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Last Updated: Friday, 8 October, 2004, 17:22 GMT 18:22 UK
Security questions over Sinai attacks
By Martin Asser
BBC News Online

Camel owner and Israeli tourist in Sinai in September
An earlier warning was largely ignored by tourists
Egypt's south-east Sinai peninsula is a sea-and-desert playground drawing hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.

The most numerous foreigners are Israelis, and they flock to the Sinai in larger numbers than to any other destination.

The Israelis have traditionally enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of the Sinai, away from their own violence-torn society and enjoying the company of the local Bedouin who welcome their presence more than any other Arab population.

There are also the attractions of casinos - banned in Israel - and some of the best diving and snorkelling areas in the world.

But along with the freedom they tasted in Sinai, Israelis have unwittingly been risking a security threat that may have been higher than the one they face every day at home.

Low-key protection

Primarily it is remoteness of Sinai's east coast from the vast majority of Egyptians that has, until now, made it feel safe for Israeli tourists.

It is a very sparsely populated area, inhabited principally by Bedouin and Egyptians employed by the tourism sector.

Separated from mainland Egypt by desert and mountains, and accessible to Israelis without the need for a visa, it feels to many like an extension of Israel rather than part of Egypt.

Entrance to Taba Hilton
A vehicle may have been able to reach the Hilton entrance
The peninsula is guarded at a choke point east of Suez where Egyptian traffic is checked before it can go on to either of just two roads to the southern peninsula - south towards Sharm el-Sheikh and east towards Taba.

Elsewhere, there is little of the highly visible security presence seen at the tourist sites along the Nile since the spate of atrocities against Western tourists in the 1990s.

Nor are there anything like the emergency services needed to deal with aftermath of an atrocity such as the 7 October bombings in Taba and Nuweiba.

Reports say there are only two fire engines to cover the whole area, and few police vehicles. The only small hospitals are at Dahab and Sharm el-Sheikh.

Warning unheeded

A month earlier, Israel's counter-terrorism authority had issued a warning that visiting Sinai was dangerous because of "reliable and precise" intelligence pointing to the likelihood of a terrorist attack.

But the warning seemed to have been heeded by only about 10% to 15% of Israeli holidaymakers, reports said.

The rest seemed to take the attitude that it was probably more dangerous to stay at home.

Armed guards were posted at hotels as usual, and guests had to pass through security checks with metal detectors at hotel entrances.

But for this Jewish holiday season, there doesn't appear to have been a heightened state of security on the Egyptian side, despite the warning.

Traffic, for instance, was reportedly able to draw up outside the Taba Hilton without being checked.

False alarms

Egyptian tourism officials were reported to have been angered by the Israeli warning, considering it an attempt to undermine the vital Egyptian tourism sector.

Israeli tourist leaving Egypt after Taba/Nuweiba bombing
Israeli tourists will miss their escape to Sinai
Other reports say this warning was similar to others that had proved to be false alarms.

However, this was the first time Israel's counter-terror agency, rather than just the foreign ministry, had issued such a warning since the beginning of the Palestinian intifada four years ago.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Egyptian authorities were as blase about the security warning as the Israeli tourists themselves.

It remains to be seen whether the bombers brought their explosives into Sinai from mainland Egypt, or whether they sailed across the Gulf of Aqaba from Saudi Arabia - currently wracked by an Islamist insurgency that has made it one of the most dangerous countries in a troubled region.

Either way, it is doubtful that Israeli tourists will ever return in large numbers to their Sinai playground after what happened on this Sukkot holiday.

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