Sinai Attacks: Al-Qaeda Hand, Palestinian Shadow

TABA, Egypt – The leader of an Israeli rescue team points to the rubble of what was the lobby of Hilton hotel. "Look, you can see clearly where the car exploded."

Commander Shalom Bar-Arieh of the search and rescue school of the Israeli army’s central command is a veteran of such operations. "This is exactly like the attack in Mombassa," he said with certainty. That attack two years back on a hotel with many Israeli guests at the Kenyan resort was ascribed to al-Qaeda.

But that is where the similarities end. Bar-Arieh is stunned by the level of destruction here. The Hilton hotel’s 12 stories have been sheared off near the front. A huge concrete slab hangs bent down over devastated rooms. Two large spiral staircases lie across the rubble, and mattresses and sheets are strewn everywhere.

Bar-Arieh is not expecting any more survivors to be found. At least 24 bodies had been pulled out from the rubble by Friday evening. Most victims seemed to be Israeli. Dozens are still missing.

The attack was one of three that shook Sinai holiday hot spots Thursday night. The Taba explosion was by far the most serious, but several people were killed also in two other blasts in the Ras al-Satan resort further south along the Red Sea coast.

Several previously unknown Islamic groups have claimed responsibility for the attacks. The Palestinian militant movements, both Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have denied involvement.

But Palestinians linked the attacks to Israel’s policies against them. The Israeli army has over the last nine days killed more than 80 people in the northern Gaza strip after Palestinian missiles killed two children in Israel.

Nabil Abu Rudeinah, senior advisor to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said the events were linked. "The continuation of Israel’s occupation and aggressions fuel the world’s anger," he said.

Egyptian officials like the Israelis suspect an al-Qaeda hand in the attacks. The group recently distributed a video calling for attacks on Israeli and U.S. targets.

In Egypt the main worry is that Islamic insurgency may be rising again if local fundamentalists are found to be involved. The strongly Islamist group, the Gamaa al-Islamiya, has a truce with the government and commentators doubt it was involved.

An Egyptian worker in Taba spoke of the peace that has prevailed in the country recently, and how that suddenly changed. "I was thrown to the ground by the explosion," recalls Hussein Shitta, a pest control worker staying near the hotel. "I did not know what happened. I have never heard explosions like that before, we have lived in a peaceful time."

The attacks somewhat strained the already tense Israeli-Egyptian relations. Israeli rescue workers complained about slow access to the spot of the attack in Taba, where the Egyptians have no rescue capacity.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon praised Egyptian cooperation. He saw the blasts as an attack on Jews "who are the target of terror all over the world."

Over the Jewish Sukkot holidays it is estimated that more than 10,000 Israelis were vacationing in the Sinai, with the peninsula’s idyllic coastline forming the main attraction. On Friday they were streaming back to the relative security of Israel and its southern Red Sea resort Eilat.

"I used to like the Sinai because it is so quiet," said one girl. "Well, that was before the attacks."

The Taba border crossing from Israel to Egypt is now closed. The screens in the Israeli departure hall still show an ad for the Hilton hotels in the Sinai.

Israeli security services are angry with their own people and with the media for ignoring the warnings they had sounded about possible attacks in the Sinai. The public had clearly stopped taking them seriously after similar warnings every year since the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada in September 2000.

Kineret and Gil Franco and their two young children were among those who could not resist the lure of the Sinai and its relatively low prices, compared to vacationing in Israel itself.

"We love the Sinai, but we had not been for seven years because of the warnings," said Kineret. "This year we thought it would be okay."

The family was waiting for a flight back home at Eilat’s small airport, bloodied and wearing the same sparse clothes they were resting in before their evening meal when the explosion shook their room.

"We were showered by a rain of glass," Kineret recalled. She is four months pregnant and had cuts on her arms and legs.

Her husband Gil had stitches on his leg and a cut in his neck. The children were miraculously unharmed.

They all locked themselves in the bathroom for 30 minutes, fearing more attacks, and then fled to the beach. "The sound of mothers screaming for their children was horrible," Kineret said with tears in her eyes.

"Everybody was in a total panic, nobody knew what was going on," she said. "The Egyptian staff, who had been great, were even more in shock than us, they just disappeared."

She said the Egyptian tourism industry will be hard hit now. "I will never go back to the Sinai," she said. Other survivors around nodded in agreement.