- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2003

TABA, Egypt — Israeli vacationers, convinced that nothing could be more dangerous than staying home, are flocking back to Egypt’s Red Sea resorts after a three-year absence occasioned by the Palestinian uprising.

“It was a mistake that we didn’t come for so long,” said Sharon Gal, who with her husband and two small children spent the long Yom Kippur weekend at Sharm el Sheik on the Sinai Peninsula.

“I don’t think it was so dangerous,” said Mrs. Gal, who had last visited the resort city three years ago. “Your head empties here. There’s nothing like it anywhere in the world.”

Droves of Israeli tourists have come to the same conclusion, forming long lines at the sleepy border crossing from Israel over a recent holiday weekend.

“After the Iraq war, people decided that it can’t get any worse, so they had the guts to go,” said Itzak Hay, director of the Israeli border crossing at Taba. “People are seeing that the political situation isn’t getting better, and that there’s no safe place anywhere.”

During the nine months before the outbreak of the uprising in 2000, nearly 1 million tourists used the Taba border crossing, two-thirds of whom were Israeli. As the Arab world rallied behind the Palestinian cause and Egypt recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv, Israeli vacationers anticipated a hostile reception in Sinai.

Some feared a random shooting by a crazed Egyptian soldier and worried that Sinai emergency workers’ response would be inadequate. Others simply felt betrayed by Egypt’s encouragement of the Palestinian uprising and made a point of boycotting Sinai.

“We didn’t want to give them our money after all of that chaos,” said Shuki Golan, who was back at the border crossing with his wife this summer for the first time in three years.

When the first wave of Israelis to visit Egypt this year returned with reports that there was nothing to fear, it opened a floodgate of countrymen seeking a peaceful desert sanctuary from their hectic homeland.

Resort hotels just south of the Israeli border on Sinai’s east coast were booked solid during the three-week Jewish autumn holidays.

Many other Israelis say the pent-up mistrust from the three years of fighting runs too deep for them to consider a visit to Sinai.

“Our family was very afraid that we were coming here,” said Mr. Golan. “They said, ‘You don’t know what will happen there. It’s not a democratic country, and they might take you to jail.’”

The fear has been reinforced by an Israeli government warning against travel to Egypt and other Arab countries. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said that even though no Israelis have been harmed in Sinai since the outbreak of the uprising, vacationers there are at risk.

“Basically, since the outburst of violence, our indication is that there’s a certain calculated danger for Israelis traveling and drawing attention in these areas,” said Jonathan Peled. “It’s not necessarily based on pinpoint information, but it’s a precautionary measure.”

But for tens of thousands of Israelis, Sinai’s tranquillity is simply too compelling for them to heed the official caution. The peninsula’s popularity thrives on its reputation as an inexpensive and serene alternative to the crowded strip of high-rises at Israel’s Eilat resort.

Once over the Taba border, the vacationers follow a coastal highway past cragged and foreboding desert mountains.

Between the road and the sea stand partially completed hotels like huge ghost towns — remnants of a construction boom in the late 1990s that was cut short when the Israelis stopped coming.

Nuweiba, a resort 35 miles south of Taba, has struggled to lure vacationers from Germany and the Persian Gulf to replace the Israelis, but apartment prices have fallen by 60 percent.

Israelis “are the main market for this area. If they come, we will start to build again. Egypt is a developing country, and our main aim is to promote tourism,” said Shawkat Nabih, who manages the 86-room Tropicana Hotel in Nuweiba.

“It’s not a matter of money, it’s a matter of principle. Why do we have to fight? Why do we have to kill each other?”

Indeed, Israelis don’t feel like foreigners here. For 15 years before giving up Sinai as part of a peace treaty with Egypt, the peninsula was considered part of Israel.

Despite the Egyptian stamps in their passports, Israelis think of Sinai as an entity unto itself. Its beaches and miles of mountain wilderness are more familiar and far less threatening than the crowds and hubbub of Cairo, a destination that interests few.

“There’s a peaceful atmosphere that we need so much. This is the reason why people come back to Sinai,” said Avi Schichrur, clad in pink-tinted Italian sunglasses as he worked at deepening his bronzed tan.

“We don’t think about anything. We don’t wear watches here, and don’t hear news. We’re just with ourselves.”

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