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Deadly Bombings Turn Popular Sinai from Garden of Eden to Paradise Lost

October 11, 2004
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Diving coral reefs, lounging on colorful pillows by the sea, taking in views of rose-colored mountains, ordering plates stacked high with honey-drenched banana pancakes — Israelis have long made Sinai a favorite vacation destination. But the coordinated bombings on Oct. 7 targeting Israeli holiday makers transformed the getaway spot Israelis longingly refer to as the Garden of Eden into a Paradise Lost, forever tarnished by the blood, mayhem, confusion and fear borne of the deadly attacks.

Thirty-three people were killed and 120 wounded in the attacks on Taba and Ras Satan, resorts on the Sinai coast. Among them were 13 Israelis, including a mother and her two young children. Six Egyptians and several European tourists were also among the fatalities.

Officials said that at Taba, a town close to the Israeli border, a suicide car bomber blew off a wing of the Hilton Hotel. Some 30 miles to the south, two car bombs were detonated at the Ras Satan site, popular for backpackers.

Thousands of Israelis had made their way across the border to Egypt for Sukkot despite warnings by security officials of terrorism threats in Sinai. After earlier, repeated terror alerts for Sinai had amounted to naught — and convinced that staying home in Israel they were also terrorism targets — many Israelis say they became immune to the warnings.

“Sinai for me meant a certain escape from urban Israel,” said Eitan Einwohner, 33, founder and CEO of a software company in Tel Aviv. “There is no” concept of “time in the desert and when you see the red mountains and see the scenery, intense in its minimalism, it reduces everything to the simplest.”

It was not just rank and file Israelis who were lured to Sinai by the scenery, tranquility and affordable prices. Some high-ranking former and current government officials also ignored the travel warnings and made their vacations there.

Among them were, reportedly, reserve Maj. Gen. Ilan Biran, the former director general of the Foreign Ministry, and several Knesset members. Ha’aretz reported that Liat Cahanim, the deputy legal counsel to the National Security Council, was wounded in the attack.

Two vacationing U.S. Embassy officials were also reportedly lightly wounded in the attack.

In the bombings’ aftermath, there was heartache and frustration in Israel that the security warnings were ignored. Parts of the media, and some members of the government, had even scoffed at the alerts.

A fiery debate has arisen over whether or not a free country should let its people disregard such warnings or if more drastic measures — such as closing off the border — should be taken. At an emergency Cabinet meeting it was suggested that Israel consider adopting a U.S.-style system of color-coded warning levels.

Avi Dichter, the director of Israel’s Shin Bet, toured the blown-out remains of what was once the lobby of the Taba Hilton and had harsh words for those at the official level who did not take the warning more seriously.

“To my dismay, there were officials who treated the warnings lightly and leveled criticism at us” in the security community, he was quoted as saying in the Ma’ariv daily newspaper. “There is no doubt that this influenced the public which in turn did not take the warning seriously.”

David Aramin, from Herzliya, a 35-year-old who works in the high-tech sector, visited Sinai as often as he could. In the last two months alone he was there six times.

On Oct. 7, he and friends were lounging at their camp when they heard the blasts on nearby Ras Satan beach and saw a ball of fire burst into the night sky.

Hysteria ensued, Aramin said, adding that some people followed the Bedouins toward the mountains, others rushed for the sea.

He said Israelis were just recently starting to come back to Sinai after staying away during most of the intifada. The relaxed atmosphere helped people forget any potential dangers, he said.

Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy tried to capture the special magic of the Sinai experience in an article Sunday headlined “Goodbye Sinai.”

“For a growing number of Israelis, a vacation in Sinai was a singular experience that had no substitute. Something happened to Israelis when they entered Sinai,” he wrote. “For the veterans of the place, being in Sinai was much more than a holiday. It was the only place of refuge, a haven from day-to-day troubles, from the terror that is all around us, and an escape from Israelis and from Israeliness, too. Something in the atmosphere of the place created a sense of relaxation that couldn’t be found elsewhere.”

It was also a rare example of interaction between Bedouins and Israelis, a place where friendships and connections were forged.

Some 30,000 Israelis went to Sinai over the recent holidays. Some of them did not return to Israel after the attacks, insisting they would not let terrorism scare them away from living their lives.

“You would go and you would not think too much about warnings because it is not any less scary being in Israel,” Aramin said. “Recently, especially, you did not pay attention to warnings because there are always warnings.”

Einwohner, who was also staying at a beach near Ras Satan, said Israelis had become complacent about the warnings.

“Looking back,” he said, “I think most Israelis and I fell into this trap a little bit of saying, If there are 30,000 people doing it, how could it be that dangerous?”

Eran Reinisch, 37, who runs a financial services business in Tel Aviv, has been going to Sinai for vacations since he was a child. He has traveled the area up and down, diving its waters and exploring its beaches. It is, he said, his favorite place to unwind. He describes it as “magic” and touts its “totally different atmosphere.”

He again wanted to visit Sinai with his family this Sukkot holiday. But, concerned by the warnings, they, along with a group of other families traveling together, decided to go to Taba instead of staying further down the Sinai coast as they usually do.

Taba, they told themselves, would be safer. After all, they thought, it was so close to the Israeli border.

When the blast shook the entire hotel, he and his friends were eating at an Italian restaurant on the beach.

Reinisch immediately realized that the explosion was a terror attack and raced to the children’s disco one flight down from the hotel’s lobby where he had dropped off his 7-year-old son, Roy.

He quickly found the child, covered in a layer of blood and soot. His head had been lightly injured by falling debris.

Reinisch scooped Roy into his arms and was among the first to cross the border for the hospital in Eilat. A large photograph of Roy, his head bandaged and T-shirt and shorts stained with blood, made the front pages of the Yediot Achronot daily newspaper.

“I was supposed to go diving next month in Sinai and now I will not. Clearly I have no desire to go,” Reinisch said.

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