Securing Sinai

Sinai - Owners of the simple thatched resorts and restaurants that dot the Sinai's Red Sea coast are trying to guess whether Israeli tourists will arrive for the long Sukkot holiday, which begins in little more than a month. Optimists are renovating their little huts on the beach and stocking up their kitchens. Pessimists prefer to wait and see. The last decade taught them that Israeli tourism is unpredictable, and some of them are promoting package deals to Egyptians and Europeans instead.

Abu Rahmi, 38, is one of the optimists. A month ago he launched a new restaurant and 20 huts on a strip of white sand at Bir Sweir, about 30 kilometers from the Israel border. He's been working in tourism since he was a child, and you can hear him talking about Israeli pop singers Ninette Tayeb and Shalom Hanoch in fluent colloquial Hebrew.

He and his English-speaking wife have a Web site to market their beach huts to the entire world, but the new resort was made with Israeli taste in mind: Each hut contains a large, soft mattress, a pair of pillows, sheets and colorful mosquito netting that gives the bed the look of a royal palanquin. Abu Rahmi hopes that thousands of Israelis will flood Sinai over the fall holidays and that some of them will stop at his place, which he built despite protests by family and friends during the economic crisis and amid major security concerns.

Meanwhile he makes do with an Israeli tourist couple or two a week. "One large group at Sukkot will put the business on its feet," he says, and not even the three sites nearby similar to his - lying in ruins under the desert sun and sea breeze - extinguish his hope: that one day the children of Israel will understand that they must return to Sinai.

He attributes his optimism to his Bedouin nature and the Egyptian security forces, which are everywhere. The police have put up checkpoints on the main road; some officers ride in armored vehicles carrying machine guns. All Israelis are registered when entering Sinai, and their movements are documented until they leave. When Israelis arrive at checkpoints in taxis they are taken aside and asked if they have been kidnapped or feel threatened. Policemen have replaced private guards at the entrances to large hotels; night surveillance of beaches and foot patrols have been augmented. The terror attacks on the Taba Hilton and in Ras al-Satan in 2004, and in Dahab in 2006, in which 140 people were killed all told, including 12 Israelis, frightened the Egyptians. They feared that all tourism to Sinai might disappear.

According to a senior Egyptian intelligence officer in Sinai, who requested anonymity because he did not have permission to talk to the press, "there are broader, secret [security] activities behind the ones visible to the eye. The police force has been tripled in size because we are aware of the Israelis' need to feel secure. We have invested in computers and a registration system so we can locate any tourist at any time." He added that "Egyptian and foreign intelligence bodies work together, particularly with the local Bedouin, who understand that without Israeli tourism, they have no way to earn a living."

The recent increase in Egyptian security forces has also been noticed by Shimon Biton, 40, of Eilat, who leads diving tours in Sinai. "On our last trips I felt safe everywhere. An official car accompanied our safaris, and a guard was posted on our bus. We saw at least one or two policemen at nearly every tourist site. It's no longer possible to drive into hotel areas without a thorough search of the car and equipment. These things never existed before in Sinai."

According to Biton, the increased security has meant that even families with children have joined his trips. "This is a trend we haven't seen for a long time," he says. Other tour operators share Biton's feelings but declined to be interviewed so as not to provide information to potential terrorists.

However, ever since the terror attacks of recent years, the Prime Minister Office's Counter-Terrorism Bureau has continually issued heightened terror alerts about traveling to Sinai, often calling the danger "a very serious concrete threat" and advising "all Israelis to leave Sinai immediately." According to Nitzan Nuriel, the head of the bureau, "the alert becomes more pointed each time there is specific and relevant intelligence," as occurred this week. "The alert translates the intelligence picture into a recommendation," he says. He declined to give details, saying only that Hamas, Hezbollah and Al-Qaida cells are currently operating in Sinai, all of them able to carry out attacks on Israelis.

Intelligence scenarios warn of bombings and the kidnappings of Israelis. Nuriel says that "the Egyptian government does not have a firm hold on Sinai. It's very easy for the terror organizations to link up with the local Bedouin population, which engages in smuggling." According to Nuriel, the Egyptian security effort adds to tourists' feelings of safety, "but is ineffective when something happens. Every now and then they thwart a terror attack, but mostly they patrol and put up checkpoints on roads. When a kidnapping occurs, the victim won't be moved around on the main roads. The locals know the desert very well and they'll use off-road vehicles. We'll find out about the kidnapping on television broadcasts from Gaza."

Nuriel agrees that the Egyptians don't like the travel warnings. "But they understand the degree of the threat very well. The Egyptian ambassador did not summon me in protest. They understand their responsibilities." Egyptian officials declined to respond to Haaretz. Nuriel claims that the warnings have a great effect on the Israeli public: "There's a dramatic drop from tens of thousands of tourists in the past to just a few thousand now."

Statistics from the Israel Airport Authority, which operates the Taba border station, show that Israelis indeed stop traveling to Sinai after terror attacks. But the last two years show a large increase in visits. In 2006, more than 22,000 passed through Taba; in 2007, more than 36,000. And the number of individual visitors to Sinai has jumped from about 650,000 in 2006 to 1.1 million in 2007 and 1.4 million in 2008. In recent years Sinai has become an attractive holiday site for Israeli Arabs. (Statistics include foreign tourists entering Sinai from Israel at Taba.)

Oren Amir, of the company Sinai Peninsula Hotels, which represents about 25 hotels, told Haaretz that the rise in Israeli tourism to Sinai is noticeable. "From November last year until about a month ago, I would get one call a day. Today I take hundreds of calls every day, some of them asking me about security."

The gravel parking lot near the Taba border is perhaps the most reliable indicator of the effectiveness of travel warnings. For the past decade it has filled with Israeli cars in the summer and during holidays. The luckier ones found parking spots on the dirt road up the hill, or on the sides of the road to Eilat. During the second intifada, after the terror attacks, and during the Second Lebanon War and the Gaza offensive last winter, the lot was empty. This month it has been filled to overflowing.