SANTA KATERINA, Egyptian Srnai (Nov. 25)
One week ago, the sign at the small airfield near the Santa Katerina Monastary said, in bold Hebrew and English letters, “Mr. Sinai Airport.” Today, the sign, in Arabic and English, reads “Santa Katerina Airport.” The Hebrew letting on this and on all other signs designating places, roads, and buildings has been blotted out with black paint.
It is a small thing but it brings home bluntly the obliteration of 12 years of Israeli presence in this region at the foot of Mr. Sinai that was officially returned to Egyptian administration last Tuesday, two months ahead of the timetable set by the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Eyen the plaque on the airport terminal building stating that it was built by the Israeli Army Carps of Engineers has been covered – in this case by a large portrait of President Anwar Sadat who formally, took possession of the area last Tuesday, the second anniversary of his visit to Jerusalem.
Certain irremovable evidence of Israeli enterprise remains. There are the paved roads, the tourist motels and shops, an Israeli field school specializing in ecology and various water wells dug by Israelis in this arid region. And Israeli tourists who are flocking here with passports or identity cards are given a warm welcome by the new owners.
Of course, they must bring dollars. The Israeli Pound is no longer legal currency. The Egyptians have opened a small bank at the airport where visitors can exchange Pounds for dollars or Egyptian currency. It is needed to pay the $3 landing fee. A glass of mango juice costs $1, or its Egyptian equivalent. The biggest customers of the bank are local Bedouins who somehow have accumulated sockfulls of Israeli currency.
ISRAELI TOURISTS ARRIVE REGULARLY
Planes and busloads of tourists from Israel arrive here every day and pick up Egyptian entry visas at the airport or the bus station. It is a simple process. Any holder of an Israeli passport or identity card need bring only an extra photo which is pasted on the Egyptian form and stamped with the official seal.
But this special treatment will end on January 25, 1980, the day the area was originally scheduled to be handed back to Egypt. After that, Israelis will have to apply in advance for Egyptian visas, just like tourists from any other country.
Meanwhile, in the remote southwestern region of Sinai, the last Israeli technicians have left A Tour and the offshore Alma oilfields. That region was formally returned to Egypt today. The departing Israelis took with them the $15 million floating oil rig which had been drilling in the Gulf of Suez. It was dismantled and taken to Eilat where it will remain unless the Egyptians agree to buy it. They are expected to eventually, in which case the rig will be re-floated and towed back to the Gulf.