Page last updated at 13:50 GMT, Thursday, 21 May 2009 14:50 UK

The Egyptian-Israeli relationship

In 1979 when Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty on the lawn of the White House, a land link opened between the two countries. The BBC's Paul Martin was the only Western journalist watching events from the Egyptian side.

It is one of those moments that you never forget, even after 30 years.

I had reached an Israeli checkpoint and was about to become the first person ever to travel legally between Egypt and Israel by land.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, left, U.S. President Jimmy Carter, center, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin clasp hands on the north lawn of the White House
Sadat and Begin were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978

Setting out from Cairo, I had crossed the Suez Canal on a rickety ferry-boat, then, in a crowded shared taxi I had sped through the vast Sinai desert past rusting tanks - relics of past wars.

The sands had suddenly given way to the palm-fringed shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Ahead of us was the main coastal town of the Sinai, El Arish, which was for centuries a stopover for the caravan route across the Middle East.

Within hours the Egyptians would move into the town as the Israeli occupation forces withdrew.

Already, though, I was amazed to see an Israeli soldier sitting and chatting in front of a small Egyptian army tent.

"If you'd walked into my tent a few weeks ago," an Egyptian soldier said in English, "I'd have blown your head off." The two men both smiled and sipped their sweet tea.

Just a few hours earlier Israeli soldiers had had a tough time, at least emotionally, dealing with some of their own citizens.

A short distance from El Arish, Israelis had been farming vegetables in the desert, and the new temporary border would cut the farmlands in half.

When Israeli soldiers arrived to remove the farmers from a large vegetable-patch, they were pelted with rotten tomatoes and insults.

Peace deal

Map showing Egypt and Israel

After a small Egyptian army ceremony I waited, along with a lone French tourist, for the border to open.

On the other side there was a large coach, full of Israelis anxious to meet Egyptians and see the pyramids.

But their bus turned around. The Egyptian authorities were refusing to welcome a busload of Israelis. Not yet.

To understand why, you needed to know the degree of enmity that had existed until, just a couple of months earlier, President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin signed their peace treaty on the White House lawn.

A few days after they signed the deal, an Israeli plane carrying Prime Minister Begin had touched down at Cairo airport, the first ever official visit by an Israeli leader to an Arab state.

The captain poked a small Israeli flag through his cockpit window. Just for around half a minute.

I watched this live on Egyptian television, sitting in a well-known cafe frequented by Egyptian writers and intellectuals.

Some just stared blankly. Others covered their eyes or threw back their heads in disbelief, or anguish. "I was brought up to hate the Jews," one intellectual said, "and now we have to endure an Israeli flag in our capital city."

Sinai Peninsula

Today Israeli tourists in Cairo are a common sight, yet some say the treaty has led only to a "cold peace". Israel has an embassy in Cairo, and vice versa, but the number of Egyptians touring Israel remains very small, trade is minimal, and tensions between the two states flare up periodically.

Egyptian money
Once a bustling stopover, El Arish remains a commercial backwater

Yet the peace agreement has endured and it is getting warmer now the two countries perceive common interests. Both, for different reasons, fear the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and Iran.

The peace treaty brought tangible benefits to Egypt. It got back the entire Sinai Peninsula, with its extensive oil-wells and now the threat of war is much-reduced, Egypt can spend far less money and fewer resources on equipping its armed forces.

The Sinai Peninsula itself though remains a rather neglected backwater, with the resources and the glitz going into Egypt's main cities on the other side of the Canal. The town of El Arish itself is not exactly bustling.

There is an interesting message, though, carved into the walls of a new Egyptian security building there. One huge mosaic depicts heroic gun-toting Egyptian soldiers in battle next to another mosaic featuring a woman holding a dove of peace.

The implied message: steadfastness on the battlefield, not weakness, allowed Egypt to make peace with Israel, a peace deal for which Egypt was condemned and isolated by most Arab states.

'Place in history'

Thirty years ago in El Arish, peace was fresh and entering uncharted territory.

I remember walking across a strip of no-man's land to a little table, a makeshift immigration post in the desert beneath a blue and white flag bearing a Star of David.

"Welcome to Israel," said a soldier. Then his cheery greeting changed into a sheepish mutter. "Er, I'm sorry sir," said the soldier, "but you can't come into Israel yet. Because, er, we cannot stamp your passport... the stamp is still on its way from Jerusalem."

What an anti-climax. The missing equipment eventually arrived and I finally strode into Israel-held territory, making sure I was just ahead of the lone French tourist. My tiny insignificant place in history was now inscribed in my passport, glistening in blue ink.

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