El Arish, Egypt
Jan. 27 was supposed to be the day that the borders between Egypt and Israel were opened to normal traffic on land and in the air. But no planes flew from Cairo to Tel Aviv. Not only had no civil aviation agreement yet been worked out between the two countries, but Israel's skies were totally emptied as airport workers went on strike.
And the road to normalization -- a seven-hour drive from Tel Aviv to Cairo -- proved equally difficult. For the first tourists who tried the crossing, the road to peace was long, arduous, and only partly successful.
After three hours on the sandy coastal road from Tel Aviv to the Egyptian border town of El Arish and fruitless hours standing by the newly erected green and yellow Egyptian border posts, 45 tourists from Israel were turned back by the Egyptians. All held non-Israeli passports but none had Egyptian visas.
Going the other way, nine French archeologists from Cairo were welcomed by the Israelis even though they had no Israeli visas. But they spent five hours sitting in the new Israeli customs shed because their scheduled bus to Tel Aviv, the one that had carried the Israeli tourists to El Arish, was standing at the Egyptian border while its hapless passengers waited to be admitted.
The moral of the story: It will take some time before the kinks of normalized travel between Egypt and Israel are ironed out. And the Egyptians are likely to be more sticky about formalities than the Israelis, for whom normalization is a far higher priority.
Details of necessary formalities for crossing the border had been sketchy up to the last minute.
An assistant in the Office of Normalization in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry in Cairo had said earlier that foreign nationals could appear at Egyptian borders without visas. But on arrival, the tourists from Israel were told that, since El Arish was only a "temporary entrance point," they would have to obtain Egyptian visas by telex via the Israeli Foreign Ministry and try again the following day.
While they wandered back and forth across the border, marked only by green, white, and yellow striped barrels, Israeli and Egyptian soldiers chatted in Arabic like old friends. An Egyptian lieutenant explained: "Things are just starting. It will take time to get the details organized."