How un­safe is it re­ally in Si­nai?

• By MOR SHIMONI

The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • MOR SHIMONI Trans­lated by Han­nah Hochner.

Avia Shriki, 26, from Ariel, didn’t know how she was go­ing to spend her hot sum­mer days with her four-year-old son, Bari. He spent part of the sum­mer with his dad, Shriki’s ex-hus­band, but Bari was sched­uled to spend the last week of Au­gust with Shriki. “It’s su­per ex­pen­sive to take your kids to at­trac­tions like Meimadyon and Luna Park,” she says. “There’s gas to pay for, en­trance fees and food. You can’t just sit home all day.”

Shriki had va­ca­tioned in Si­nai with friends of hers seven times that year, and so she de­cided to go back again with her son.

“I booked flights, which were pretty pricey, but spend­ing Sun­day through Thurs­day in Si­nai cost me only NIS 1,300 for the two of us,” Shriki says. “I wasn’t con­cerned at all about bring­ing my son to Si­nai – the Be­douin are so hos­pitable – but ev­ery­one around me thought it was a fright­ful idea. My fa­ther was su­per stressed out and my mother gave up try­ing to talk me out of it when she re­al­ized I wasn’t go­ing to change my mind. My close friends told me, “Wow, you sure have guts. You’re a su­per cool mama.” My only con­cern was that he might get bored and wouldn’t have a good time. But he ended up lov­ing it. He played with lo­cal chil­dren and half the time he could be found rid­ing a camel. I’d brought color­ing books with me, but Bari didn’t even take them out of the bag.”

The travel ad­vi­sories pub­li­cized by the Is­rael Of­fice of Na­tional Se­cu­rity (ONS) had no ef­fect on Shriki’s plans.

“The Is­raeli author­i­ties are al­ways warn­ing that it’s not safe, but I’ve been to Si­nai a gazil­lion times and I think it’s all just pol­i­tics. The Is­raeli gov­ern­ment wants you to empty your pock­ets in Ei­lat, where each at­trac­tion costs at least NIS 100. In­stead, you could go hang out with the Be­douin, who are poor and could use the busi­ness. There’s ter­ror­ism ev­ery­where. I saw a post on Face­book last week by one of my Si­nai friends that said, “Has the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion in Is­rael im­proved? Is it safe to come back home?”

SHRIKI IS not alone. This past July and Au­gust, more than 270,000 trav­el­ers passed through the Is­rael-Egypt bor­der. In Au­gust alone, more than 175,000 passed through the Taba bor­der cross­ing, and over 85% of them were Is­raelis. It’s been al­most 15 years since the last se­ri­ous ter­ror­ist at­tack took place in north­ern Si­nai and many Is­raelis are once again va­ca­tion­ing on the penin­sula’s pris­tine beaches. And it’s not only young peo­ple who want to go scuba div­ing. There are en­tire fam­i­lies with kids and grand­par­ents, too. The prices are tempt­ing and the hos­pi­tal­ity top notch.

Si­nai Lovers Face­book group is full of mes­sages from peo­ple who are look­ing for rec­om­men­da­tions of places to stay and yoga classes to take. They also ask ques­tions about Egyp­tian visas and other lo­gis­tics.

“I don’t rec­om­mend that any­one travel to Si­nai,” says Mike Mor, one of the ad­min­is­tra­tors of this pop­u­lar Face­book group. “I’m not will­ing to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for any­one. But if you look at the Of­fice of Na­tional Se­cu­rity web­site, you’ll see that there’s also a travel ad­vi­sory for Thai­land. Is­rael talks about Si­nai just like the rest of the world talks about Is­rael - it’s been un­fairly known as a dan­ger­ous place to visit. But I can tell you that 99% of the time, no one is be­ing shot at. Any­one who hasn’t been to Si­nai has no idea what the desert re­ally is.”

Mor was one of more than 2,000 Is­raelis who man­aged to cross over the bor­der into Si­nai dur­ing Passover 2017 be­fore Trans­porta­tion Min­is­ter Is­rael Katz closed the bor­der to Is­raelis un­til the end of the hol­i­day in light of in­tel­li­gence in­for­ma­tion and an as­sess­ment of the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion at the time.

