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Israelis Flock to Egypt in Record Numbers but Friction Remains

December 09, 1987|KARIN LAUB | Associated Press

CAIRO, Egypt — Ten years after Egyptian-Israeli peacemaking began, Israelis are flocking to Egypt in record numbers to hunt for bargains, trace their roots and climb the pyramids.

The flow of tourists is one indication that the longtime "cold peace" between the two former enemies is gradually giving way to more normal relations, at least at the grass-roots level.

While increased personal contacts have helped eradicate prejudices generated by three decades of warfare, friction remains.

Egyptians cite examples of "ugly Israelis" who belt out Hebrew songs in public or anger shopkeepers with aggressive bargaining. Israeli visitors complain about delays caused by the relaxed Egyptian approach to punctuality.

And most of the Israelis and Egyptians interviewed said they were ready to fight each other in another war, if necessary.

The borders between Israel and Egypt opened in 1980, a few months after the peace treaty. Since then, 580,000 Israelis, or one-sixth of Israel's population of 4.4 million, have visited Egypt, according to Israeli government figures.

The flow halted after an Egyptian police officer ran amok in October, 1985, and shot to death seven Israeli tourists in the Sinai peninsula resort of Ras Bourka. Tourism gradually recovered. In the first seven months of 1987, a record 33,000 Israelis visited Egypt, twice as many as in a similar period last year.

Israelis come to Egypt for many of the same reasons as Americans, British and Germans--a camel ride in the desert, a visit to the pyramids, a cruise down the Nile.

Unlike Western tourists, Israelis carry some extra baggage--fears and expectations shaped by three decades of propaganda and war.

There are the tears of Avi Kedem, 45, of Ashkelon, who visited the synagogue of his childhood in Alexandria, where Egypt's largest Jewish community was centered.

There is the nostalgia of Moshe Shemesh, a veteran of the 1973 Middle East war who visited the old battlefields of Sinai and said he would never be able to fight the Egyptians again.

The peace process between Israel and Egypt began when the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat ignored an Arab boycott of the Jewish state and visited Jerusalem from Nov. 19-21, 1977.

Recently, a 33-member Israeli tour group, most of them telephone company employees, visited the southern city of Aswan as part of an eight-day trip.

During an evening walk through the narrow alleys of Aswan's outdoor market, group members appeared uneasy at first and stuck close to guide Zvika Mahshon.

Only slowly did they leave the safety of the group to finger Arab caftans or taste tamaya , the Egyptian version of felafel , Israel's favorite fast food made of fried chickpea paste.

"It's less frightening than the (predominantly Arab) Old City (of Jerusalem). There are no terrorists here," said Etti Kahane, 30, of Jerusalem.

"I feel very comfortable, but I'm still amazed that we can walk around peacefully in the largest Arab country," Kedem said.

Retired hairdresser Meir Ben-Ami, 63, of Ashkelon, said he was apprehensive at first. "Now, I wish the Israelis would treat tourists like the Egyptians do," said the Moroccan-born Ben-Ami.

At one point, members of his group clapped and roared out Israeli folk songs as they crossed the Nile River by boat to visit the Aga Khan's mausoleum near Aswan. "We can always hear the Israelis in the streets," said Ben-Ami.

Shemesh said some Israeli tourists approach the country like conquerors and "think that with $100 in their pocket, they can buy Egypt." Egypt's per-capita income is $300 a year compared to $5,550 in Israel.

Shemesh, a travel agent who has visited Egypt more than 20 times, said he finds fewer misconceptions. "When I first went to Cairo, people thought all Israelis had three eyes," he jested.

Many Israelis turn their trips into shopping expeditions. On one recent trip the Cairo-Jerusalem bus was filled with Israelis wearing new leather jackets and shoes. Shemesh said many of his friends go to Egypt twice a year just for shopping.

Egyptian shopkeepers, some war veterans, expressed ambivalent feelings about their Israeli customers.

"It's all right for them to come to Egypt, but I could never be friends with an Israeli," said one Cairo perfume shop owner, a Moslem who would only identify himself as Mohammed.

"Israelis make me nervous because they bargain too much, but business is business," added Ahmed Abdel Meguid, 32, who owns a jewelry store in Cairo.

Abdel Meguid said he fought in the 1973 war and an uncle was killed in the fighting. "I used to hate the Israelis, but not anymore," he said.

He said he exchanged addresses with Israeli customers and plans to visit. Since the borders opened, only 32,000 Egyptians have visited Israel.

Egyptian business consultant Mohssen Abed El Rehim, 36, said he lost some of his awe for Israeli know-how after dealing with two Israeli agricultural equipment firms.

"We thought their products were really superior, but they are of the same quality as Egyptian products," he said.

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