Troubled Birthplace of the Torah

Sinai Desert Is Descending Into Chaos and Violence

Stark and Lawless Land: The Sinai Desert was once a vacation spot for Israelis. It is turning into a fullblown battleground between Bedouins and Egyptians.
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Stark and Lawless Land: The Sinai Desert was once a vacation spot for Israelis. It is turning into a fullblown battleground between Bedouins and Egyptians.

By Amotz Asa-El

Published May 25, 2012, issue of June 01, 2012.
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The Sinai, where fire once shot into the heavens while Moses vanished in a thicket of clouds, is once again ablaze.

This Shavuot, the wilderness where morality was made law, is a fountainhead of lawlessness and strife, a microcosm of the Arab world’s ailments and a source of Israeli perplexity.

We Israelis know the Sinai better than any of our forebears since Moses. Having fought, served, hiked and vacationed there, we fell in love with the majestic moonscape where purple mountains and bronzy cliffs overlook golden dunes and azure reefs.

Following its return to Egypt, Israelis thronged every holiday to Sinai’s beaches, canyons and resorts. The long lines of vehicles in Eilat — where passports bearing the Jewish menorah were stamped with an Egyptian eagle, and vehicles with a little Israeli flag on their license plates were waved through an unassuming border crossing almost as naturally as one proceeds to Quebec from Vermont— were to us sweeter than any military victory.

Now, most of this is nostalgia.

What began in the 2000s with a slew of terror bombings in resorts along the Red Sea shore has since become a wholesale offensive on Egyptian authority, including raids on police stations, postal trucks and roadside checkpoints; harassments of the Sinai’s peacekeeping force, and attacks on the pipeline that exports gas to Jordan and Israel.

The Jewish state is, of course, a victim of the mayhem in Sinai, but its origins stem not from a conflict between Arabs and Jews, but from one between Arabs and Arabs.

More than half of the Sinai’s 400,000 inhabitants are Bedouin, semi-nomads who wander between oases while riding camels and herding sheep. When Egypt finally regained the Sinai in its entirety in 1982, the Bedouins soon learned two things: First, Cairo had great plans for the region, and second, there was nothing in it for them.

The great plan was a Red Sea Riviera, which the Egyptians indeed built, planting more than 100 resorts along 120 miles of turquoise shoreline where 5 million tourists arrived annually.

Alas, it all happened without the Bedouins. They were told to take to the mountains, where they became 90% unemployed. Watching from there as the Mubarak regime’s officials and their cronies took over the shoreline where they had been grazing for centuries, the Bedouin conclusion was simple: Cairo is the enemy.


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