“There’s WIFI here and I was sit­ting on the beach one day watch­ing as the po­lit­i­cal re­porter from Is­rael Chan­nel 2 talked about how dan­ger­ous the sit­u­a­tion in Si­nai was. I looked around me and thought to my­self, there isn’t a more peace­ful, calmer place on earth. Then the day af­ter I got home, there was an at­tack in Jerusalem. Ev­ery time I hear the [then mayor] Nir Barkat jin­gle on the ra­dio I think about how il­log­i­cal we’re be­ing.”

Ac­cord­ing to Mor, “Si­nai is safer than Ei­lat. In Ei­lat, there’s much more chance that you’ll get caught up in the mid­dle of a drunken brawl on the prom­e­nade. For ev­ery story you hear about a taxi driver rip­ping off tourists in Si­nai, you can hear about a sim­i­lar story tak­ing place in Switzer­land. And you can just as eas­ily get food poi­son­ing af­ter eat­ing in a restau­rant in Paris. If your main con­cern is be­ing ex­tri­cated safely in case of a ter­ror­ist at­tack, well then you should def­i­nitely not travel to In­dia.

“You get great value for your money in Si­nai, even if you stay in a fancy ho­tel. The staff here is ex­tremely pro­fes­sional, not like in Ei­lat where it’s mostly kids who’ve just fin­ished their army ser­vice. You also see fam­i­lies with kids, but mainly in ar­eas closer to the bor­der, where they have cell­phone re­cep­tion. I’ve met quite a few Is­raelis who met and fell in love in Si­nai and now they’re back here va­ca­tion­ing with their kids.”

THE ONS leaves no room for doubt.

“The se­ri­ous threat of ter­ror­ist at­tacks against tourists – in­clud­ing Is­raelis – con­tin­ues in Si­nai at the cur­rent time,” the travel ad­vi­sory on the web­site reads. “This fol­lows in­creased ISIS ac­tiv­ity in Si­nai in the last few months. The Counter-Ter­ror­ism Unit is call­ing on all Is­raelis who are cur­rently in Si­nai to leave im­me­di­ately and re­turn to Is­rael. We are also ask­ing Is­raelis whose loved ones are cur­rently va­ca­tion­ing in Si­nai to con­tact their fam­ily mem­bers and to up­date them re­gard­ing this travel ad­vi­sory.”

“There are two types of travel ad­vi­sories,” ex­plains Prof. Boaz Ganor, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Counter-Ter­ror­ism at IDC Her­zliya.

“The first type is a gen­eral travel warn­ing that stems from an as­sess­ment that a par­tic­u­lar area might be dan­ger­ous due to ac­tiv­ity that’s tak­ing place there. The sec­ond type in­volves con­crete warn­ings re­gard­ing a spe­cific lo­ca­tion and time and is based on in­tel­li­gence in­for­ma­tion. A pro­fes­sional in the field can dis­tin­guish be­tween these two types. As far as I know, the Of­fice of Na­tional Se­cu­rity does not cre­ate panic for no rea­son. Even gen­eral travel ad­vi­sories are def­i­nitely based on in­tel­li­gence as­sess­ments.

“Cau­tion is taken in Si­nai fol­low­ing in­tel show­ing that ISIS has lost most of its out­posts in Iraq and Syria and is there­fore look­ing to move op­er­a­tions to other ar­eas of the Mid­dle East and North Africa in which it has a foothold, such as Si­nai, Libya and Mali. I imag­ine that the ONS’s as­sess­ment is that ISIS wants to show some sort of achieve­ment in the com­ing days, and an at­tack against Is­raelis would be ex­actly the sort of act it wants to carry out. If my fam­ily mem­bers asked me if they should take a trip to Si­nai now, I would def­i­nitely ad­vise them not to go.”

YITZCHAK CHAI, who for 37 years has been the di­rec­tor of the Me­nachem Be­gin Ter­mi­nal (a.k.a. Taba) bor­der cross­ing run by the Is­rael Air­ports Author­ity, watches ev­ery day as Is­raelis cross over into Si­nai.

“All sorts of peo­ple go to Egypt – Jews, Arabs, Chris­tian pil­grims….” says Chai. “In 2017, 700,000 peo­ple passed through Taba and next year they’re ex­pect­ing the num­ber to reach 1 mil­lion. If no in­ci­dents take place, the num­bers will keep ris­ing. Fam­i­lies with kids seem so happy as they make their way back home to Is­rael. Af­ter the ter­ror­ist at­tacks in 2004, Is­raelis stayed away for a while. But two years ago, Si­nai Lovers Face­book group was cre­ated, and now the num­ber has just snow­balled.”

