Salman Rushdie’s book “The Satanic Verses” opens with the explosion of an airliner named Bostan, a Farsi word that refers to the Garden of Eden. There are only two survivors: Satan and the angel Gabriel. It could be said the book’s start echoes the history of the Sinai Peninsula, a paradise of pristine sand dunes that became a land of savagery and terror.
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Late last month a Russian airliner crashed in Sinai – the Islamic State says it blew it up and investigators agree. Back in 1974, the year I visited Sinai for the first time, it would have been all but impossible to imagine such a brutal attack.
I was 15 and went scuba diving with a friend at Naama Bay near Sharm el-Sheikh at the peninsula’s southern tip. All that was there were three diving clubs and an empty beach. The water was crystal clear, the coral reefs stunning and the fish colorful by day and tasty by night. Young people like us were walking around naked and smiling. Three roads crossed the peninsula, which had very few towns and villages. Only 60,000 people lived there.
Most of them were Bedouin of 26 tribes who lived in the region’s 60,000 square kilometers. Israelis – the then-rulers of Sinai – only understood them superficially. The Israelis were either fighting the Egyptians at the Suez Canal or building settlements, as well as hiking and diving in this paradise that had fallen into their hands. For Israelis, Sinai was green palm trees, red mountains, oases, gardens and natural pools that enticed you to stretch out naked on the smooth rocks and dry off.
Even the 1973 Yom Kippur War didn’t change a thing; the war took place near the Suez Canal far away. Israeli politicians only noticed the canal, the Gulf of Suez oil fields and the messianic settlement movement that consumed Israeli society following the triumph of the 1967 Six-Day War. Unpolitical Israelis only noticed carefree Bedouin, mountains and sea. I was one of them.
When I finished my army service, I made my way down to Sinai and conducted tours, scuba dived, climbed the wadis and mountains, and befriended the Bedouin of both the south and north.
The peninsula became a playground without boundaries, one of free love and marijuana – although the latter was awful stuff smuggled in from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan by five drug rings. According to former operators of these networks, three were operated by Israeli intelligence and two by Egyptian intelligence, with both agencies seeking the information they could glean from the smugglers.
You could say that during Sinai’s glory years, the most amazing thing happened – the intelligence services of these two rivals worked for a common goal: to fill the young tourists’ demand for marijuana. It turns out that such things are possible in paradise.
The big money flows
The 1978 Camp David Accords seemed like a good idea, mainly because Israelis didn’t know what to do with Sinai. The Egyptians had big ideas. Sinai is the plank that connects North Africa with the Persian Gulf, the hinge on which the Arab world turns – a world where Egypt has always seen itself as the leader. The Egyptians paved new roads that linked Africa and Asia, and built a port in Nuweiba to transfer cargo and people to Jordan, Iraq and the Persian Gulf.
It was then that the big money began to flow into Sinai: investments in colossal hotels in the Sharm district, built for winter tourists from northern Europe. By that time, President Anwar Sadat had been assassinated and Hosni Mubarak was cultivating links with the private sector and issuing licenses for hotels in the peninsula.
The Bedouin, who were always suspicious about the Egyptians who lived on the Nile, guessed that this takeover wouldn’t benefit them. The peninsula became Egyptian tourism’s golden goose.
Israeli tourism, which extended to Nuweiba nearly halfway down the peninsula, was of a different stripe altogether. This was tourism of grass huts and plain beaches, most of them operated by Bedouin and Egyptian partners. For the Israelis, Sinai was a cheap and nearby foreign resort.
After the peninsula’s return to Egypt following the 1979 peace treaty, there may have been less nudity, but there was much more hashish, which became a locally grown crop. Now there’s opium, too.
The Byzantine garden agriculture, introduced by Macedonian monks in the fifth century when the Saint Catherine’s Monastery was established, has been converted for the intensive cultivation of opium poppies. The Bedouin began growing the poppies in the mountains as a way to make extra money. They thus morphed from nomads into sophisticated, wealthy farmers.
So while the Egyptians make big money on the beaches and along the roads, the Bedouin in the mountains grow and smuggle drugs. At the high point of this period, the 1990s and the start of the previous decade, each dunam (quarter acre) produced around five kilograms of opium valued at $40,000. The opium was transferred by Egyptian middlemen to Cairo, where it was refined into heroin and smuggled to Europe.
Meanwhile, the drug business was synchronized with tourism; it even helped encourage it. Sinai became one of the largest regions in the Middle East for the cultivation, trade and smuggling of drugs, and the Bedouin, with the hundreds of millions of dollars they earned, began acquiring arms and importing alcohol and electronic goods. The tribal and familial networks were torn apart when the young people became wealthy and corrupt.
Arab Spring changes everything
Of the Sinai’s 26 Bedouin tribes, 13 are in the south and 13 in the north. The northern tribes live along the Israeli border – the Tarabin, the Sawarka and the Ahaywat. The southern tribes live down the coast.
The financial bonanza only reached the northern tribes when Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers began crossing Sinai on their way to Israel. With the large, unsupervised desert, the Egyptians’ blind eye and the porous Israeli border, Bedouin created networks for smuggling asylum seekers. This trade was controlled by the largest Bedouin tribe in northern Sinai, the Sawarka.
The price for smuggling a refugee soared to $40,000 from $3,000. The females were raped, and some were kidnapped to harvest their organs.
