Reporter's notebookA world away from the constant stream of war news

Paradise lost? Sinai, once teeming with Israeli tourists, is deserted amid Gaza war

Very few Israelis venture into neighboring Egypt out of safety concerns or in boycott of the country, but those who dare will experience a Sinai of yesteryear

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

A tourist camp on the beach near the Sinai town of Nuweiba, Egypt, May 7, 2024 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)
A tourist camp on the beach near the Sinai town of Nuweiba, Egypt, May 7, 2024 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

SINAI, Egypt — Israeli Li-shay Katz, 41, has visited the Sinai Peninsula so often that the Egyptian beach camp owners near Taba are now her Facebook friends.

Coming regularly since 2015 to find “silence, calm, simplicity,” Katz told The Times of Israel during a recent stay that she first visited its sandy beaches to get out of her comfort zone. Today, Sinai has become her home away from home, a quiet retreat in nature away from technology and her daily routine as a childcare facility manager.

She was back on the beach just two weeks after the shocking October 7 Hamas onslaught on southern Israel in which some 1,200 were murdered and 252 taken hostage to Gaza. Upon crossing into Sinai from Eilat, Israeli border guards told her she was the only Jewish Israeli in Sinai at that moment.

Her taxi from the border crossing to her beach camp was escorted by a police car, she recalled.

Katz is one of the relatively few Israelis who have visited the neighboring Egyptian peninsula during Israel’s ongoing war against Hamas, defying travel warnings from the National Security Council, which currently lists Sinai as “high risk.” She was likewise unperturbed by admonitions from acquaintances who told her she was endangering her life and shouldn’t trust “her Arab friends.”

Meanwhile in Sinai, local businesses languish after seven months of absence of tourists from the Jewish state, the backbone of the local economy.

The peninsula, which Israel occupied in 1967 and returned to Egypt in 1982 following the 1979 peace agreement, is one of the few foreign destinations that Israelis can reach by land. For many Israelis, Sinai represents the quintessential idyllic getaway, a cherished place of retreat by the sea where everything is simpler, quieter and cheaper.

A tourist camp on the beach near the Sinai town of Nuweiba, Egypt, May 7, 2024 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

Along the first miles of Sinai’s coast past the Eilat-Taba border crossing, dozens of beach camps have sprung up on lands mostly owned by local Bedouin tribes, wedged between the Red Sea and the Sinai mountains.

The accommodation in these camps has traditionally been very frugal, with huts of bamboo and straw (known as hushas) built on the beach and often containing nothing but a fan and a mattress on the floor. Camps normally include shared toilet facilities and common sitting areas on the shore where tourists can sip their Turkish coffee sprawled on old cushions and carpets.

In many of these camps, electricity only appeared in recent years, and wifi is rarely available. Prices have increased in recent years, but finding accommodation for NIS 100 ($27) a night with breakfast is still possible.

For the odd visitor who defies the travel warnings, a trip to the area these days offers what some would consider one of life’s purest pleasures: endless sun-drenched days of absolute, imperturbable desert silence, broken occasionally by the gentle breeze blowing from the Red Sea through the thatched roofs of the huts. It’s a world away from the constant stream of grim news from the war fronts.

The inside of a typical Sinai “husha” (hut) with mattresses and mosquito nets, in the Nuweiba area, Egypt, May 10, 2024 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

‘We know that there are good and bad Israelis’

During wartime, very few Israelis have ventured into the once-popular vacation destination. Facebook groups such as “Sinai Lovers,” which numbers 218,000 members and once served as a platform to exchange taxi drivers’ numbers and tips on the best spot for diving, are now filled with comments discouraging Israelis from making the trip, some written in vile tones.

Those who write posts seeking updates on the security situation in Sinai are called “naive” or “traitors,” with group members warning potential travelers not to risk their lives and calling for a boycott of the “enemy country” Egypt.

