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Last Updated: Friday, 8 October, 2004, 14:47 GMT 15:47 UK
Shifting sands: Israel and the Sinai
By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

The Sinai desert holds a particular attraction for Israelis.

Mt Sinai
The sun rises over Mount Sinai, a place revered by many faiths

It is a wide open, little-populated space next door.

It gives them a sense of freedom and adventure they do not have at home.

Their own desert, the Negev, is a small and confined place by comparison.

Sinai has beaches, hotels and campsites, good swimming and skin-diving, mountains and valleys with hidden springs to explore, remote monasteries and Bedouin encampments, and, until now and with exceptions, it has been relatively safe.

Egypt made its peace with Israel in 1979, and in 1982 the Israelis withdrew from most of the territory they had captured in the war of 1967, holding on only to Taba for a while longer.

The territory to this day is a demilitarised zone, monitored by one of those half-forgotten peacekeeping forces, in this case called the Multinational Force and Observers.

From time to time there have been incidents.

In the mid 1980s, an Egyptian policeman opened fire on and killed a number of Israeli campers.

But on the whole the atmosphere in the Sinai was relaxed.

Grim irony

Israelis also feel close to it for its religious and more recent historic connections.

The Bible tells the story of how the children of Israel wandered there for 40 years under Moses, who brought tablets of the law down from Mount Sinai.

Beach at Sinai resort
Happier times: Israeli families holiday on the Sinai peninsula

Climbing Mount Sinai, or rather walking up the track so that you arrive in time to see the sun come up, is one of the great experiences of the region, whatever you think of its supposed archaeological veracity.

The time I went there, we had a young Israeli guide leading us, and a jovial Egyptian met us in the morning to show us St Catherine's Monastery at the bottom. The two guides got on well together.

It is a grim irony that these bombings took place during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which celebrates those 40 years in the desert.

That is one extra reason, though not the main one, that so many Israelis go there at this time.

The bombers probably chose their moment because they would have known that Israeli tourists were there in large numbers.

Mythic past

Sinai has seen many wars between Israel and Egypt - in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973.

There was time after the war of 1967 that Israelis wanted to hold onto it. They saw it as a buffer between them and Egypt.

General Moshe Dayan once famously said of the gateway to the Gulf of Aqaba, called the Gulf of Eilat by Israel: "It is preferable to have Sharm el-Sheikh without peace than peace without Sharm el-Sheikh."

Israeli navy vessels with the Taba Hilton in the background
Israeli navy boats patrol the Red Sea after the Taba Hilton attack

Israel now has peace without Sharm el-Sheikh. And there is virtually no Israeli who would not say that this is preferable.

The land-for-peace deal which Israel and Egypt signed has been a solid one.

It has not led to a wider regional settlement, as the Egyptians had hoped, but it is still there.

During the years of occupation, Israel treated the Sinai like its own and it was then that the tradition of travelling there was established.

Sharm el-Sheikh itself was renamed Ophira.

I have a guidebook from that period which says why.

"Through these straits Solomon's fleet sailed to the countries beyond the sea. Among these was Ophir. The Book of Kings records: 'And King Solomon made a navy of ships... and they came to Ophir and fetched from thence gold and brought it to King Solomon.'"

The guidebook also says: "Ophira is the most southern settlement in Israel."

It adds: "Israel's control of Sinai is undergoing changes. For up-to-date information, apply to a government tourist office."

Resonant target

The Sinai was also used to locate an Israeli film in 1986 called Avanti Populo, which was a plea for human understanding between Israel and Egypt.

Egypt-Israel border
Israeli and Egyptian border outposts overlook the Red Sea at Taba

It was about two Egyptian soldiers who got lost in the Sinai during the 1967 war.

They were taken prisoner by three Israelis.

At one point, one of the Egyptians, an actor by occupation, appeals to his captors for humanity by delivering the famous speech by Shylock in the Merchant of Venice: "If you tickle us do we not laugh, if you prick us do we not bleed?"

Such understanding as Israelis and Egyptians have reached is not to the liking, of course, of those who planted the bombs.

For them, the government of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is as much an enemy as the Israelis.

The Egyptian hotel at Taba might have had added resonance for them.

It has been the site of many talks between Egypt and Israel. At the end of 2000, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators there came close to agreeing a formula for a settlement.

And so Sinai is back to being a battlefield - for the moment. No doubt, as is the way of things, if calm is restored, Israelis will return.

The lure of the Sinai desert is strong.

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