Bombs turn Sinai into paradise lost

Israelis are mourning not only the victims of the bombings in the Sinai Peninsula but also the loss of a beloved place of refuge.

The attacks last Thursday which killed at least 34 people, at least 12 of whom were Israelis, struck a coastal area of blue sea and sandy beaches set against the backdrop of rugged mountains that is inhabited by Bedouin Arabs with a reputation for friendliness to Israelis.

This helped turn Sinai into a magnet for those anxious to escape the stress of Israeli urban life and the grueling conflict with the Palestinians, say travelers who where among the thousands of Israelis who fled homeward after the bombings.

"Cleaning out the head." "Getting Away from it all." "Disconnecting." Those are some of the phrases Israelis use to describe their vacations in Sinai. Israeli tourists discovered the peninsula after it was occupied by the army during the 1967 war.

The area retained its attraction for Israelis even after it was returned to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace treaty. In fact, the entry of large numbers of Israelis - there were an estimated 310,000 border crossings this year through the end of August - stands out as the only warm spot in an otherwise cold peace with Egypt.

"The attacks intensify the sense of claustrophobia many Israelis feel in fortress Israel, a fortress surrounded by enemies," says Yoram Bilu, who teaches psychology and anthropology at the Hebrew University. "[Going to] Sinai was a way to break out, and now it doesn't exist anymore, at least for a while."

So enamored are Israelis of Sinai that by the thousands they ignored a government warning to stay away because of expected terrorist attacks.

Sigal Rachmani, a saleswoman who lives in Tel Aviv, could not resist going despite her fears. She says that a trip to Sinai affords "a chance to get away from the tough life in Israel, the terrorist attacks, the news."

The day of the attacks at Taba and Ras Shitan, Ms. Rachmani was "disconnecting" she says.

"I got up, I went to drink tea, I did nothing. All day you do nothing. I don't use my watch in Sinai. There is no time there. I spent the day at the beach, disconnecting from all the pressures back home. There is something about the atmosphere there that disconnects you. It's the weather, the sea, the mountains, the desert and the Bedouin."

"They know us, they love us, and they spoil us," she says of the Bedouin who staff the encampments Israelis frequent. Many of them speak Hebrew. "They treat us like we are one of them."

The night before the attacks, several Bedouin threw a party in honor of her friend's birthday, Rachmani recalls. "We sang and they played the lute and drums. They exuded a warmth we don't have at home," she says.

Thursday night the tranquility was shattered. "We heard an explosion and saw a ball of fire." It was a car bomb at Ras Shitan, about 6.2 miles away. "Everyone was stunned and most people fled in the morning."

Guy Shachar, a student from Tel Aviv, was having an "amazing" day a half-mile away from Ras Shitan."We tanned, we ate, we toured," he recalls.

"We were in the middle of dinner when we heard the explosion. Suddenly the water and sky lit up, and then there was the explosion. Five minutes later there was another explosion, even worse."

Shachar headed to the bombing site with an Israeli army medic who had brought his kit with him on vacation. "We saw a man on the floor bleeding profusely." Then, he says, he saw the medic treat the wounded man. "The Egyptians stood outside. They were afraid to go in, so Israelis took the wounded in their cars and drove them to the border. One woman died on the way."

"This experience impressed upon me that in these kind of circumstances we [Israelis] can rely only on ourselves," Shachar says.

For Shachar, the most disturbing aspect of the bombings is that Egyptian police have arrested 15 Bedouin on suspicion they helped smuggle in the explosives.

"This is something that will cause Israelis to think twice about returning," he says. "We really trusted the Bedouin and we did not feel at all that Sinai was a hostile place. If it turns out that the Bedouin cooperated, then it is betrayal," he says.

Asked why he did not heed the government warning to stay away, Shachar says: "We did not think it would happen. In Israel there are warnings every day. If you follow the warnings, you will never leave your house."

Bilu, the Hebrew University academic, predicts that Israelis will stay away from Sinai for some months, and then return. "The allure of Sinai is too strong for it to remain empty of Israelis. Israelis need that place."

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