Part 1 – Saddam Tried To Kill Us
C and I often joke that whenever we go on holiday we end up having a near death experience. This is not always the case. But it is mostly the case. So, I'm not sure why our parents are always so keen to come with us.....
We did get a bit spooked when we went to Eilat in Israel and almost ended up in the middle of a second Gulf War (this was, of course, long before the second Gulf War). Eilat is at the base of Israel, on the Red Sea. Eilat is surrounded by hostile states. From our hotel you could see Jordan – Eilat is next door to Aqaba in Jordan, which is where Lawrence of Arabia went through all that grief to get to. We used to joke that as long as the lights were on in Aqaba then we were OK. Saudi Arabia was also visible from the hotel and Egypt was just 10 minutes round the corner on the coast road. And, most importantly, Eilat was within scud missile range of Iraq, Saddam’s Iraq.
That would be enough to put most people off Eilat, especially at a time of such international tension. But not C and I. Indeed, the threat from weapons of mass destruction aside, I am not sure that Eilat is somewhere that I would recommend to anyone other than the most committed scuba-divers. Eilat is a bit like holidaying in Birmingham by the Sea, or, a Portsmouth with dolphins. It is quite a big city, at the edge of an even bigger desert, with nice beaches, a wonderful aquarium, and dolphins. But, it also has huge shopping malls (a bit disconcerting when you get searched as a possible suicide bomber on the way in), prostitutes, and quite a lot of industry too. It also has the rudest rip-off taxi drivers I have met anywhere. They are even worse than those of Paris (don't get me started) with the one notable exception - Eilat cabbies tote guns!
When you visit Israel you can kind of understand why they do not get on with their neighbours. Israel is surrounded by hostile states. Admittedly, those states are hostile because they lost the war and ended up with a very westernised, very Americanised, very militaristic Israel in the middle of their holy land, and, in their own cities and homes. To the victor the spoils of war. Also, Israel is only something like forty miles across at the widest point - and that is shrinking fast as the Dead Sea finally seems to be giving up the illusion of life. And, it seems that the Israeli's are not always the easiest of people to have as your neighbours. Israeli's differentiate between those that are born and bread in Israel and those that are immigrants. The home-grown variety are called "Shabra". In Israeli this means "Prickly Pear", being soft and delicious on the inside but spiky and aggressive to the outside world.
Anyhow, things were a little tense when we were in Eilat. Saddam was not playing ball. He was not allowing the UN weapons inspectors to search for those mythical WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction) that would cause Tony Blair so much trouble later on. The Security Council, egged on by the US and Britain, were spoiling for a fight. Israel expected to be a target and mobilised its forces. Admittedly, C noticed this mobilisation a little later than the Iraqis probably did. She is a bit short sighted. I had to point out to her that every Israeli man and woman of a certain age, walking about the streets of Eilat, was sporting a sub-machine gun. The navy was constantly patrolling the Red Sea. The naval base was just five minutes up the road from our hotel. Trips to Jordan were cancelled after a tourist bus had been fired on. We never did get to see Petra. We were searched going into the local mall. We watched Red Neck US satellite TV to stay in touch with the scarce news. We were getting worried. We got even more worried when we met another British couple at a bus stop and they told us that they had been advised to report to an Israeli police station upon arrival to be issued wit their gas masks. We had received no such warning. We had no gas masks. Thank you Foreign Office. Thanks for nothing.
Local TV was full of advice about sealing your home against a chemical attack. Great. There is only so much bottled water you can store in a mini-bar. And, mosquito nets are not the best defence against anthrax spores.
C and I even conjured up an escape plan. In the event of something kicking off we were going to steal bikes from the hotel reception and cycle the two miles round the coast road to Egypt and seek sanctuary there . This could have been fun; it had been a long time since C had been on a bike…….As it turned out we were evacuated instead. We were evacuated through Eilat’s military airbase, which was bristling with attack helicopters and other such military hardware. It was quite spooky. And, being interrogated by an 18 year-old female soldier about the contents of your luggage was pretty spooky too, especially when she went into graphic detail about how little explosive was needed to bring down a jumbo ( a credit-card sized amount will do it apparently). We didn’t mention that we had left our bags unguarded at reception for two hours as we took a last swim in the pool…….
As it turned out, Saddam did not unleash the mother of all battles at this time. The day was saved by Kofi Annan, then top honcho at the UN. He flew into Baghdad just as we flew out and he came to an arrangement about the weapons inspectors……It was pretty tense for a while though.