As Israelis Flee Sinai, Hamas Orders Tunnels Closed

A day after the Counterterrorism Bureau warned Israeli tourists to leave Sinai immediately, due to intelligence information on a kidnapping threat, it is still not clear whether the information that prompted Tuesday night's warning indicated that Israelis were in imminent danger of being abducted, or that a kidnapping had already taken place but had not yet been reported. Various steps were taken yesterday to clarify whether a kidnapping had indeed been carried out.

The release of the travel advisory may have led the group planning the kidnapping to postpone the operation in the belief that it had been exposed. Alternatively, however, the Israeli security establishment may have misinterpreted the intelligence it received.

Meanwhile, Hamas yesterday ordered the owners of hundreds of smuggling tunnels around Rafah, a town straddling the border between Sinai and the Gaza Strip, to temporarily clear all merchandise and people out of the tunnels, due to rumors that an Israeli had been kidnapped in Sinai and was to be taken into Gaza via a tunnel.

Journalists in the Strip said Hamas issued the order in response to an unusual request for the tunnels' closure from the Egyptian authorities. The official border crossing at Rafah, which is usually open on Wednesdays and Thursdays to allow people needing medical care abroad to enter Egypt, was also closed.

As of last night, Hamas had not officially confirmed this report.

The Egyptian authorities denied yesterday that an Israeli had been kidnapped in Sinai and said Sinai continued to be safe for Israelis.

Some 400 Israelis have returned from Sinai via the Taba border crossing since the travel advisory was issued. They include Israeli Arabs, young people staying at Bedouin villages and a handful of families. Border officials said they believe only a few hundred Israelis remain in Sinai.

However, one senior border official said, the number of Israelis crossing back into Israel was roughly normal for this season.

"Over the past few days, even before the warning was issued, some 4,000 people went through the border crossing, including tourists," he said. "About 10 percent of these were Israelis."

However, he also said that most Israelis who had planned to spend next week's Independence Day holiday in Sinai would probably cancel.

Four young men from Jerusalem - Rubi, Yonatan, Shadi and Itai - were among those who returned yesterday afternoon. They said they had cut short their vacation at Sharm al-Sheikh at the behest of their families following the warning. They said they felt safe at Sharm al-Sheikh, but had nevertheless decided to speak French among themselves so they would not be identified as Israelis. They also said they observed security personnel on the road from Sharm to Eilat.

"We weren't scared," one of them told Haaretz. "We are going back because of family pressure, and because it did seem a little more serious this time."

The returnees also included three Israeli men in their twenties, accompanied by an Australian friend, who had gone to Ras Abu Galum in Sinai earlier this week. On Tuesday night they received text messages from their families informing them of the travel advisory and asking them to come home.

"We were pretty scared," said A., from southern Israel. "The message made us nervous. We didn't know what it was about, but we figured if an official whose job it is to issue these warnings does it, then it's not for nothing, so we decided to come back."

A. said the other Israeli vacationers at Ras Abu Galum had also all returned to Israel.

Shiri Moshe, 37, from Moshav Beit Halevi in central Israel, returned yesterday after eight days in Ras al-Shaytan, along with her husband Vimal, 41, and their three children: Lihi, 9, Or, 8, and Goni, six months. She said they had planned on staying two more days, but returned because "our parents wouldn't leave us alone. My mother-in-law begged us to come back.