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Rocket attacks, fears of Israeli kidnappings mark Sinai Liberation Day

Three Israeli soldiers stand guard in the sand-camouflaged bunker, hovering near a 155-millimeter howitzer pointed directly at the Egyptian city of Suez. The men are over six foot tall, dressed in full uniform, and heavily armed with rifles, extra canon shells, and even a bazooka.

But that firepower is no match for young Omar, a four-year-old from Cairo who, with a big boost from his father, slaps the lead officer on the back of his neck.

It’s the most insulting of all gestures in the Middle East, but Omar’s father laughs it off as his mother proudly captures the moment on their mobile phone camera.

Of course, it’s just for fun. And the Israeli soldiers are only papier-mache mannequins.

But at the Ayun Mousa war museum, a former Israeli military base on the western edge of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, even the beaten papier-mache troops serve as a vivid reminder that relations between Egypt and Israel are almost as cool as they were in times of war.

Ayun Mousa, or the Eye of Moses, is the famous Biblical location where Moses is supposed to have led the Israelites to water after crossing the Red Sea.

When Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt during the 1967 Six-Day War, Ayun Mousa served a more strategic purpose: from the highest point, soldiers could monitor all activity in the nearby Gulf of Suez, only a few miles from the southern mouth of the Suez Canal.

Underground bunkers housed Israeli troops as well as canons that could strike mainland Egypt and the nearby shipping lane. Tight crawl spaces and tunnels linked most of the bunkers, which were reinforced with concrete and steel, capable of withstanding 1,000-pound bombs. Soldiers could ward off attacks from above with several machine-gun turrets, connected by hundreds of feet of trenches dug in the sand, also hardened with sheets of metal.


Former Israeli bunkers at the Ayun Mousa Fortified Firing position were camouflaged to avoid Egyptian attack in the 1973 October War. (Jon Jensen/GlobalPost)


But none of the Israeli defences were good enough for the Egyptian army in 1973, as the strategic site fell within the first days of the October War (or Yom Kippur War).

Nowadays, although much of the site is still heavily mined, tourists stroll through the area to see what the Israelis left behind.


Barbed wire blocks off a minefield at Ayun Mousa. Sinai today is still one of the most heavily mined regions in the world. (Jon Jensen/GlobalPost)

This weekend, the museum was especially busy, as Egyptian families prepared for one of their most satisfying public holidays. Today, Egyptians celebrate Sinai Liberation Day, a national holiday commemorating the anniversary of Israel’s final military withdrawal from the Sinai in 1982.

Tourist visit on of the bunkers at the Ayun Mousa Fortified Firing Position in Sinai. (Jon Jensen/GlobalPost)

The return of Sinai was a pride-filled moment of relief for a nation stung by the defeat of '67; the main prize for what Egyptians believe was a total victory in the 1973 war.

Many Israelis might dispute the outcome of '73. But wins on the battlefield aside, the October War was a huge victory for the Egyptian national psyche, and ultimately it led to the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel.

Real peace, however, has proven to be bitter cold.

This Sinai Liberation Day comes less than a week after several Russian-made Grad rockets were fired towards the Israeli resort city of Eilat. Both Jordan and Egypt have denied that the ‘mystery rockets’ originated in their countries, though several media outlets have reported the strikes came from Sinai. And two weeks ago, Israel warned its citizens to leave Sinai, popular as a beach destination, citing “concrete evidence of a terrorist plot” to kidnap Israeli tourists.

Both incidents are the latest in a series of reminders that relations between the two nations have remained largely unchanged since 1982.

The Ayun Mousa museum doesn’t seem to have changed much since the early 1980s either. When the site first opened, a Disney-like train on wheels ferried passengers from the highway entrance to the main bunker. The sides of the cars were covered with wood panels painted and decorated like Egyptian army tank treads.

Now the "tanks" are falling apart, gathering dust under a canopy near the entrance to the museum. Egyptian military officers guarding the site are now sleeping in the vehicles, having turned the car benches into makeshift beds.

The Israeli "dummy" soldiers are showing their age as well. Paint has worn off and their necks are faces are pocketed with wounds, most probably the result of continual drubbing from Egyptian children over the years.

Several “dummies” of Israeli soldiers have been placed around Ayun Mousa to add to the authenticity. (Jon Jensen/GlobalPost)