08 October 2004 | Permalink

In the summer of 1995, some English travellers who I met in Jordan persuaded me to go with them to the Sinai. From Aqaba, we took a somewhat battered ferry across the Red Sea to Nuweiba, then headed down the coast a short distance to the Beduin village of Tarrabeen.

There wasn't much at Tarrabeen. Most of the buildings were tiny palm huts ("khushas"), with a few slightly more substantial constructions of brick whose main functions seemed to be to house a kitchen and provide shade for the young tourists camped out along the beach front. The local Egyptians were friendly and unhurried, and if the foreign visitors had been any more relaxed they'd have been in danger of slipping into a collective coma.

We spent a few days lying on the beach, occasionally mustering enough energy to amble down to paddle in the warm water, or up to the closest 'restaurant' to order another glass of lemonade or a bottle of water. Duncan and Mark spent the days checking out the bikini-clad girls playing in the sea. Abi lost herself in her book. A curvaceous, pretty Israeli girl borrowed somebody's guitar and sang a mournful ballad, and Hlynur, the mad Icelander, doodled a caricature of her that deftly merged her curves with those of the instrument. It was restful and lazy and you soon lost any sense of time or urgency.

Most of the other tourists at Tarrabeen were young Israelis, who'd come down by bus or car from Eilat. It struck me even then how exposed they were. They seemed like the residents of a besieged castle who'd slipped out of a side gate to picnic by the side of the moat, as yet unnoticed by the enemy. It was as if an odd kind of truce was operating, allowing them to take their vacations in this once-disputed territory in a country which, if not exactly hostile, was certainly home to people who were. It seemed fragile and fantastic, and I wondered how long it could last.

I thought about this again from time to time, particularly after September 11th and the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It was clear that the people who believe it necessary to fight a war against Israel and the US - and perhaps the West and even modernity as a whole - would be looking for new targets for some brutal, showy demonstration of their anger and hatred. In their eyes, the region around Nuweiba would look like the softest of soft targets.

I found myself thinking about it again just a few days ago, for no reason that I can remember. As always, I asked myself how long it would be before someone else noticed how vulnerable the Israeli tourists were. Last night, I got my answer.

In the logic of terrorism, a tourist destination is as legitimate a target as a barracks - even more, in fact, since the impact is greater. After the Bali bombing in 2002, I wondered when someone would drive a truck bomb down Bangkok's Khao San Road: having been back there a few months ago and seen the sketchiness of the security measures, I am still afraid that it's only a matter of time.

Murdering unarmed people when their defences are down is a contemptible form of warfare. Unfortunately, it's beginning to look less like an aberration and more like the shape of things to come for at least the foreseeable future.