Sinai settlers prepare for exodus

When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat met Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in Sinai on June 4 -- in a summit almost forgotten in the glare of Israel's raid over Iraq -- 1,200 Israeli settlers of this scenic spot knew an idyll was over.

They waited anxiously, as did hundreds of thousands of Israeli nature lovers, to know if Sinai would still be open to them after Israel withdraws totally by April 1982.

Now the Israeli tourism authority has announced that Israel's southern border with Sinai will be "open," like the arrangement among European Community nations. Israeli tourists will have continued access to the breathtaking 250 -mile Sinai coast, which provides a critical escape valve for this tiny country surrounded on its other borders by hostile Arab states.

Moreover, President Sadat said after the summit that some Ophira settlers might be able to return, with Egyptian permission, to work as technical experts in business and tourism.He went out of his way to allow the settlers to develop international tourism.

Located at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, the Ophira area is squeezed between jagged granite peaks and world-famed tropical coral reefs that climax at Ras Muhammed Point, where the reefs drop 6,000 feet.

Under Egyptian rule, the area was undeveloped before 1967, with only a military base at Sharm el-Sheikh Bay.

Ophira, established by the Israelis in 1968, attracted a small community of individualists and nature-lovers. They were quite different from the ideologically motivated settlers of the West Bank of jordan, who came to reestablish historic links to ancient Israel, and from those who settled northern Sinai to build a defensive border against Egypt.

"People came here to have more space, a life close to nature and good for children, less materialistic values," says Yaacov Bar-levy, an engineer from Haifa who now runs an Ophira youth hostel with his wife. "We built a paradise," he says, "cut off from the rest of Israel, without television, and without status-seeking."

Others were drawn by the potential for tourism and water sports. Howard Rosenstein, an American emigrant to Israel was awed by the diving possibilities and built the internationally known Red Sea Divers School. He started it in an old train car in 1970.

Almost all residents live in similar government-owned rentals flats in air-conditioned, three-story white stucco buildings. The buildings, which are on an airy plateau, replaced wooden huts only five years ago. Tacky snack bars mar some beach areas, but there is plenty of unspoiled coastline along the reef. Unlike the West Bank or north Sinai, where settlers live near or in the midst of concentrations of hostile Arabs, Ophira townspeople have good relations with the scattered Bedouin tribes living near them.

For some settlers, the right to stay on after 1982 is a litmus test of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Bar-levy, one of those settlers, led a delegation to meet President Sadat at the summit. He says the Egyptian leader told them that Ophira businesses and tourism wouldn't stop for a day, but he noted this couldn't be said publicly.

One who says he will stay is Howard Rosenstein, who has already conferred with Egyptian businessmen in Cairo.

"I'd be happy to be a foreign expert working on salary and percentages under Egyptian ownership," says Mr. Rosenstein. He considers Sharm to be the best diving area in the world. "This is an international endeavor."

But other Ophirans question how well Egypt will continue to maintain southern Sinai's Israel-built infrastructure from distant Cairo.

A key factor will be whether the United States agrees to station American personnel from the multinational peacekeeping force that will police the peace at Ophira.

Other Ophirans are dubious about the peace because of Egyptian actions in areas of Sinai already returned to Egypt by Israel. Israeli tourists visiting the Santa Katerina monastery have been treated badly, Mr. Barlevy says, and the road access to the Ras Mohammed reef has been closed

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.