Tourism business owners long for the return of large numbers of visitors from across the border, their finances badly hit by the drying up of their main source of foreign currency, at a time when Egypt is mired in a deep economic crisis and the Egyptian pound has plummeted. Local residents claim there is nothing to worry about in Sinai.

Given the sensitivity of Egypt-Israel relations, and the omnipresence of Egyptian intelligence services, camp managers only agreed to be interviewed anonymously. One of them said that before October 7 he had 10 employees but he has been forced to fire most and retained only one who cooks for the occasional visitor.

Two Egyptian Bedouin men at a tourist camp near the Sinai town of Nuweiba, May 13, 2024 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

In peacetime, 80% of the tourism in the 70-kilometer (43-mile) coastal strip between the towns of Taba and Nuweiba is made up of Jewish Israelis, the man estimated. While the beach resorts of Dahab and Sharm el-Sheikh further south attract large crowds of international vacationers (mostly Europeans and Russians, but also many Arab Israelis), the Bedouin camps on the northern coast are almost entirely dependent on the influx of tourists from the Jewish state.

“People here have developed personal relations with Israelis; they don’t only know them from Al Jazeera. Many friendships have been created over the years, and after October 7, local people checked in on their friends across the border. Every home in Nuweiba knows someone in Israel,” he said, referencing the main Bedouin town in the area.

A beach camp near the Sinai town of Nuweiba, Egypt, May 10, 2024 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

Among local residents, nobody seems to be eager to discuss the war. Upon meeting an Israeli, the first question locals ask – usually in fluent Hebrew – is when the conflict will end and tourists will return. Some may add a curse addressed at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but will be quick to point out that they know there are good and bad Israelis.

The manager of another camp was adamant that “our team works to make our customers happy and to enjoy their food, their room and snorkeling. This is what we work for. We do not discuss politics.”

A long love affair with Sinai

Since the October 7 massacre, Katz has come to Sinai six times for short stays of 4-5 days, despite Israelis warning her of the risk. “I’ve grown tired of explaining to people that Sinai Bedouins are not Hamas, and that Egypt is on our side against them,” she sighed.

Li-Shay Katz, 41, an Israeli tourist in a Sinai beach camp, Egypt, May 10, 2024 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

When she spoke with The Times of Israel, she was the only Israeli at her camp, besides this reporter.

“Ever since I started coming to Sinai in 2015, people have been telling me I’m crazy,” Katz said.  “At some point, I stopped letting people say that about me. I think they are the crazy ones for living in fear and panic about something they have never seen or experienced.”

After years of frequenting the Egyptian peninsula, Katz said that no place is 100% safe.

“Israelis live under the delusion that they are in the safest place on earth, even after October 7, but in reality, Israel can be a very dangerous country. Israelis say they feel safe because they have an army and police, but Egypt has those too,” she said.

The two halves of Sinai

Relations between Israel and Egypt are today at an all-time low, particularly after Israel launched its pinpoint offensive in Rafah, the last remaining Hamas bastion in the Gaza Strip, and captured the Gaza side of the Rafah Crossing with Egypt. Cairo has warned that its 45-year-old peace treaty with Israel is at risk.

Besides the geopolitical tensions, it would be easy to see Sinai as a potentially unsafe area due to its proximity to Gaza. The peninsula shares a 14-kilometer (8.7-mile) border with the coastal Strip, and contains the Rafah Border Crossing, the only way out for the few Gazans that can afford the exorbitant passage fees of up to $10,000 per person.

Furthermore, northern Sinai has been mired in an insurgency by Islamist groups for the past decade, including an ISIS cell.

A beach in Bir Sweir, near the Sinai town of Nuweiba, Egypt, May 10, 2024 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

Southern Sinai, however, is an entirely different story. The area’s scenic desert landscapes and pristine Red Sea waters, rich in marine life and corals, have long attracted crowds of international tourists, who mostly head to the tourist resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh and Dahab.

