JERUSALEM – The Eilat hotel industry’s worst nightmare nearly became a reality last Tuesday morning when one of the heavily armed jihadist groups operating in the northern Sinai peninsula, near the Egyptian-Israeli border, fired at least one Grad rocket at the Red Sea resort city. In the midst of the summer tourist season, Eilat’s hotels were packed with thousands of local and foreign guests. Though an IDF Iron Dome anti-missile battery intercepted and shot down the rocket, the rumbling explosions created momentary panic among the visitors, some of whom were treated for shock by Magen David Adom.
One hotel worker told Yediot Aharonot, “People were running from the rooms to the stairs after the siren was activated. The hotel has a shelter in the bottom floor, but it is still relevant as far as response time is concerned. During the siren we heard the explosions.”
IDF officials and Eilat Mayor Meir Halevi urged local citizens, hotel workers and tourists to continue with their regular daily routines. But tourism industry sources told The Jewish Press that a growing number of hotel managers were beginning to wonder if the deteriorating security situation in Sinai would transform their bustling city into a ghost town ahead of the upcoming Sukkot and winter seasons.
Last Thursday the IDF High Command ordered the Eilat Airport closed for several hours, just as hundreds of tourists were on the verge of boarding flights back to central Israel. According to several Israeli newspapers, Egyptian military officials alerted their Israeli counterparts that one or two Sinai terror cells were ready to launch a missile attack on the airport or on an arriving passenger plane.
Many arriving flights make their final landing approach to Eilat over the northern Red Sea, between the Egyptian and Jordanian borders and well within range of anti-aircraft missiles harbored by terror organizations operating in the region. The Eilat Airport, located just several hundred yards from some of the resort city’s finest hotels, is due to be closed in approximately two years. A much larger international airport some 15 miles north of Eilat is due to become operational at that time.
Jihadist organizations in Sinai have been trying for more than a year to hit a major tourist facility in Eilat, having fired several Grads and mortar rounds at various locations around the city last April.
Egyptian and Israeli media sources reported that high-ranking Egyptian and Israeli officers are coordinating intelligence and military maneuvers along the Sinai and Gaza borders in an effort to identify and eliminate the various terrorist cells. Those cells include Sinai Bedouin, Egyptian Salafists and Gaza Hamas. There are unconfirmed reports that an IDF aerial drone operating near Gaza destroyed a terrorist cell near the Gaza-Egyptian border town of Rafah last weekend.
The growing jihadist terror threats emanating from the Sinai, Gaza and Syrian borders was one of the main topics of discussion this week between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a delegation of visiting Republican congressmen – that included House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia – and U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Dempsey’s visit followed one by U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, who met with his IAF counterpart, Commander in Chief Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel, last week. They discussed joint coordination regarding the issues of ballistic missiles and chemical weapons in Syria, and Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Israeli and American experts believe that the latter could become operational in less than a year.