Tomorrow, almost exactly two years after Israel struck oil off the western coast of the Sinai Peninsula, this oil region -- the El Tur oasis and offshore waters, including 12 producing wells -- will return to Egyptian control.
It was on Nov. 26, 1977, that the bright flare of natural gas being burned away signaled the fact that Israel had hit oil in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Suez.
Today the wells in this area, known as the Alma field, are producing at least 32,000 barrels a day, more than 20 percent of Israel's total oil needs.
Over the protests of many influential Israelis, the government is giving up $1 million a day in oil -- at a time when Israel does not have $1 million a day to spend on it, and when the problem of simply finding oil at any price is becoming a world crisis.
"This is one of the heaviest prices Israel will have to pay for peace," said Yitzhak Modai, Israel's minister of energy.
Under Modai, Israel turned a single strike into a producing field in less than two years, using equipment and crews assembled under contrived names and foreign flags to circumvent the Arab trade boycott. It was an expensive process -- one that paid for itself only recently, just in time to be given away.
El Tur is a seaside oasis that for centuries was a smugglers' hideaway and a stopping place for Moslem pilgrims en route from Egypt across the Sinai to Mecca. When Israeli troops arrived in 1967, cargo ships were left rotting at the water's edge as the Egyptians fled, but nomadic Bedouins continued to camp among the springs and palms of the oasis.
After Israel secretly began drilling for oil offshore in 1977, the deserted village became a boom town. Pickup trucks driven by oil men from Texas crisscrossed the sandy field. Helicopters and work boats commuted back and forth between the harbor and the oil field. Israeli patrol boats cruised the gulf and military vehicles rolled in and out of an Israeli Army base.
Today, El Tur is mostly deserted again. Only the crews and work boats needed to maintain the flowing wells remain. The army and Navy bases are gone. A few empty beer bottles with the Israeli Maccabee label lie at the door of what had been the only bar in town, where the sign says "Closed Until Further Notice." A Bedouin caretaker of a now-empty apartment building waves a hand northward, saying, "They all went to Tel Aviv."
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his 1977 visit to Jerusalem just before Israel struck oil off the occupied Sinai. From then on, it was a race to get the field into production before peace came, so the new oil field could be used as an extra card for Israel to play in the peace negotiations.
But it dit not work out that way. The shah of Iran was still in power and Israel was getting about half of its oil from the Iranians. Thus, Israel's negotiators at Camp David decided that oil was not a crucial matter, and they agreed to take it up with the Egyptians later, after agreement on key issues was reached.
So nothing about oil was included in the Camp David accords. And an annex to the peace treaty merely stated that economic relations between the two countries "will include normal commercial sales of oil by Egypt to Israel."
Negotiations about price and quantity of oil continued until this month, when -- amid demands by some Israelis that there be no return of the fields without an agreement -- a secret pact was finally reached. It calls for Egypt to sell Israel 14 million barrels of oil a year, approximately equal to the output at Alma, at an undisclosed price.
For the first year, at least, the price is to be pegged close to the price set by the Organization of Petroleum exporting Countries, now about $23 a barrel. After that, the price will be open to negotiation and will probably be closer to the open-market price, now around $30 a barrel.
"Israel did not get any favorite status," Modai explained. "She was accorded the same rights as any other country. This is true in other aspects of the peace treaty. For instance, the right of passage through the Suez Canal does not afford Israel any more rights than other nations, and Israel will not pay less than other countries."
Israel did not dig the Suez Canal, but it did drill for the oil, and many Israelis thought Israel should have gotten more out of its oil negotiations. But the Egyptians were adamant: Israel would not get anything special except an agreement on the 14 million barrels.
This is a lot more than Israel would have received had it not pushed ahead with Alma. Without the oil card to play, Israel would have received no oil guarantee at all. Furthermore, Egypt agreed to let Israel pump water from El Tur oasis around the tip of the Sinai to its military bases at Sharm Al-Sheikh and the Israeli-built town of Ophira, which Israel will occupy until March 1982.
Playing the oil card also earned Israel a U.S. guarnatee to provide Israel with oil from U.S. sources if there is any interruption in Israel's other supplies. The difference between a year's supply of oil at the OPEC level and at the spot market price has been estimated at $100 million.