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04/17/2013

Why would bombers target Israel's 'Miami'?

Eilat
Israeli security investigates the scene of a rocket attack in Eilat, Wednesday. (AP Photo/Ran Shauli)

At about 9 a.m. local time this morning, two Grad rockets fired from the Sinai peninsula landed in the outskirts of Eilat, at the southern tip of Israel on the Red Sea.

The news hit me with a thunk. “But I was just there!” I thought.


Eilat is a beach town, a vacation town, Israel's answer to Miami or Las Vegas. It has a string of large, posh hotels on the sea and a couple malls. Teenagers in bikinis and oversized sunglasses sashay along the boardwalks, and wealthy Russian tourists flock to boutiques and restaurants where the signs are written in cyrillic script. If it wasn't for the metal detectors at the mall entrances, you wouldn't know you were in a country with security concerns.


My friend Anne has been living in Eilat for the past five years. After she first moved there, I would get in touch whenever I heard about an attack in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Her response was usually the same: It was far away in the north, no big deal. Eilat is more than 300 kilometres south of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, on the other side of a desert. Practically a different world.


So when I finally decided to visit last month and friends asked me the same kind of questions -- Israel? Is it safe there? -- I echoed Anne's reassurances.


That's why this morning's news came as a bit of a shock, even after it became clear that there were no injuries or significant damage. Why would anyone bomb Miami?


But as Haaretz pointed out this morning, there have been signs Eilat could be a target:

The defence establishment received unspecific intelligence warnings before the rocket fire Wednesday morning at Eilat from Sinai. An army situation assessment at the start of the month led to the decision to put an Iron Dome anti-missile battery in the area – the fifth deployed in Israel.”

 

Eilat's geography puts it at risk, the article continues: the Sinai peninsula next door is unstable and bringing it under control is a low priority for Egypt's relatively new Muslim Brotherhood government, and the government suspects Islamist groups are taking root there.

 

Aside from the security threat, it could be bad economic news for Eilat, a small town built around tourism. Anne works for a Finnish travel company and on busy weeks in the winter high season, about 350 tourists from Finland come to town, she told me over lunch last month. For them it's a relatively inexpensive, convenient holiday escape – kind of like Florida or Cuba for Canadians.

 

But numbers have been dropping the past couple years. It's partly because of the struggling European economy, she said. But also, after December's Gaza conflict and the Arab Spring, “people are afraid.”

 

I haven't heard back from her yet today (she's more likely to be hanging out on a beach than sitting at a computer), but I have a feeling that if anything drives her away from her laid-back adopted hometown, it will be economics, not fear.

 

Stephanie MacLellan is an editor on the Star's foreign desk. She just returned from her first trip to Israel. Follow her on Twitter: @smaclellan

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