Anwar Sadat and Menachem BeginBegin after announcement of Camp David Accords - CC via Flickr, Warren K. Leffler 1978
CAIRO – 19 March 2018: March 19 marks a powerful historical moment in Modern Egypt, as Egyptian sovereignty was restored from Israel over the town of Taba in South Sinai. Despite being small in area, the story of Taba’s return to Egypt remains pivotal in Egyptian-Israeli relations.
On Sunday, Egypt commemorates the 29th anniversary of the liberation of Taba; a number of Egyptian key figures including ministers and parliamentarians visited the town and hoisted the Egyptian flag over Taba. They also paid tribute to the brave Egyptian officers and soldiers who sacrificed their lives for their homeland, to regain the whole of Sinai from Israel.
Taba’s liberation sends a strong message to the world that Egypt is able to use all means to protect its land and dignity, whether through armed means as in the War of Attrition and the 1973 October War, or through political and diplomatic actions during the Israel-Egypt separation of forces agreement in 1974, the Camp David accords and finally the liberation of Taba.
A rare example of the resolution of a controversial issue through judicial means
When the Israeli and Egyptian governments finalized the negotiations for the return of the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egypt on January 19, 1982, according to the first treaty of peace between Israel and an Arab country signed by late Egyptian president, Anwar al-Sadat in 1979, Israel tried to prevaricate to change the situation on ground. Israeli negotiators claimed that Taba should remain with Israel. They justified their claim by saying that the description of Taba as the administrative border between Palestine and Egypt in October 1906 accord was ambiguous and did not clearly state if Taba falls within Egypt or Palestine. Israel even took a further step to enforce a de facto situation by constructing two Israeli hotels within the Taba zone after spring 1982.
According to article 7 of the 1979 peace treaty, any side can resort to international mediation if direct negotiations fail to resolve such differences. Therefore, Egypt requested the formation of an international arbitration team, a request which Israeli cabinet did not agree to until January 13, 1986. Hence, a panel was formed and empowered to decide on the location of the boundary pillars as of 1948, the date when the Palestine Mandate ended, and it was agreed on by all sides that the panel’s decision would be final and binding on both parties. Two years later in 1988, being presented by strong evidence from the Egyptian side, the panel ruled in favor of Egypt and Israel was forced to evacuate Taba on March 19, 1989, ending nearly 15 years of Israeli control over the peninsula in 1967. Taba became the last part of Egyptian lands to be liberated from Israel.
Outrage in Israel over the return of Taba
Following the international panel decision, about 1,200 angry and resistant Israeli soldiers barricaded themselves into apartments in a town called Yamit and threatened to commit suicide and violence against Israeli troops that tried to evict them from Taba. The town was later destroyed by Israeli bulldozers. Furthermore, many demonstrations took place in Israel to protest Israeli withdrawal from Taba; the demonstrators vowed that such withdrawal of Israeli settlements will and should never happen again.
On the formal level, subsequent to the Israeli withdrawal from Taba, the Israeli Defense Minister at that time, Ariel Sharon, promised Israelis that it would be Israel’s final territorial compromise for peace and he vowed to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights; all occupied by Israel.
In an order to the Israeli forces on the withdrawal day from Taba, Sahron said, "In Sinai, in Yamit, we have reached the limits of our concessions. We shall turn to strengthening our security, to our development in every sphere. We shall turn to increasing and consolidating our settlements on the Golan Heights, in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza district - settlements that are an integral part of our security, settlements that are a true basis for political plans - all in the framework of the government's avowed policy." He added, “We are not retreating from Sinai. We are demonstrating our desire to move forward toward peace. And we have done the unimaginable.” Sharon continued, "No Arab army has ever succeeded - or will ever succeed - in destroying an Israeli city. Only we ourselves have been forced to destroy Yamit with our own hands. We have been forced to wipe it off the face of the earth in order to implement the peace treaty on time and without shedding Jewish blood."
Israel was in shock that the international community for the first time in the history of Zionism did not take its side and ruled Taba as an Egyptian territory. Asa result, the formal blundering reactions continued; in a news program on NBC TV channel, the Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, said “Our Egyptian friends should know very well if at any time they should commit a breach of their commitments under the peace treaty, then Israel’s reaction will be swift.”
Taba’s liberation did not witness any joint Israeli-Egyptian ceremonies, the Israeli flag was lowered and the desperate Israeli troops sang Israel’s national anthem as they were leaving Taba. Later, the Egyptian flag was raised in Taba and all along the new international border with Israel. Egyptian runners lit torches and ran across the town, while colorful carpets were set out and piles of flowers were placed everywhere to celebrate the diplomatic victory. Later, Egyptian forces wearing armbands reading “North Sinai Police” arrived in Taba and citizens of Taba approached them to celebrate their arrival.
The cost of the Israeli withdrawal was not limited to financial cost, which amounted to $4.8 billion, according to the Defense Ministry, but also it was a military and ecological cost. The Israeli army and air force that gained significance since the six-day war in 1967 was deprived of air and ground spaces. According to the Defense Ministry also, Israel abandoned eight airfields, a number of civilian settlements, a naval base, electric lines and other immovable investments.
Road to the development of South Sinai
Since its liberation 29 years ago, Sinai topped the Egyptian development agenda as it holds a distinguished position in the hearts of Egyptians. It represents history made by Egyptian sacrifices to protect the land. Specifically, Taba has become one of the most attractive tourist spots in Egypt. It has an international airport, the Taba International Airport,that receives many charter flies on a weekly basis from Europe. In addition to diving and snorkeling, the town contains a protected area on 3,590 square kilometers which includes caves, a string of valleys, mountainous passages and some natural springs. The area also has various species of mammals, rare birds and reptiles.
Development plans in Sinai include investing in infrastructure, roads and sewage projects, establishing an investment zone in the governorate, building Bedouin and agriculture complexes, founding universities and the establishment of airports and a new marina in Sharm el-Sheik.