It was a bit of heaven; now it is a chunk of hell. Muslim extremists are killing each other in the wilderness where the Hebrews received the Law; in Israel, hands are wringing and hearts are breaking.
In a grisly familiar pattern, some 30 armed men entered the Rawdah Sufi mosque in northern Sinai, mechanically firing automatic weapons and hurling grenades into innocent worshipers of the mystic Islamic sect. At least 305 people were killed, including some 27 children. As tragic as this was, it’s long been typical in the once-sacred desert of Moses. ISIS has broken the tablets of all Ten Commandments.
The view from the Israeli side is somber and painful.
Since 1979, when Israel dutifully returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, the striking ridges and shady passes of the western Negev Desert along Israel’s border with that nation remained an alluring gateway to the pristine beaches of the region.
Israel controlled the Sinai from 1967, following its lightning response in the Six Day War to the greatest buildup of armaments against any one country since World War II. Then Israel fell in love with the peninsula and turned it into an internationally-revered haven of exploration and ecology.
For some time, and especially now, the view from the Israeli side is somber and painful: the jagged landscape of reddish, biblical mountains cast long shadows and has grown very ominous.
The Israelis built national parks in the desert, enriched dry riverbeds, and cultivated osprey eggs so that birds could fly rather than missiles. Where tourists, cartographers, and mountain climbers gathered, there are now hyper-intensive, bloody, fatwa-driven terrorist wars that are turning the sacred sands bloody and gruesome.
As one who has visited and traveled extensively in the Sinai desert over the years, I can attest to the region’s awesome beauty, its environmental fragility and the loving care Israel once administered to both.
Whereas Egypt’s interest in the coral reefs, wadis and mountain ranges of Sinai has had little to do with the region’s natural balance, for Israel this became a matter of policy. Undeniably, both nations have dealt with the Sinai first in terms of geopolitical strategy.
But Israel went far beyond this. The Jewish state was never the host nation for sectarian terror conflicts that have scattered the peaceful Bedouins and stained the sands of time. Israel loved the Sinai. I hiked, camped, and broke bread there with the savvy and hospitable Bedouins who now live in fear and terror.
Like an unabashed foster parent, Israel cared for the crystal waters of Aqaba, maintained the organic equilibrium of the desert birds and fish, explored and studied the remarkable wilderness canyons.
When I reached the crest of Mount Sinai in 1979 and there performed the Bat Mitzvah ceremonies of two American girls, I saw the sun rise over a terrestrial glory which resonated with both spiritual and physical transcendence. The Egyptians had risked the desert child four times with war; the Israelis had turned it to peace. Similarly, and by agreement, Israel left the greenhouses and schools of Gaza and now it remains a Hamas missile launching pad.
Politics notwithstanding, if the world will only learn more about Israel’s poignant connection to the land, then we’d at long last have a healthy insight into that misunderstood nation’s real sensibilities.
Meanwhile, the tragic Islamic winter has consumed the vanished Arab spring and made bitter the winds of Sinai.