Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

In Israel And Egypt, A Chilly Peace

Twelve years after Camp David pact, barriers between Egyptians and Israelis remain great

IN February 1990 Palestinian terrorists attacked a bus en route to Cairo from Israel, killing nine Israelis and injuring many others. An Egyptian man named Yasser Ramadan was traveling on the same stretch of highway moments after the attack. He stopped his car and drove two of the injured to a Cairo hospital.A few days after the attack one of the people he drove to Cairo, an Israeli woman, went on the radio in her home country to thank Mr. Ramadan for his aid. She invited him to visit Israel, to receive personally the thanks of those he had helped. Although Mr. Ramadan's action made him something of a hero in Israel - one of the few Egyptians in more than a decade of "cold peace" to have struck a sympathetic chord with the Israeli public - he hasn't taken up the woman's offer. Ramadan's reluctance is a small but telling example of the walls still to be breached between the two countries that made history in 1979, when the Camp David agreement brought peace between an Arab country and Israel. As the US-led peace process gains momentum, the peace between Egyptians and Israelis may be a model showing what a broader Middle East accord could feel like. But what has long been called the "cold peace" shows no signs here of warming up. Another person invited to Israel after the Palestinian attack on the tourist bus was Samiry Sultan, general director of the hospital where the injured were treated. After Israeli press reports about his hospital, Dr. Sultan received more than 500 letters of thanks from Israelis. But he also has not gone. He pleads that the responsibilities of his work are too great. About Ramadan, he says: "He refused [to go alone]. He said, 'If you go I will go with you. Such a trip to Israel wouldn't even have been Sultan's first visit. "You know I was a prisoner of war in 1967," he says. "I was severely injured, couldn't walk for a year. They held me for one year and three months." He says now with a laugh that, "because they treated me well there, I treated them well here." But of the distance between the two sides, Sultan says: "It's a time factor."

Psychological barriers On the streets of Cairo one can buy The Jerusalem Post or even occasionally run into Israeli tourists. But the psychological barriers to contact between Israelis and Egyptians are great. On the Israeli side there is the fear of travel in an Arab country, one in which terrorist attacks sometimes occur. In Egypt's case, few of its citizens will ever travel to the other side. The traveler must first go through a maze of security restrictions and live with the knowledge that even wanting to visit Israel will make him or her suspicious in the eyes of the secret police. "If you ask an Israeli what he thinks of peace with Egypt, he will say, 'Yes, it's a cold peace.' But two weeks after Camp David, if you asked him, he would have said, 'I will go to Egypt, there will be business, says one Western diplomat. "If you ask the Egyptians, they will tell you, 'Wait, you have to be patient. You have to understand us.' It's a matter of expectations," the diplomat says. "There were a lot of expectations for this peace and a lot of disappointments." Even as plans are laid for other Arab states to hold talks with Israel, the concept of peace between Egypt and Israel is changing. Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, its suppression of the Palestinian intifada (uprising), and the continued settlement of Arab land have contributed to discontent over the peace with Israel, particularly among young Egyptians. Within the older generation, the question of Israel is less simple, the lines of disagreement blurred by memories of a time when Jews were their neighbors. I once asked one of Egypt's most influential writers what he remembered of pre-1948 Cairo, when tens of thousands of Jews called Egypt home. His reply was a reminder of how the past decades have virtually ended the cosmopolitan nature of the Arab world's largest city. The writer's first love was a young Jewish woman. Some of his boyhood friends were Jewish as well. Even the midwife who safely saw him delivered into the world was Jewish. But he asked me not to write this. "Not now," he said. "It's not the right time. People might get the wrong idea."

About these ads

Jewish role challenged The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 led to the arrest and interrogation of Jews throughout the Middle East. As elsewhere, Cairo's Jews were considered a traitorous fifth column for the new state. Later, Egypt claimed Jewish property. The Jewish quarter was bombed and Jews were attacked. Throughout Old Cairo, the Star of David can still be seen: on the stonework of a factory that was formerly a home for the elderly, in the metalwork designs of apartment balconies. But in the tumbledown buildings that line Old Cairo's "Alley of the Jews," only two Jewish women remain. From a population of 70,000 in 1948, there are now estimated to be fewer than 100 Jews in Cairo. But Egyptian youths have no personal memories to temper their opposition to Israel and its occupation of Arab lands. Their vision of Jews and Israel is a different one. "AIDS-carrying Israeli agents sent to infect the Egyptian populace" is one lurid accusation leveled by Egypt's opposition press in recent years.

Benefits of peace Whether or not the two sides ever come closer to understanding each other, there is recognition that peace has brought more benefits than war. In a Cairo cafe several young men joined late last month in a lively discussion about Israel. "True peace we really want," says Sami. "It's something which I really feel, that there must be more cooperation between the two countries if there is to be real peace." The 25-year-old is part of the city's large casual workforce. In the mornings he cuts marble and in the afternoons works as an office messenger. "Because of the wars we took part in we've lost a lot, really a lot," he says. "For us to go through another war it would put us back another 50 years." After a moment's pause he added in a tone of exasperation: "I don't want to sit in this coffee shop forever. I want to work."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.