The Red Sea resort offered a miniature model of the Sinai dream—the dream of a Middle East where old enemies trade land for peace and terrorism for tourism. The British ran the hotel, Egyptians staffed it, Europeans and Russians—and many Israelis—frequented it. Outside, Egyptian and Israeli flags fluttered alongside each other. True, a month earlier the Israeli government had warned of an imminent terrorist attack, but such warnings always came and went. Here visitors could forget that the two longtime enemies had traded possession of the peninsula several times in the past half century or so. During wars in 1956, 1967, and 1973 Egypt and Israel stormed across the peninsula; in 1979 the two countries signed a peace deal, and Israel yielded control to Egypt once more. The pact still stands after 30 years.
Sinai has always been a place of such paradox—a harsh land of ethereal beauty, of both strife and symphony. Despite all the peninsula's geopolitical importance, for instance, its largest population is the group that cares least about national identity: the Bedouin. During the back-and-forth battling of recent decades, the tribal people blended so well into the landscape that they almost seemed a natural feature, like dunes trodden by conquerors.
As the evening deepened, guests migrated from the restaurants to the casino, bar, and discotheque. Everyone celebrated Sinai-related holidays on this weekend: The Egyptians remembered their army's thrust into the peninsula in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the Israelis commemorated their ancestors' biblical journey through the desert. In recent years people had taken to calling this coast the Red Sea Riviera. It embraced a decadence and an abandon that set it apart from the rest of Egypt.
The Israeli border lay just a few yards away. Beyond it, in Elat, off-duty firefighter Shachar Zaid emerged from a movie theater where he and his wife had just watched an American film about firefighters. That's when a muffled sound rolled through the town: whomp.
Zaid ran with his wife toward the sound, toward the border. Along the way he met his off-duty fire chief, changing into his uniform in his car, and six other firefighters arriving with the town's three trucks. Zaid climbed atop one of the ladder trucks with his chief, and they approached the border without knowing exactly what lay beyond. Egyptian soldiers, equally unsure what was happening, stood blocking the checkpoint with automatic rifles.