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“With the rise of the Nasser regime Cairo’s attention turned to Sinai and Sinai was to some extent ‘developed': developed as a base of aggression against Israel. This reached its peak in May 1967 when a force of some one hundred thousand Egyptian troops together with full armor, air and logistic support were concentrated in Sinai. Sinai became the ‘homeland’ of Egyptian imperialism,” Livneh wrote.
Even the most cursory review of Egypt’s recent history bears this out. In 1948, Egypt joined with four other Arab states in an attempt to crush Israel at birth. Egypt lost the war but not its desire for Israel’s destruction. It trained Arab terrorists, or fedayeen, to carry out raids inside Israel, murdering women and children. It conducted this six year campaign of terror despite having signed an Armistice Agreement with Israel in 1949.
In an effort to end such incursions, Israel successfully captured the entire Peninsula in the Sinai campaign of 1956, only to be pressured by President Eisenhower to relinquish it, a decision he later regretted. The Egyptians, with the Sinai again in their hands, upped the ante, and began preparing for the Six Day War. Losing that one in spectacular fashion, they then waged the War of Attrition, until Anwar Sadat took the reins of power and put an end to it, not because he wanted peace, but in order to prepare for his own effort to destroy Israel in what would become known as the Yom Kippur War.
Indeed, such has been Egyptian hostility toward Israel, that if the Sinai is holy soil, as Sadat claimed it was in the 1970s, it was holy first and foremost to the Jews, who consecrated the land with their blood.
Even in ancient times, one sees a surprising continuity of attitude among Egyptians towards Sinai. In the course of its long history, Egypt has conquered Sinai from time to time and indeed it also conquered Palestine and Syria, Libya and the Sudan. But such imperialist and colonialist expansion did not make these lands Egyptian, not even in the consciousness of the Egyptians themselves, who continued to regard them as foreign, albeit vanquished and tributary territories to be looted, if necessary depopulated, or in the case of Sinai, to be used as a source of minerals from slave-operated mines.
The crucial views of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Biblical sources all have one thing in common – the recognition that not only the Sinai itself but the land to the west as far as the Nile is not Egypt. At the beginning of the historical period, the Egyptians placed the frontier between Egypt and “abroad” between the Damietta and Tannitic branch of the Nile. In Pyramid Texts, the god of Busiris was considered protector of the eastern frontier. Saft el Henna, located almost 35 miles due west from Ismailia and the Suez Canal was a frontier outpost against Asian enemies.
Three Biblical texts fix the border of the Land of Israel in the eastern tributary of the Nile delta (Genesis 15:18, Joshua 13:3, Chronicles I, 13:5). One additional text explicitly includes the land of Goshen (east of the Nile delta) in the borders of Israel (Joshua 11:16). And Herodotus (5th century B.C.), presenting the views of the Greek geographers, wrote “the Ionians say nothing is really Egypt but the delta.”
And what of Israel’s claim to Egypt? The Israeli side at the renegotiating table – in addition to dusting off that impressive 1971 Israel Ministry of Justice report – might look to Eliezer Livneh, who made a heartfelt case for the Jewish ties to the Sinai Peninsula when it was still in Israel’s hands.
Were it not for Sinai, Israel would not have come into existence. Were it not for Israel, Sinai would be unknown. The memories and lessons of Sinai, its mountains and valleys, its oases and springs, its flora and fauna are all writ deep in the whole of Jewish experience, throughout its generations and literary expressions – in the Bible and the Talmud, the Midrashim and in modern Hebrew poetry.
The feeling and sense of identity, the ties and devotion that have arisen in today’s generation of Israeli youth through meeting with Sinai are an expression of a deep-rooted acquaintance, a hidden yearning: we have already been here! There is no place in all the Land of Israel, with the exception of Jerusalem, which arouses such deep and clear emotions and associations as Sinai. The urge to explore and the desire to settle Sinai – from Nahal Diklah to the tip of the Peninsula – reflects something hidden within the Jewish soul, awaiting expression and fulfillment.
Has such a thing happened with the Egyptians? Is it possible, indeed fair to demand such a love from them? For them Sinai is a desert; for Israel that desert is the very source of life.
David Isaac is the former executive director of Americans for A Safe Israel, and worked for many years as a reporter and editorial writer for a national business newspaper. He is currently e-Editor of a Web site dedicated to Shmuel Katz, the Zionist biographer, essayist and historian.
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