As Most Israelis Fret, Border Moshav Calm


Nitzanei Sinai, Israel — At a time when most Israelis are worried that the uprising in Egypt might bring to power a government hostile to the Jewish state, this border agricultural moshav could not have seemed farther away from the turmoil this week.

Though its greenhouses look across the border to a country that seemed in the early stages of implosion, residents of Nitzanei Sinai were unexpectedly sanguine.

“This is a very quiet place. Nothing has changed,” said Sigalit Efrat, 36. “We are following and listening. But nothing beyond that.”

Ever since Israel completed its withdrawal from Sinai in 1982, the peninsula has been demilitarized. Residents boast that it’s the calmest area of the country. Indeed, the tension on the border is so low that civilians are allowed during the day to use the military patrol roads that pass in full view of a chain of Egyptian positions and watchtowers.

Where the parallel roads draw close, Israelis and Egyptians can stare at each other and even converse. At one point on the border, Israeli and Egyptian border guards yell to one another in jest.

The calm seems to have colored residents’ opinions on the prospect for change — and not for the better — in Egypt.

“From our perspective, the [Israeli] border ends at the line of Egyptian soldiers, and we don’t think too far beyond,” said Siglat’s husband, Adi.

A pomegranate farmer who recounted the early development of the Negev from the 1900s, Adi Efrat said he believes that the pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt have triggered a positive process, and doubted the next government would be dominated by Islamists.

“We hope that that the peace and quiet and stability will be restored,” he said. “We don’t think that there will be shooting tomorrow.”

Nitzanei Sinai was established in part so Jewish settlers uprooted by the Sinai evacuation could start over. The founders of the moshav insisted on calling it “Kadesh Barnea” instead of the official name dictated by Israel’s government.

The moshav seems to be well off, with a boutique winery and several palatial homes. Residents say that some of their children are starting families there as well.

One of those founders is Menachem Zafrir, the son of an Egyptian immigrant who considers the moshav his life’s work. Zafrir said he used to travel to Cairo on business many times, and he describes Egyptians as warm and welcoming.

“The people themselves are good and relaxed. What you are seeing is an explosion after 30 years,” he said.

The outcome of the turmoil “is all politics. If the Muslim Brotherhood rises [to power], then we will have a problem. But I am optimistic.”

Zafrir, a former security officer at the moshav, drives his four-wheel-drive truck along the patrol road north from the moshav, pointing out the border fence and the Egyptian soldiers not far in the distance.

After Israel pulled out of Gaza, the government was worried about infiltration by Palestinian militants and built a high fence with rolls of concertina wire to separate the moshav from Egypt. He says the moshav is viewed as the soft underbelly of the border. Despite that, the rest of the border remains easily penetrable.

The border is patroled by soldiers in Humvee jeeps, supplemented by Bedouin trackers and a network of small outposts of concrete. A group of soldiers at Nitzanei Sinai said they while they had been briefed by commanders on the situation in Egypt and told to be on alert, they didn’t necessarily know what for.

When asked by a reporter about the situation on the border, one soldier replied: “In America, do they care about what’s going on in Egypt?”

The government didn’t bother investing more money in the fence because the peace with Egypt has been so stable. Despite that, Israel recently decided to build a fence to plug its porous border because of concern about the inflow of African asylum seekers. But, if there’s a collapse of the Egyptian government and security in the Sinai deteriorates, the threat of militant attacks may become acute.

“Until now, it has mainly been Sudanese and Darfuri infiltrators,” the soldier said. “But it could become fedayeen guerillas,” a reference to Palestinian terrorists.

In Tel Aviv this week, a crowd of about 200 attended an evening of Arabic music and dance “in support of the Egyptian people.” The cultural evening was meant as a gesture of support for the demonstrators and the continuation of the Israeli Egyptian peace.

One of the speakers, Levana Zamir, the head of the international organization of Egyptian Jewry, remembered how anti-government demonstrations in the early 1950s eventually turned against the Jewish community.

“For us, the scenes of Cairo burning and millions of people in the square takes us back 60 years,” she said. “Now it’s different.”

She said that the current demonstrations are not about Israel, but about the frustrations of 40 million educated Egyptians who feel disenfranchised by the elites. Quoting from an e-mail from an Egyptian professor friend, she insisted that the demonstrators seek engagement with the West rather than a turn toward Islamic radicalism.

Another participant, Rony Somekh, a poet whose work has been published in Cairo, said that he yearns to forge closer cultural ties with Israel’s southern neighbor, and expressed hope that the political changes would bring an opportunity for warmer ties.

“The peace is very cold,” he said. “I want a real relationship with Egypt. We are brothers. We eat the same hummus. We breathe the same air. We listen to the same [legendary Arab singer] Umm Kulthum.”

Back at Nitzanei Sinai, Moshe Gini, the child of Egyptian Jews, joked about the uncertainty just a few miles away. “Where’s Egypt?”

But in a more serious moment, he and his wife Tali, a Jewish convert from Missouri, spoke of “ups and downs”’ of living on the border.

In the last week, Moshe was out of work because he distributes gas from Egypt used in carbonated beverages.

In recent years, there’s been an increase in security around the moshav because of concern of Al Qaeda- and Hamas-linked terrorists, they said. They also hear gunfights between Bedouin and Egyptian forces. Tali Gini said she used to wonder about possible hostilities, but since the threats haven’t materialized, she doesn’t dwell on it much any more.

“You feel secure here,” she said. “After 25 years, everything is going well.”