[top: Workers readying the deck chairs at Swiss Inn, a five-star resort in the town of El Arish, 50km from the Israeli-Egyptian border.]
By Ng Tze Yong
Sunset at a five-star resort. The Mediterranean is shimmering and the sand powdery white.
It is paradise, but the man would rather be elsewhere. Mr Pal Hadler sits on a wicker chair by the beach, trying not to be upset.
A 61-year-old Norwegian lawyer with a gentleman's demeanour, Mr Halder is here to investigate war crimes in Gaza.
He's staying at the Swiss Inn in the town of El Arish, 50km from the Israeli-Egyptian border.
But the border is closed from both sides - no explanations offered - and Mr Hadler's mission hangs in the balance.
Every morning for the past week, he and his team have lugged their suitcases to the reception, handed in their room cards and checked out. Every night, they would check in again, crestfallen.
The 216-room hotel is the largest and has the best security among a handful of hotels in the town centre.
Aid workers, despite their meagre budgets, have little choice. 'It's a nice place. But it's Gaza we want to be, not here,' says Mr Hadler.
A two hours' drive away, Gaza City looks onto the same beach.
But over here, an hour from the bombs, it is luxury, home to an odd potpourri of guests.
In the lobby, bellboys in smart suits attend to guests in crumpled cargo pants - aid workers from an array of humanitarian organisations.
Diplomats swap news over qahwa (Arabic coffee) and TV crews, ever in a hurry, hoist their equipment around.
No one takes a second look at the deck chairs by the beach.
'They are just here to work,' says receptionist Ahmed Ismail, 20. 'They are not interested in our facilities.'
Bad news in Gaza is good business for the Swiss Inn.
'When there is war, there is business,' says Mr Ahmed. 'For the hotel, it is good. But for the staff, it is bad because we feel sorry for the people in Gaza.'
The 22-day offensive last month saw full occupancy at the Swiss Inn - a 70 per cent spike because January, smack in the middle of the Egyptian winter, is usually low season here.
The hotel even had to bring in workers from other branches.
One of them is 24-year-old waiter Mohd (not his real name).
The young man mills around the restaurant. He can't concentrate. Russian girls are on his mind.
Mohd usually works at the Swiss Inn at Hurghada, a town by the Red Sea.
Think of it as the Middle East's Caribbean. Tourists from Italy, Sweden, Russia and France flock there, looking for sun and sea.
Amorous female guests
After work, the young Egyptian men who work in these resorts often show the female tourists around the clubs and casinos there.
The women take them shopping, eating and clubbing. And at night, they do more.
'It's like one girl every night for these guys,' says our translator and guide, Ana.
'The European girls are attracted to us because they think we are more faithful,' says Mohd.
The party gets too crazy sometimes. Once, two Russian tourists flirted with him for days, Mohd says.
'They would lick their lips and joke with me, asking me to visit their rooms,' says Mohd, who now speaks English, Russian, Italian, French and Polish from his interaction with the tourists.
But Mohd wasn't interested and jokingly side-stepped their advances.
Finally, one day, as he was serving them at dinner, one of the girls told him point-blank: '11pm, Room 217. Yes or no - right now.'
Taken aback, Mohd declined.
To his horror, the girls called for the manager and turned the story around, claiming harassment by Mohd.
To please the girls, Mohd's boss made him take 10 days' paid leave till the girls left Hurghada.
Despite that, he adores the place.
'In El Arish, what is there? People here sleep at 10pm,' he says, casting a look of disdain at aid workers working on their laptops.
In summer, that changes somewhat, when beach-seekers, mostly middle-class folks from Cairo, flock to this border region.
History buffs and pilgrims visit too. This is, after all, the fabled Sinai Peninsula, Egypt's prized jewel.
The Suez Canal is here. So too, numerous military bases. The Sinai has seen several battles between Egypt and Israel.
The Jews wandered through these barren lands for 40 years after Moses parted the Red Sea, and it was from a mountain here that Moses received the Ten Commandments.
It was through here that the Holy Family, baby Jesus in tow, fled King Herold.
For the history buffs, there are abandoned military camps and a museum with stone pharaohs to visit.
The favourite attraction in El Arish, however, has no name. Locals call it simply 'The Rock'.
It is a boulder shaped like the map of Israel, serving as a monument to Israeli soldiers who died in a plane crash here in 1967 when the Sinai was under Israeli rule.
The solders' names and the story of Israel's triumph in the Sinai is inscribed on The Rock in Hebrew, but today, it is marred by graffiti in Arabic that says 'back-stabbing traitors'.
Young couples come to El Arish for a dream wedding by the Mediterranean.
It is popular because it is relatively cheap. Single rooms at the Swiss Inn start from US$90 ($140) for Egyptians and US$150 ($230) for foreigners. At Red Sea resorts, the same rooms can easily cost triple.
Bridal gowns for rent at the Swiss Inn, at $50 a day.
At a backroom at the Swiss Inn, bridal gowns hang ready for summertime when they will be rented out for 200 Egyptian pounds ($55) a day.
The girls will transform into princesses. Their dreams will come true, a mere hour from the war.
Both will bring business to the hotel.
It will be busy here in summer. For now, it's just impatient aid workers, waiting amid the luxury, their minds somewhere else.
This article was first published in The New Paper.