Israel Ends Search for Survivors in Taba

Times Staff Writer

Israel formally abandoned hope Sunday evening of finding any survivors of last week’s massive bomb attack on a Red Sea resort in Taba, just across the border in Egypt, which left about three dozen people dead.

After three days of searching the ruins of the seaside complex, Israeli soldiers and volunteer medics packed up their equipment and the scraper-type devices used to comb for human remains at the scenes of countless suicide bombings inside Israel.

The Israeli departure, marked by a solemn ceremony as darkness fell, ended a sometimes tense search-and-rescue effort staged in concert with Egyptian forces. The two sides quarreled sharply at times, participants said, although their governments tried to publicly smooth over differences.

“Our sacred work here is done,” Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, who commanded the Israeli rescue effort, told grim-faced troops assembled at the border crossing between Taba and the southern Israeli town of Eilat.

Officials on both sides of the border were struggling to establish a definitive casualty count -- a process that was hampered by bureaucracy and the enormously destructive power of the more than 400 pounds of explosives used in the attack Thursday night. Body parts were scattered throughout the palm-fringed seaside resort.


Israelis have been taking part in the investigation while trying to keep a low profile. Egypt and Israel, which formally made peace in 1979, enjoy reasonably friendly government-to-government relations, but that hasn’t trickled down to street level.

Israeli media, citing investigators, reported Sunday that a Bedouin had confessed to selling explosives that may have been used in the car bombings targeting Israeli tourists at Taba and two smaller Red Sea resorts. Several dozen Bedouins have been rounded up by Egyptian police for questioning.

Israelis made up the bulk of the 34 known dead, but victims included Egyptians and Italians, among others, officials said. Since the attack, the death count has fluctuated because of double tallies, the fact that many bodies were not intact and disputes over how to carry out forensic identifications.

Egypt refused to allow remains to be transported to Israel until DNA tests showed they were those of Israelis. Doctors and technicians at Israel’s national forensics institute, Abu Kabir, labored frantically through the Jewish Sabbath to establish identities.

In one case, Israeli rescuers acknowledged that they smuggled the corpse of a 3-year-old child into Israel in a cardboard box because they were certain from family accounts that he was an Israeli but did not want to force relatives to wait for the test results to reclaim him.

Unlikely cooperation, too, has sprung up. Egyptian investigators were said to be quietly questioning members of Palestinian militant groups -- not primarily because they suspected them of involvement but to learn what the militants had heard about who may have procured explosives.

The attack underscores the Sinai Peninsula’s familiar role as a smugglers’ paradise. Israeli and Egyptian authorities say that remote desert byways, once known only to Bedouin natives, have become havens for smugglers of weapons, drugs and foreign prostitutes bound for Israel.

Shortly after the attacks, Israeli authorities said they believed a cell inspired by or linked to Al Qaeda had carried out the bombings, perhaps slipping in by speedboat from adjacent Jordan or Saudi Arabia.

Two of the dead were identified as Italian sisters Jessica and Sabrina Rinaudo, aged 19 and 22. Their weeping parents visited the wreckage of the hotel Sunday and left bouquets of flowers.

Israeli media accounts were filled with descriptions of narrow escapes and poignant twists of fate. A young Israeli, Assaf Greenwald, had already sent his father a cellphone text message asking him to meet him at the border but was killed when the blast tore through the hotel lobby. A Russian immigrant couple from suburban Tel Aviv, who died together, were said to have been on their first vacation without their young children.

The Israeli Cabinet, meeting Sunday, approved standard compensation paid to those caught in attacks in Israel or the Palestinian territories. But security officials had more angry questions about why their sharp warning against travel to the Sinai over the Jewish holidays went unheeded by so many.

Over the last month, since the beginning of a string of holidays that started with the Jewish new year, about 40,000 Israelis headed for vacation destinations in the Sinai, which is long beloved by Israeli tourists as a tranquil, inexpensive getaway.

“It’s a delicate matter. We live in a democratic state where ultimately citizens exercise personal choice,” said Cabinet minister Eliezer Zandberg. “A state may warn and advise ... but in the end, it is the citizens’ decision.”