Egypt celebrated the recovery of Taba, a strip of Sinai Desert beachfront, with martial pomp and raucous patriotic chants Wednesday a few hours after Israel lowered its flag in the dark and quietly retired from the land that it lost through international arbitration.
Sandwiched between the two contrasting ceremonies, Israeli hotel workers who are losing their jobs at Taba protested by burning tires and raising an Israeli flag at a new border marker. They complained that the severance pay offered them was too little.
The transfer of the land, which sits on the Gulf of Aqaba, ended seven years of wrangling that put a frost on relations between the two countries. Last September, an arbitration panel affirmed Egypt’s claim to the beachfront that Israel had occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War. With Israel’s withdrawal, the bilateral terms of the Camp David peace accords forged 11 years ago at the U.S. presidential retreat in Maryland are complete.
Ahmed Masiri, Egypt’s consul general in the adjacent Israeli resort of Eilat, told Israel Radio that the transfer will improve ties between Cairo and Jerusalem.
“I hope this will be a bridge to peace, peace between the two peoples,” he said.
Israeli officials expressed distress at seeing the land slip from their control.
“We have nothing to celebrate,” Alon Liel, the spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said curtly.
Yossi Ahimeir, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, added: “We are sad that we have been forced to give up Taba, never mind the reason. But we accept the decision, and we are carrying it out.”
The shore area in dispute is only 250 acres, but it had assumed great symbolic significance in both Egyptian and Israeli eyes. For the Egyptians, its return is the culmination of a long quest to regain all land lost to Israel during the 1967 war.
On Wednesday, about 200 Egyptian troops carrying rifles marched to the beach in groups of three and raised the flag while singing the Egyptian national anthem. Egyptian workers who had been constructing a new frontier fence and customs gate climbed a ridge overlooking the resort and shouted the Muslim chant “Allahu akbar!"-- God is great.
Newspapers in Cairo said that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will travel to Taba on Sunday to take part in further celebrations.
For Israel, the event was an uncomfortable sign of the material and territorial costs of reaching peace with its neighbors, costs that some Israelis vow not to repeat in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, land also seized in 1967.
The Israeli decision to take down the official flag at midnight Tuesday was meant to avoid a joint ceremony with Egypt, Foreign Ministry sources said. Previously, Shamir had expressed disappointment at the loss of Taba and blamed its hand-over on officials of the rival Labor Party who, while sharing in his coalition government, had favored putting the case before international arbitrators.
On Wednesday, someone in the 10-story Sonesta Hotel, which stands on Taba and was bought by Egypt from Israeli owners for $38 million under the agreement, waved a blue and white Israeli flag from a high floor. A group of Israeli border police left shortly before Egypt raised its official banner.
The hotel workers, yelling, “We want to work in Israel, not Egypt!” were demanding the same compensation that settlers in the Sinai received when Israel withdrew from the rest of the peninsula seven years ago. The Israeli government has rejected their demand.
In the occupied West Bank, a group of Israeli settlers brought prefabricated homes to a hill as an indication that they oppose a Taba-type withdrawal.
“It’s a good start that we are building a settlement in the land of Israel,” settlement leader Uri Ariel said on Israel Radio. “Maybe it’s also a special day when they are folding the flag in Taba.”
The settlement, which has been approved by the Shamir government, is being built at Talmon, near the Arab town of Ramallah.
Shamir’s government is being pressured by the United States to come up with ideas to end its conflict with the Palestinians. Among the solutions discussed by American officials is some formula by which Israel would give up parts of the West Bank and Gaza in return for a peace treaty with its neighbors, much in the way that it ceded the conquered Sinai in exchange for peace with Egypt.
The U.S. government has long opposed the building of Israeli settlements on the disputed land.
Israeli officials will be looking for signs that the Taba withdrawal in fact warms up what is known here as a “cold peace” with Egypt. Although Egypt is the only Arab nation to recognize Israel, trade and tourist exchanges between the two countries have never blossomed as Israel thought they might.
The few cooperative ventures undertaken by the two governments are often shrouded in fearful secrecy.
On a recent visit to Cairo, Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens broke a virtual taboo on publicity by visiting an experimental farm run by Israeli technicians. Few Egyptians knew about the project, which, although it has been in operation since 1986, had never received attention in Egyptian newspapers. Near the site, a billboard proclaims the role that Saudi Arabia played in financing the farm, but nothing is said of Israel.