The Israeli sea resort Eilat has always been an oasis of rest in a turbulent area.
However, after Egyptians staged multiplied terror attacks in August last year, the situation in the area of Eilat has changed dramatically.
This report deals with the fall out of that terror attack, together with the additional problem of the continuous influx of African refugees or infiltrators into Eilat.
Most of those refugees are from Sudan and many have been subject to torture and robbery in Egypt, whilst on their journey to Israel. There they found out that life is not easy but at least safer and better than at home.
Eilat February 1st 2012–02–01
The mountains in the Eilat area have always been a wasteland that is known for its beautiful colored canyons and steep hills, where life is impossible.
Since the attack in August last year, which killed nine Israelis, the situation in the area has become grim. Watch-towers and bunkers which had been deserted are once again manned by IDF soldiers. At the same time a five meter high fence is being erected which – together with all sorts of electronic surveillance devices – aims to prevent further infiltrations from Egyptian territory.
The construction of the fence in the Eilat area is a daunting task because of the rugged landscape.
The IDF soldiers who man the checkpoint on the highway which connects Eilat with Gaza stop every car. They tell travelers that the highway is blocked and that civilian traffic is impossible.
The commander in charge says that everything is quiet at the moment. The only infiltrations are by Africans looking for refuge or work in Israel, he tells me.
However, there have been a number of incidents in which shots were fired from the Egyptian side of the border and so the authorities decided that the highway must remain closed to civilians until the IDF has reinforced and updated its positions along the border.
The commander advises me to go to an observation post overlooking the border, which is located on top of one of the highest mountains in the area.
After a ten minute drive, during which the shock absorbers of my car undergo a serious test, I reach the observation post. Three soldiers are sitting in a jeep and a fourth one is checking the Egyptian side of the border with huge binoculars.
This soldier shows me the preparation for the construction of the fence a kilometer away, in an area close to an Egyptian observation post. Two bulldozers are busy shoveling dirt in order to make a corridor in which the fence will be erected.
The soldier explains that the construction in that area is a daunting task. To make things worse Bedouins are constantly sabotaging the construction of the fence. Apparently they fear the loss of their lucrative smuggling business.
A few meters away a tall mast has been erected and some satellite dishes installed on it. That‘s something which was not there before. Close to the mast the top of an underground bunker is visible and the noise of an air-conditioning unit fills the air.
It is clear from the whole picture that within one year the situation in the Eilat area has changed dramatically. The city which seemed unassailable because of the peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt now seems like an outpost on the front line. The entrance to the west is closed and the city can only be reached via Highway 90 from the north.
Another problem for the relatively small city is the influx of a large number of African refugees, who found their way to Eilat via Egypt.
Nobody seems to know their exact number but there are thousands of them. Most have found refuge in the old neighborhoods of Eilat.
Last year this led to protests by the native residents of Eilat who signaled to the Israeli government that the situation had become unbearable.
The government then decided to build a fence along the Egyptian border, but the terror from Sinai has sped up the construction significantly. The fence is now scheduled to be completed in 2013.
In an industrial area close to Eilat I meet with a group of men who fled from Darfur. They are willing to tell their stories on condition that I don’t publish their family names.
Two of them speak English and another speaks Hebrew. His name is Omar and he tells me that he arrived in Eilat more than two years ago.
The others are new arrivals and tell that they originally set foot for Israel with a group of thirteen people. One of them is Moussa. He says that only ten of them reached Israel, the others were killed by Bedouin and Egyptian soldiers.
He tells me that the reports about torture by the Bedouins are true. He also confirms that the Bedouin are killing the Africans to harvest their organs which are then being sold.
All of them are Muslims but they hurry to assure me that they have nothing against Israel. On the contrary; they say they hate the Arabs because of the genocide of Africans committed by the Arab nomads Janjaweed in Darfur.
Omar says that among the Africans in Eilat, generally six men share a two room apartment.
Many work in the hotels except for the new arrivals. They come to the industrial zone each day to look for odd jobs. Those who have a regular job earn 200 NIS (55 Dollar) a day and the others sometimes no more than 100 NIS.
But they don’t complain. They pay 300 NIS rent each and are able to make a living. Only in winter time do they experience difficulties finding work.
Asked about their legal status they say that they are in possession of a visa which has to be renewed every four months. To my surprise they report that there are no difficulties with the renewal of their visa.
The Israeli authorities however want to curb and eventually stop the influx of what they call infiltrators. Already more than 35,000 Africans are living in Israel and their number grows by an average of 1,000 per month.
In the hotel area few tourists will be aware of the problems in Eilat. They stroll along the renovated boulevard or enjoy the sun and the good life on one of the many terraces. The Europeans among them even take a dive in the Red Sea whilst the Israelis are wearing winter coats. A few blocks away, a huge ice palace which will soon enable winter sports in Eilat is under construction.
The Israeli government has granted Eilat priority status. Originally this was meant to draw more tourists to the sea resort. Almost one year later it is obvious that the priority now is to preserve the tourist industry.
With the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Sinai (where a French tourist was killed last week during a terrorist attack in Sharm al Sheikh) Eilat’s priority status now has a clear security reason.
Along the Egyptian border near Eilat the same electronic devices that guard the northern border of Israel are now clearly visible. At the same time a virtual fence has been installed to monitor the Red Sea with electronic sensors which are able to track very small explosive devices.
This is the visible evidence that the ‘old’ Middle East is gone and that the southern border of Israel has become a front line once again.
Israeli navy forces on the Red Sea ( Video by Ya’acov Katz)