Asylum seekers were crowded into underground rooms, tortured and enslaved for the construction of villas for their kidnappers and rapists. Sometimes they begged their relatives in Israel, Eritrea and Sudan to pay ransom for their release near the Israeli border; from there they would try to make their way to freedom and perhaps a better future.
The system of kidnapping and rape was streamlined; the Sinai Bedouin made contact with another Bedouin tribe, the Rashaida, along the Egyptian-Sudanese border. The latter kidnapped asylum seekers who had fled to Egypt and did not intend to go to Israel. They were transferred to camps in the Nile Delta, and from there to Sinai.
By 2010, the tribes and the smuggling, kidnapping and extortion networks in Sinai had earned incredible sums – hundreds of millions of dollars. Until 2011, this world was decently organized. But the Arab Spring, which undermined Egypt and its security services, changed everything. Egyptian rule vanished. The Bedouin repeatedly blew up the natural gas pipeline through Sinai to gain protection money, and Israel, terrified by the wave of asylum seekers, put up a fence along the border.
In the summer of 2011 came the terror attack that no one was expecting: A cell penetrated the Israeli border from northern Sinai and attacked an Israeli bus near Eilat. The border road was closed, and Israel began to treat Sinai as a real threat.
The attack underscored the division of the peninsula: To the north of Eilat was a land of terror, kidnapping and rape. To the south was a land of beaches, tourism, palm trees and coral reefs.
Israelis lost their faith in the peninsula and stopped going there, but the tourism region of Sharm el-Sheikh and Dahab survived the many changes – the revolution, the terrorist attacks and the election that made the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi president. This was followed by the army’s counterrevolution in which Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi came to power.
The Sinai coast continued to function as an isolated southern bubble, with hundreds of thousands of Russians and northern Europeans still flocking to its luxurious hotels and beaches.
With the civil war in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the weakening of Egyptian control in Sinai, a new organization came into being in 2012 in Sinai – Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. Some of its members were Bedouin from the Sawarka and some were foreigners. In November 2014, they declared allegiance to the Islamic State. The Egyptians managed to confine their war against the new group to northern Sinai.
In 2013, Israel completed its fence to stem the flow of asylum seekers, and the trade in human beings was reduced to only a few dozen. But the Sawarka didn’t stop this lucrative trade, and instead began directing the asylum seekers toward Libya. The camps in the delta continued to operate and the big money was reallocated to the struggle against Egypt in the name of the Islamic State.
The Sawarka, due to their control of northern Sinai’s long coast and their proximity to Rafah and the blockaded Gaza Strip, became the main smuggler of weapons and ammunition to Hamas. The tribe developed the lucrative tunnel trade.
Thus the economic motive was added to the Islamic motive; trade in arms, drugs and people, as well as rape and looting, all clad in the cloak of jihad. Christian Copts fled El Arish, selling their homes at a loss and leaving in the middle of the night to avoid being kidnapped.
Northern Sinai became a war zone, the question was when, not if, it would seep into the tourism-friendly southern half.
The vulnerable south
In June 2014, I traveled to southern Sinai to meet with the Bedouin and gauge the extent of the Islamic State’s penetration. It was no longer possible to reach northern Sinai; certainly not as a tourist. Few journalists if any are permitted to go there. I came to meet Ahmed Gabali, the sheikh of the Gabalia, the oldest tribe in southern Sinai and the third largest, with around 7,800 resident members.
Gabali said that a few months earlier a few Bedouin from the north had made their way to southern Sinai.
“They came to carry out a terrorist attack at one of the hotels. We went to see them. They said they heard that if they struck tourists they’d be rewarded in heaven. We told them that whoever told them that was lying, that there’s no such thing as that in Islam. That striking tourists is like killing us,” Gabali said.
“They mustn’t do anything in southern Sinai. They returned to the north. A Bedouin from the north can’t come here and do something without us knowing about it. We won’t let anyone touch the tourists here.”
He said the heads of southern tribes had told the heads of the northern tribes they must not strike at tourists.
But the army is incapable of supervising the desert paths or the long coasts, where it’s easy to land a boat or raft. This is the territory of the Sawarka, and if they’re joined by the Tarabin and another tribe or two from the north, the tribes of the south and center won’t be able to rely on the army.
In April, the Islamic State in Sinai threatened the Tarabin, the largest of the Bedouin tribes in the peninsula, whose territory stretches from El Arish near the Israeli border to Nuweiba in the east. In early July, dozens of men from ISIS-affiliate Wilayat Sinai (the Egyptian army says over 200) attacked Egyptian army positions and camps near the northern Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid. They killed at least 50 Egyptian soldiers, wounded dozens and destroyed tanks, armored personnel carriers and five military positions and checkpoints.
The fighters employed Islamic State methods. As the Egyptian camps were being attacked, Sheikh Zuweid was occupied by Wilayat Sinai.
Four months later the bomb sent down the airliner, signaling that the violence in the north had finally hit the south. It scared off the last Russian and European tourists, those who had come to enjoy the clear water and warm sun of this lost paradise.
Tsur Shezaf contributes to Haaretz’s weekend supplement and makes documentaries for Israeli television. He has published novels and travel books including the upcoming Hebrew-language “Daesh: A Journey to the Devil’s Doorstep.”