Good-bye, Sinai

Given the inherent contradictions and the shattering of conventions, it's quite possible that among the vacationers were some who in their military service bombed civilian targets in Sinai or prevented Palestinians from receiving medical treatment in Nablus.

BIR SUWAIR, Sinai - One day last week, the former director-general of the Defense Ministry, Major General (res.) Ilan Biran, was sitting on the porch at Aqua Sun, a resort in Sinai, drinking beer with his wife and a group of friends. The view from where he sat is one of the most beautiful in the world, despite its simplicity: a broad strip of light-colored sand, a few chairs and shaded areas, desert mountains in the background in a panoply of browns and reds, and all of it framing the turquoise waters of the Red Sea. A few Israelis, most of them young parents with small children, lounged tranquilly on the beach, each of them busy with his own affairs.

Two days later, around noon on Thursday, Biran went through passport control at the Egyptian border station and left Sinai. A few hours later, the bombs exploded, just steps away. The former senior Defense Ministry official had disregarded the warnings of the security authorities and gone to Sinai. For a growing number of Israelis, a vacation in Sinai was a singular experience that had no substitute. Something happened to Israelis when they entered Sinai. There was no other place where you would see so many of them immersed in a book, for example: The beaches of Sinai were the real place to check out our best-seller list. For the veterans of the place, being in Sinai was much more than a holiday. It was the only place of refuge, a haven from day-to-day troubles, from the terror that is all around us, and an escape from Israelis and from Israeliness, too. Something in the atmosphere of the place created a sense of relaxation that couldn't be found elsewhere. Outsiders didn't get it. "What is there to do in Sinai?" was only the question of people who weren't there. Without "activities" for the kids and adults, without "special evenings" or mass bingo, without even challenging hikes and treks. In Sinai, you did nothing and you did a lot.

Sinai also became the last meeting place between Arabs and Jews where violence and racism didn't reign. True, there was ostensibly a clear division of roles - the Egyptians and Bedouin served the Israelis - but far more complex relationships were also forged, of a kind that no conference of peace or coexistence ever did. There are Israeli youths and adults here who since childhood have developed bonds of friendship with local Bedouin and Egyptians. There was no other place where they treated one another on equal terms. Last week the visitor to Sinai could see emotional scenes of reunion between Israeli and Egyptian youngsters on the market street of Tarabin, after not seeing one another since the summer vacation or last year's Shavuot and Pesach holidays. Ali, Islam and Mohammed embraced Uri, Dror and Ira, as though all the other things that mark our lives didn't exist. These were Israeli kids who on their return home told about friends who called them by Arab names. Here and there a love story blossomed, of a kind that can't exist anywhere else: Yasmin, a delightful Ramat-Sharon-type girl of 7, is the daughter of Vered and Hisham.

It's more than likely that for the Egyptians and Bedouin, the encounter with the Israelis was also confusing. Are these the same Israelis who, just a few hours from these placid beaches, are killing their brethren and whose violent, heavily armed image appears every evening on their television screen? Given the inherent contradictions and the shattering of conventions, it's quite possible that among the vacationers were some who in their military service bombed civilian targets in Sinai or prevented Palestinians from receiving medical treatment in Nablus. In Sinai, though, the rules of the game were broken, proving to both sides that things could be different.

Sinai became part of the lifeblood of these Israelis. Most of them returned here religiously. The two years in which they stayed away, because of the intifada, were arid years for them. In recent years they were joined by a group of Israelis who went to Sinai to enjoy luxury hotels at rock-bottom prices. They, too, were captivated by the magic of the place - and "magic" is the right word to describe the Sinai experience.

Now the magic has disappeared in a twinkling, the illusion has been shattered brutally. There is no longer a safe place for Israelis and no place to which to escape. A few horrific bombs blasted it all to pieces. There is no point in complaining to the Egyptians: Israel is still a lot less safe than Egypt, despite all the efforts of the defense establishment. True, the defense establishment issued a warning about possible terrorist attacks in Sinai with impressive accuracy, but puzzlingly it also announced that a planned attack in Sinai at Rosh Hashanah had been thwarted by the bombing of a soccer field in Gaza, which was a training ground for Hamas. The fact that the Palestinians didn't have a hand in the Sinai attacks makes things easier; there were also terrorist attacks in Mombasa and in Istanbul. The longing for Sinai and people's short memory might turn out to be stronger than anything else. Still, it's likely that Israelis will not come back here in the near future, even though on Friday afternoon there were still a few Israelis on the beach at Bir Suwair who didn't want to leave, and alongside them deeply distressed Egyptian workers and female Bedouin peddlers. Over and above the deep mourning and agony of the families of the victims, the attacks were bitter news for many - the terrorists succeeded not only in killing and wounding innocent people, they also succeeded in putting an end to a last dream.

On Friday morning the couple L. and R. got up to watch the sunrise at Aqua Sun. Dawn here is spectacular. The night before they went to sleep early and the dull sound of the explosion they heard before falling asleep didn't register with them. Suddenly R. noticed a convoy of Israeli buses traveling along the road. Then he saw Israeli ambulances speeding southward. He rubbed his eyes in disbelief. But very quickly he, too, grasped that the dream was over.

Au revoir, Sinai.