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Remembering Better Days: The Sinai Peninsula

By Ben L. Kaufman · October 14th, 2013 · On Second Thought
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Headlines describing terror in the Sinai left me thinking of a happier era when Enquirer editor Luke Feck agreed to let me cover the first return of Arab land taken by Israel in wars with Egypt. It would be an historic moment and I wanted to be there. 

Sinai is a triangular peninsula south of Israel between the Gulf of Suez and Gulf of Aqaba. Its tip juts into the Red Sea. 

When I was there, Sinai seemed idyllic. Today, it’s a deadly trap for Egyptian police and military and a no-go land for tourists.

Sinai was the scene of some of the hardest fighting in 1973 Yom Kippur War when Israel conquered and occupied the entire peninsula. 

Once combat ended, Israel and Egypt began serious efforts to create and keep the peace. The Egyptian president visited Jerusalem in 1977. Sadat and Begin signed Camp David Accords and shared the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize. 

Sinai again became a quiet Bedouin land penetrated by few pilgrims. Tourism largely meant scuba divers enjoying world-class coral life on Sinai’s eastern coast. 

Sadat revisited Israel but he and Begin skipped the focus of my 1979 trip: the handover of the northern Sinai seaside town of El Arish. 

A lower key ceremony would have been impossible. No memorable speeches. The Israeli flag came down and the Egyptian flag went up. That began the formal return of the entire occupied Sinai to Egypt. Then it was back to Jerusalem on our Israel Defense Force (IDF) bus. 

Dusty El Arish was a trophy for peace-makers, but Egyptians and Israelis joked that no sane person would volunteer to staff an El Arish border post along the ancient Mediterranean coastal road.  

That apart, I met Israelis who fought in the Sinai and fell in love with the sandy, stony and rocky desert; they returned as trekkers, campers, divers and tour guides.  

I began to understand Sinai’s attraction after our young daughter and I spent four days and three nights there roughing it with an Israeli tour group.

Beyond El Arish, the entire Sinai still was under Israel control. We slept on the sand, rode in an ex-military all-wheel-drive truck with its original canvas sling seats intact, and shared drinking water “flavored” with lemon peels to keep it palatable. 

Our unescorted group was welcomed in a mountain village, at the ancient and remote St. Catherine’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, and among Bedouins in their black goat wool tents where we camped on the west bank of the Gulf of Aqaba watched the sun rise over Saudi Arabia. 

We saw IDF soldiers only at a coastal kiosk where they, too, stopped for soft drinks. One of my favorite photos shows the relaxed but armed young men watching young bikini-clad French women in our tour group. 

I can’t imagine anyone offering or taking such a tour today where we passed remote desert shrines of Muslim holy men or climbed Mount Sinai at night to watch the sunrise before descending to St. Catherine’s monastery. 

In addition to what legend and faith say is the biblical burning bush, the monastery houses treasured manuscripts and icons. Now, a hugely popular tourist destination at the base of Mount Sinai with its own airport, the monastery recently closed its doors to visitors again because of terrorist threats. 

St. Catherine’s is no stranger to violence. It was built after centuries of attacks by nomadic tribes to protect monks living where tradition says Moses encountered God and brought down the 10 Commandments.  

Whether St. Catherine’s ancient walls could withstand a 21st-century Islamist assault is doubtful. It’s also unlikely that monks or treasures would survive such an attack; Muslim Malian rebels didn’t hesitate to burn historic Islamic texts in Timbuktu. 

I went back to the Sinai after El Arish and our visit to St. Catherine’s. I drove to the U.S. State Department’s Sinai Field Mission in mountains separating the Suez Canal and Sinai desert. Built to monitor the 1973 Egyptian and Israeli disengagement, it was almost a Holiday Inn: prefab housing units, cafeteria, pool and rec building, plus more than 100 American civilian contract employees. 

Their job was to monitor movement through strategic passes using buried electronic sensors. They told me alarms usually came from Bedouin camels and donkeys or joggers from the mission; Egyptian and Israeli forces stayed away as promised.

Visitors to Sinai Field Mission were rare and my escort, a Michigan-educated IDF officer in uniform, was allowed even into the communications room with me … until someone said, in effect, “What the hell is he doing here?” Israeli and Egyptian military were barred from the mission. The IDF officer waited for me in another air-conditioned building; that was better than sitting in our rented car, outside the fence, in the sun. 

After three weeks in Israel and Sinai, we flew to Egypt for some post-Camp David reporting. I thought the Sinai was behind me until I interviewed a senior Egyptian tourism official in Cairo. His elation over the recovery of El Arish was personal, not political. He’d fought there and wanted to return to build resorts and water-ski off its Mediterranean beaches.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com



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