Dave, a bearded recluse from Australia who lives in a cliffside cave overlooking the Strait of Tiran and combs the beaches in search of unusual shells and pretty girls--not necessarily in that order, some say--apparently is not fazed in the slightest by the fast-approaching deadline for evacuation of the Sinai Peninsula.
A recent morning-long search for Dave--whose main claim to fame is that he dropped his bathing suit last June 4 just as Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat flew at treetop level in a helicopter over Naama Bay on their way to talks--failed to turn up the longtime Sinai habitue. But the locals say he is still around, apparently keeping a low profile while Israeli authorities conduct a census of people who have to be out of the desert by April 25, when it is handed over to Egypt.
While the militant, nationalist settlers on the Mediterranean coast of the northern Sinai have been grabbing the headlines with threats of armed resistance to evacuation, the southern part of the peninsula is quietly winding down to a standstill after 14 years of Israeli occupation.
About 75 miles up the road from Dave's beaches, at the Gulf of Aqaba holiday village of Neviot, a Canadian backpacker and itinerant farmhand named Sharon also did not seem gripped with anxiety about the impending turnover.
Stretched out in the altogether on an idyllic, palm-fringed beach, Sharon said she was not interested in hanging around and working for Neviot's new owners, even if they invited her to stay. "It's a question of personalities. They're not much into nudism," said Sharon, whose hue seemed to reflect more time on the beach than in the melon fields.
Some of the European women who married or moved in with Bedouin men along the coast and lived in goatskin tents or thatched huts have left, according to their Israeli neighbors. In the tumbledown village of Nuweiba, however, there still are five erstwhile backpackers living with Bedouins and in Naama Bay there is an American Jewish woman who lives in a beach shed with her Bedouin husband and two children. The status of the women who married Bedouins in the Sinai is unclear and Israeli authorities have not decided whether they can stay after April 25.
Also gone, presumably back to their centuries-old, nomadic ways in the interior mountains, are most of the Bedouin youths who developed a taste for designer jeans and beer parties on the beach and who financed their new habits by hawking trinkets to tourists or doing odd jobs around the resorts.
Fifty-three Egyptian technicians have taken up residence in three Israeli tourist centers along the gulf coast and scores more are expected to arrive in the next few weeks. They are learning from their Israeli hosts how to operate the resorts' electricity, water, sewage and telephone systems in anticipation of the turnover.
There are only about 1,000 Israelis still living along the Gulf of Aqaba coast between Eilat and Sharm el-Sheik, compared to a peak of 3,000 before the peace treaty, and all of them will be gone by April 15, according to Zafrir Anbar, deputy director of civil administration in the southern Sinai.
During a swing up the coast to preview the withdrawal, beginning in two weeks, Anbar said there will be a staggered shutdown of such services as telephones, banks and shops, and many residents may find life a bit too Spartan to remain. From April 15 until the final pullout 10 days later, the Army will be the only Israeli presence in the area.
South Sinai settlers, in contrast to those in northern Sinai towns such as Yamit, are not trying to impede the pullout. Many of them, in fact, said that giving up their homes for compensation ranging from $60,000 to $100,000 is preferable to even the remotest chance of having to fight Egypt again.
"If this is the price of peace, so it is the price of peace. We're not burning tires or throwing rocks. We're watering the lawns so that they will be nice and green when we give this place up," said Zeev Rubenenku, 35, a Neviot farmer.
At Ophira, a development town whose peak population of 1,200 has been nearly halved, Yaacov Levy said he, too, was ready to leave, but he admitted that the final days are the most painful.
"It's not because of war we have to leave, it's because of peace. Maybe if it was because of war, we would understand better, because in war many terrible things happen. But in these last days, we are like somebody who is going to die. Until the very last moment, you don't want to believe you are going to die," said Levy, who manages a youth hostel.
Meanwhile, five miles up the road, a U.S.-run construction consortium has been frenetically trying to complete a new military base before the first of 1,000 peace-keeping troops of the Sinai Multinational Force and Observers begin moving in later this month. A total of 3,000 multinational force troops will be deployed in the Sinai, including a battalion of the U.S. 82d Airborne Divison.
Robert Jaggard, chief civilian engineer on the site for the Army Corps of Engineers, said that although buildings are still going up, the base will be close enough to finished by the deadline that the force can be operational.
"Sometimes we're even surprised ourselves over how fast it's going," said Jaggard.
About five miles south of Eilat, however, all is not going as smoothly between the Egyptians and the Israelis, who are locked in a difficult border dispute over 600 yards of land. While the area is tiny compared to the 36,000 square miles of the peninsula, an Israeli-built 14-story hotel on the disputed land is just now nearing completion.
Anbar said the Egyptians, pointing to maps drawn in 1906, when the British drew the line between Turkish-controlled Palestine and British-controlled Egypt, claim the hotel was built in Egyptian Sinai. The Israelis, producing written descriptions made by the original map-makers, say the hotel is in Israel.
"The matter will have to be settled by April 25, but I don't know how," Anbar said. He noted that international arbitration or a plan to make the disputed territory neutral for the time being have been suggested.