On Passover last year, Chai re­ceived the or­der to close the bor­der cross­ing for the en­tire week.

“It’s not my place to ex­press my opin­ion re­gard­ing that de­ci­sion. On the eighth day of the hol­i­day, a ter­ror­ist at­tack took place at Santa Ka­te­rina. There’s been a travel ad­vi­sory in ef­fect for years now. We hand out fly­ers to Is­raeli trav­el­ers, but the Is­raelis who show up here have al­ready made the de­ci­sion to cross over.”

Chai says that the Egyp­tians “are not very happy about the travel ad­vi­sory. I don’t speak with them about it, but I know that they’re un­happy with the sit­u­a­tion.”

Adiv Toran, who runs a scuba div­ing tourism com­pany in Si­nai, says the truth is some­where in be­tween.

“I don’t dis­re­gard the warn­ings or the peo­ple who give them. I just think they don’t dis­tin­guish be­tween the dif­fer­ent ar­eas of Si­nai,” Toran says.

“Si­nai is huge – it’s three times as big as all of Is­rael: 60,000 square kilo­me­ters. There are se­ri­ous ter­ror­ist threats from the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood and ISIS, but only in ar­eas that are hun­dreds of kilo­me­ters from the beaches. The south is quiet. Not one Is­raeli has been hurt since 2004. Of course an at­tack can take place at any mo­ment, just as it could in Paris, Am­s­ter­dam, Brus­sels and Tel Aviv.”

Toran, 58, worked in hi-tech for 30 years and then de­cided to change gears. Now he spends his time on his two fa­vorite hob­bies: scuba div­ing and Si­nai. He leads a group down there ev­ery week. He was one of the two peo­ple who ap­pealed to the Is­rael Supreme Court re­gard­ing the clo­sure of the bor­der cross­ing on Passover 2017. The pres­i­dent of the court at the time, Miriam Naor, ruled that Min­is­ter Katz’s de­ci­sion was le­gal.

Af­ter Passover, the bor­der was re­opened and Toran went back to lead­ing scuba div­ing trips in Si­nai. This past Rosh Hashanah, he took his wife, three kids and ex­tended fam­ily on a trip to Si­nai.

“If I had to pick be­tween be­ing in a ter­ror­ist at­tack in Si­nai or in Paris, I’d pick Si­nai ev­ery time. There’s no way for any­one to know when or where an at­tack will take place. Any­one who’s ner­vous about go­ing to Si­nai should def­i­nitely not go. It’s no fun to be on va­ca­tion if you’re not re­laxed.”

Liron and Meital Ben Me­nachem from Her­zliya ap­par­ently were very re­laxed. Last Au­gust, they went with their two kids – Noam (three) and Rona (a year and a half) to a quiet place near Nuweiba.

“I hadn’t been to Si­nai for 17 years and it was my wife’s first time ever,” Ben Me­nachem says. “Some of our friends made us a feel a lit­tle anx­ious, but as soon as we left for our trip, we were very com­fort­able with the idea. It was a Mus­lim hol­i­day, so there were lots of tourists from Cairo there, and we re­ally en­joyed talk­ing with many of them. The women wore biki­nis and they all drank al­co­hol. We be­came friendly with a fam­ily with kids the same ages as ours, and we be­came Face­book friends. We’re all plan­ning on meet­ing up there again next year. We felt very safe and there were lots of se­cu­rity and check­points along the way. I be­lieve that the travel ad­vi­sory is a way of boost­ing tourism in Ei­lat.”

The Ben Me­nachem fam­ily is al­ready plan­ning an­other trip to Si­nai with their ex­tended fam­ily.

“I rec­om­mend va­ca­tion­ing in Si­nai to all of our Is­raeli friends, even though I hope that it stays this quiet and does not get over­run with tourists,” Ben Me­nachem says with a smile.

14

(Steve Linde)

FREE­DOM BEACH Camp in Ma­gane Bay is a pop­u­lar spot for Is­raelis in Si­nai.

(Photos: Yehuda Ben-Itah)

TABA CROSS­ING, 2011. In 2017, 700,000 peo­ple passed through Taba; 1 mil­lion are ex­pected in 2018.

A VIC­TIM is evac­u­ated af­ter the Taba Hil­ton bomb­ing, on Oc­to­ber 7, 2004. The three Si­nai bomb­ing at­tacks tar­get­ing tourist ho­tels left 34 peo­ple dead and 171 in­jured.

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