Surrounded by other moneychangers, Sami Abu Rahama stands at the entrance to Gaza's teeming souk, a thick wad of Egyptian currency clenched protectively in his fist, ready to trade for Israeli pounds with the usual measure of amiable Middle East haggling.
Rahama is no stranger to Egypt. Before the Israeli Army swept through the Gaza strip on June 5, 1967, he used to set out at 4 a.m. every day in a jitney cab and drive five hours across the desert to Cairo. If he could pick up a fare in the Egyptian capital, he would return the same day. Otherwise, he would stay overnight with friends or relatives and try again the next morning.
Down the street, at the Nasser cinema, the current hit love story, made in Egypt, draws a crowd waiting for the doors to open. At the nearby newspaper kiosk the owners are busy rearranging their shelves, making room for the arrival of the Cairo daily Al Ahram and an array of popular Egyptian magazines. Boutiques are selling smart dresses from Cairo's high fashion houses.
The early signs of normal relations between Israel and Egypt, after four bloody wars and 31 years of belligerency, are abundant.
Yet beneath the outward signs of commercial and social ties -- some of which have been present throughout Israel's 13-year occupation of the Gaza Strip and some of which emerged only after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem two years ago -- lie uncertainty over the future and deeply rooted Palestinian nationalism that seems to leave little room for a significant return to Egyptian influence here.
Just three weeks before the Israeli Army completes its withdrawal from roughly half the Sinai Peninsula, behind a line stretching from El Arish in the north to Ras Muhammad in the south, Gazans of all walks of life are anticipating the reopening of the border between Egypt and Israel with a mixture of wariness over the political implications for their nationalist cause and enthusiasm over reestablishing once-close cultural and economic links to their erstwhile guardian.
They seem torn between the benefits that could evolve from normalization of relations -- increased trade with Egypt, easier access to relatives living across the Suez Canal and enhanced educational opportunities in Cairo and Alexandria -- and the implications of appearing to endorse the Camp David peace treaty and its companion scheme for limited autonomy for 1.1 million Palestinians living in areas occupied by Israel in the 1967 war.
Most of the 500,000 Arabs who live in the crowded, narrow strip of sand that juts like a finger along the western coast of Israel are Palestinian refugees who came here in 1948 during the war of independence. Like the Palestinian refugees in the camps in Lebanon, they long for their homes in Ashkelon, Lydda (Lod), Jaffa and Haifa, or lacking that, at least for the creation of a Palestinian state in their little domain.
Because they lived under Egyptian rule between 1948 and 1967, they naturally developed an identity with Egypt that has not disappeared under the years of Israeli occupation.
"Sure, there's a lot of interest in what will happen when the border is opened. Some people think it will bring change, and some think not. But the only question that counts is, is this thing in the best interest of Palestinians or not?" said Khader Helo, a public-school teacher who studied in Egypt and has relatives living there.
"We are all in favor of peace, but we are also for a just peace. We're looking for a secular state, and people aren't sure if opening the border with Egypt is going to bring that to us," Helo added.
Hatem Abu Ghaxaleh, a physician who runs a center for handicapped children, said, "We're less against the peace process than people in the West Bank. We're not against opening the border to Egypt, but only if that will lead to a true Palestinian state."
Ghaxaleh, like many other Palestinian Gazans interviewed, complained that the Egyptians do not understand Palestinian problems, and therefore, are unwilling to make normalization of relations with Israel conditional on the development of an autonomy plan that will contractually lead to Palestinian independence.
Abu Rahama and other merchants at the souk also expressed uneasiness about reestablishing ties to a country -- even an Arab one -- whose president is one of the architects of a peace plan "that keeps away our independence."
The ancient city of Gaza was used as a fortress by Egypt's Pharaoh Thutmose 222 3,500 years ago. Since then, Egyptian armies have launched as many as 85 invasions against Palestine from here. What is called "the Strip" -- which is 25 miles long and three to seven miles wide -- was a creation of the 1948 war. It was the only bit of Palestine that Egypt could salvage after being routed by Jewish forces.
Pitifully overcrowded and economically depressed, although less so since Israel invested heavily toward raising the standard of living, the Gaza Strip hardly looks from outward appearances worth fighting over.
Its mud-covered main thoroughfare is lined with grimy workshops where derelict automobiles are stripped for spare parts, and its refugee camps burst with the rage of the forsaken and the dispossessed.
Once strategically important because of the corridor it provided through the Rafah salient, even that value has diminished as a result of the Egyptian-Siraeli peace treaty.
Since the signing of the Camp David accords, however, the Gaza Strip has grown in political importance, particularly since Sadat proposed that it be used as a starting point for negotiating autonomy for Palestinians here and in the West Bank.
But if the Gaza Strip is of less importance to Israel than the West Bank, the predominantly Palestinian population and its leadership seem unwilling to have anything to do with Sadat's "Gaza first" idea.
Rashid Shawa, the mayor of Gaza town (population 200,000) and a moderate even by Israel's definition, said he has "many relatives and friends" in Egypt he is longing to talk with. However, Shawa said even though telephone lines from Gaza to Egypt have been opened since Sadat's Jerusalem visit, he has not placed a single call.
"I don't want people to begin imagining things. It would be interpreted as a sign I have given my approval to the Camp David agreement." Shawa said.
Shawa said he is pleased that more Gazans will be able to visit Egypt -- apart from the approximately 5,000 students who now study at universities there -- but that he is afraid the increased links will imply that Palestinians are prepared to discuss the autonomy plan put forward by Israel. p
"Nonnormalization might be better," Shawa said. "It would pressure Israel into granting us independence."
Shawa said he doubted Israeli predictions that open borders will give the Gaza Strip a needed economic boost. For one thing, Gaza's principal export, citrus, is plentiful in Egypt. Its second largest revenue source -- employment of Gazans inside Israel -- will continue. Moreover, he said, "Israel has tied up our economy in such a way that we will always be dependent on them as long as we are occupied."
One hope some Gazans are clinging to is the reopening of the Bank of Palestine, which was closed by the Israelis in 1967. During the war, nearly $2 million in bank assets were frozen in Cairo banks, and remain there.
Ghaxaleh, a director of the bank, said that while the frozen assets are not enormous, reopening the Bank of Palestine "would give us an opportunity to regulate our economy, a chance to create our national identity. We could use it to lay the economic infrastructure of our Palestinian state."