Jerusalem-to-Cairo route opens: papers cross easier than people

It has Egyptian and Israeli businessmen rubbing their hands with glee. For now that the land route between their two nations has officially opened, they believe the coastal road in Sinai has the potential to become a heavily traveled and lucrative route.

In the future, that is.

For the moment, there still are kinks to work out of the system, and only a thin trickle of passengers moves through the El Arish border checkpoint.

Insurance and licensing regulations have yet to be worked out for vehicles, so travelers must transfer at the border from Israeli vehicles to Egyptian ones.

At least initially, the major tourist traffic is expected to be Israelis visiting Egypt, as for the first time in Israel's young and embattled life it will have nonviolent contact with one of its neighbors. For most Israelis, a trip to Egypt will be their introduction to the strange new reality of an Islamic developing country.

But one Israeli trip moves smoothly every day from Jerusalem to Cairo, always arriving in time for afternoon tea. It is the newspaper run carrying the Jerusalem Post, Maariv, Haaretz, Davar, and Al Quds -- the startling new additions to Cairo newsstands, and the first tangible sign of the opening of doors between Egypt and Israel.

Since Jan. 15, almost 2,000 Israeli newspapers pass daily overland on their way to Cairo, and slightly fewer Egyptian newspapers are brought into Israel.

The journey begins in Jerusalem at the presses of the Post, the most widely read Israeli newspaper in Cairo. The Arab taxi company that delivers the papers to the El Arish border checkpoint winds its way through the old and new city of Jerusalem at 3 a.m., picking up the Hebrew-language dailies and two Arabic-language papers.

Then it travels through the Judean hills, through Bethlehem and Hebron, down to where the desert terrain begins near Beersheba, and continues in a sweeping arc through the Sinai to the Nile River valley. Periodically, the cab is stopped at Israeli military roadblocks and the Arab driver's identity card is examined.

From Beersheba, it goes to Gaza city with its narrow streets and donkey carts and then down the coastal road, past the white houses of Muslim marabouts (holy men), past cultivated fields checked by the abrupt intrusion of the desert, and past Yammit, the Israeli settlement on the final strip of Sinai scheduled to be returned to Egypt in two years.

The papers arrive at El Arish at dawn. The much-celebrated checkpoint is simply a stretch of sand, a cluster of buildings, a chain across the road, an Israeli flag. Then, 150 meters farther, another cluster of buildings, another chain across the road, and an Egyptian flag.

Few can forget that this road was the scene of some of the bloodiest battles of the 1956, 1967, and 1973 wars.

The newspapers, now transferred onto an Egyptian bus, spin quickly on their way to Cairo, past rusting tanks and bombed-out trucks half buried in the sand, past grazing camels, Bedouin tent encampments, with an occasional glimpse of blue Mediterranean.

From El Arish it is a two-hour drive to the town of El Qantara, where the branch of the Suez Canal rejoins the main waterway. El Qantara's eastern bank is a ravaged wasteland, the outcome of the war of attrition.

The car ferry across the canal is one of the pontoon bridges used by the Egyptians in their crossing in 1973. It operates between 12 noon and 1:30 p.m. each day so as not to disrupt the passing ships.

The bus continues past the sweet water canal that carries Nile water to the canal zone and served as the major canal-crossing training area for the Egyptian Army in the past.

The newspapers, representing the first official agreement between an Egyptian and an Israeli company, finally arrive in Cairo in early afternoon, about 12 hours after the start of their journey.

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