It was a bit of heaven; now it is a chunk of hell. Muslims are killing each other in the wilderness where Moses received the Law; in Israel, hands are wringing and hearts are breaking.
Since 1979, when Israel dutifully returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, the striking ridges and shady passes of the western Negev Desert along Israel’s border with that nation have remained an alluring gateway to the pristine beaches of the region.
The Jewish state was never the host nation for sectarian terror conflicts that have scattered the peaceful Bedouins and stained the sands of time.
Israel controlled the Sinai from 1967, following its lightning response in the Six Day War to the greatest buildup of armaments against any one country since World War II. Then, Israel fell in love with the peninsula and turned it into an internationally-revered haven of exploration and ecology.
For some time, and especially now, the view from the Israeli side is somber and painful: the jagged landscape of reddish, biblical mountains cast long shadows and has grown very ominous. The Israelis built national parks in the desert, enriched dry riverbeds, and cultivated osprey eggs so that birds could fly rather than missiles. Where tourists, cartographers, and mountain climbers gathered, there are now hyper-intensive, bloody, fatwa-driven terrorist wars that are turning the sacred sands bloody and gruesome.
It just so happens that this situation is unique to Israel, and blatantly misunderstood by much of the world. At best, the nation's plea that its survival is an immediate and real concern is disdainfully dismissed as a tiresome cliché, when it happens to be the truth.
As one who has visited and traveled extensively in the Sinai desert over the years, I can attest to the region's awesome beauty, its environmental fragility and the loving care Israel once administered to both.
Whereas Egypt's interest in the coral reefs, wadis and mountain ranges of Sinai has had little to do with the region's natural balance, for Israel this became a matter of policy. Undeniably, both nations have dealt with the Sinai first in terms of geopolitical strategy.
But Israel went far beyond this. The Jewish state was never the host nation for sectarian terror conflicts that have scattered the peaceful Bedouins and stained the sands of time.
Israel loved the Sinai.
Like an unabashed foster parent, Israel cared for the crystal waters of Aqaba, maintained the organic equilibrium of the desert birds and fish, explored and studied the remarkable wilderness canyons.
When I reached the crest of Mount Sinai in 1979 and there performed the Bat Mitzvah ceremonies of two American girls, I saw the sun rise over a terrestrial glory which resonated with both spiritual and physical transcendence. The Egyptians had risked the desert child four times with war; the Israelis had turned it to peace.
Perhaps it was politically correct for Israel to return the Sinai, and even some other areas it now maintains. (Certainly, America will follow suit and return Wyoming to the Indians and Russia will return Poland to the Poles.)
But politics notwithstanding, if the world will only learn more about Israel's poignant connection to the land, then we will at long last have a healthy insight into that misunderstood nation's real sensibilities.
Meanwhile, the tragic Islamic winter has consumed the Arab spring and made bitter the winds of Sinai.
This article was revised from its original publication in The New York Times.