinai was harmed. After all, it's always easier to frighten people, even if it's not certain that it's necessary - what's known popularly as "covering your ass." No one pays for false warnings here, not for the scare campaign about Iraq's chemical and biological weapons, and nor for the warnings about Sinai. The "national intelligence assessor," Amos Gilad, has made a brilliant career out of false warnings of this kind and has never paid a public price. On the contrary, from panic to panic he gets stronger and stronger.

False warnings have a price - economic, security, political and psychological - but those responsible don't pay it. In the case of Sinai, too, there is a price. First, in the quality of life of Israelis, who have found a wonderful, inexpensive vacation place and are liable to lose it. Second, in the sensitive relations with Egypt. Israel, which is always so offended by warnings issued by other countries against visiting it - warnings that are sometimes far more justified - is doing the same thing vis-a-vis Egypt. What right, then, does Israel have to preach to soccer teams that refuse to come here? In Sinai an effort is being made to create an exceptional situation in the Middle East landscape: Israelis and Arabs together. It's true that the division of roles is still the traditional one - the Israelis are vacationing, the Egyptians are serving them - but in the gloomy reality in which Arabs and Israelis meet only under violent conditions, the interaction itself, which is usually pleasant, is of tremendous importance. To terminate that process would have a price that the anti-terrorism unit is probably not capable of evaluating.

The warnings this time may be more grounded. One hardly needs to be a great espionage expert to understand that in the current situation, an attack in Sinai, despite the efforts the Egyptians are making to prevent such an occurrence, is not impossible. Every evening millions of Egyptians are exposed to the horrific images of what Israel is doing to their Palestinian brethren, and all it would take is one despairing Egyptian to commit an act that would hurt us and them. Still, most of the travelers to Sinai feel secure there, in some cases more secure than they do at home.

It's dangerous to be an Israeli everywhere in the world. And there are regions that are especially dangerous. If the anti-terrorism unit was doing its job properly, it would warn Israelis above all about the following places: young people should be warned against attending the Judea and Samaria College in Ariel, in the West Bank. Ariel is more dangerous than Sinai. And to live in Rafah Yam, a Gaza Strip settlement, and travel the Trans-Samaria Highway, is more dangerous than to travel to Kashmir, which is another place we're warned about.