The Egyptian government has gone to great lengths to maintain security and keep the tourism industry alive in the region. The whole southern Sinai region is under heavy surveillance by the Egyptian army and police, with frequent checkpoints along the roads to ensure that no intruders access the area.

Despite the tight security measures, however, few Israelis have deemed it safe to return to a once beloved destination. Reported incidents of Israeli tourists being insulted in hotels in Dahab and Sharm el-Sheikh and of online abuse by Egyptians quickly spread on the internet, persuading many Israelis that Sinai is unsafe.

Illustrative: Egyptian army conscripts stand guard outside the Suez Canal University hospital in the eastern port city of Ismailia on November 25, 2017, where the victims of a bomb and gun assault on the North Sinai Rawda mosque a day earlier were taken. (AFP Photo/Mohamed El-Shahed)

A safe haven in a seemingly unsafe country?

It would be misguided to claim that Egypt has been a safe destination for Israelis in recent times. On October 8, one day after the Hamas attack, two Israeli tourists were killed by a policeman in Alexandria. In the same city, an Israeli-Canadian businessman was murdered on May 7 under unclear circumstances.

Sinai, however, has witnessed no terror attacks against Israelis since 2004, when a truck drove into the lobby of the Taba Hilton and exploded, killing 31 people, including 12 Israelis. In 2014, another bombing by Islamists killed three South Korean pilgrims and their Egyptian bus driver only 100 yards away from the border crossing to Eilat.

And yet, the terror attacks did not discourage tens of thousands of Israelis from vacationing in the region over the past decade, attracted by the unspoiled nature and low prices, and some of them, like Katz, have become regular visitors, making the trip multiple times a year.

Katz’s apparent insouciance about possible attacks by escaped Gazans derives from her knowledge of the geography of Sinai, and what she has heard from her numerous local friends.

“It is very difficult to cross from the north to the south of Sinai, because you’d have to cross the mountains. There are military checkpoints all over the place. On top of that, the mountain Bedouins, who are from the same clans as those on the coast, keep an eye on whoever passes by their area and report any suspicious movement.”

Illustrative: Women on a trek in the mountains near Wadi Sahw, Abu Zenima, in South Sinai, Egypt, March 30, 2019 (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

“Plus, those who leave Gaza for Sinai have paid thousands of dollars to be allowed out of a war zone. They wouldn’t endanger themselves again just to hurt a random Israeli,” she reflected.

“The only risk could come from an Egyptian with a weapon, but how is that different from the situation in Israel?” she asked, noting the frequency of “lone-wolf attacks” against Jews in Israel. “Everywhere there are potential dangers, and I trust the Egyptian army.”

A taste of nostalgia

Katz recalled the days when going down to Sinai was an adventurous affair. “It used to be that people would come here for two-three months at a time. They slept in huts with no electricity for 15 shekels a night. There was nothing else to do but sit on the beach all together, and after nightfall, we would light a bonfire and play music, and have deep conversations,” Katz recalled. “Everyone knew everyone.”

Over the past years, however, Sinai has attracted less of a hippie crowd and more of the Israeli mainstream public.

“Two years ago, families with children started coming, and they don’t want to mingle with other tourists. Also, bungalows with air conditioning started being built instead of huts, so people now can sit indoors, and spend less time socializing outside.”

A modern bungalow on a beach in southern Sinai, May 10, 2024 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

Large tourist complexes were constructed, catering to those in search of a cheaper beach holiday than in Eilat.

“The beach in Ras Shaitan [a popular spot on the coast] became like Netanya, with crowds of rowdy youngsters bringing alcohol and loudspeakers and playing matkot [paddle ball],” Katz grumbled, referencing a central Israeli city with a reputation for unruly residents.

The war against Hamas in Gaza, however, has put a temporary halt to the inflow of mass tourism from across the Taba border, as Sinai’s beaches lie once again deserted.

“What happened on October 7 was awful,” Katz said, “but if I look at the glass half-full, I can say that I can now enjoy the peace and quiet of Sinai the way it used to be.”

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