The land border between Israel and Egypt was opened today -- after a fashion -- but the first busload of Israeli tourists attempting to cross was turned back after six hours of bureaucratic bickering that raised new questins about the peace between the two former enemies.
Tempers flared briefly at the remote border crossing here as the 45 tourists, most of whom have dual nationality and who were attempting to cross on their non-Israeli passports, were unexpectedly told they would have to return to Tel Aviv and seek Egyptian visas.
Leaders of the tour group complained that they had been told by Egyptian officials it was unnecessary to obtain visas in advance. They suggested that the normalization of relations between Egypt and Israel -- which officially began today -- was something less than normal.
The Egyptians, who seemed ill at ease as the dispute unfolded in view of television cameras, responded that the Israelis' expectations were unrealistic and that the only land crossing between the two countries would continue to be tightly controlled.
"What kind of peace is this?" fumed a 65-year-old man, waving a British passport. "I came here to cross into Egypt and I've been standing here all day. It's not cricket, is it?"
In an apparent attempt to minimize the differences at the outset of normal relations, Israeli Foreign Ministry officials said bureaucratic snags were to be expected on the first day of a frontier opening after 31 years of declared war between the two countries. But privately some Israeli officials suggested that the Egyptian government was making the best use of its widely known bureaucratic maze to deliberately slow down the pace of normalizing relations in order to soften the expected reaction from the rest of the Arab world.
By keeping the flow of Israeli traffic into Egypt to a bare minimum, it was suggested, Egypt would not be flaunting the fruits of the Camp David peace accords before moderate Arab states such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Although air traffic between cairo and Tel Aviv was also to have begun today, according to an agreement announced in Aswan Jan. 10 by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, civil aviation committees from the two countries have not yet met to work out details of the air route.
But Israeli officials said they were heartened by yesterday's announcement in Cairo that Sadat has ordered a speedup of normalization, and that he has named Defense Minister Kamal Hassan Ali to replace Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Butros Ghali as head of the normalizing effort. Ghali has long been an advocate of slowing down the normalizing processes and linking it to progress on negotiations for autonomy for West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinians.
Today's attempted border crossing occassionally took on a comic atmosphere, as Egyptian officials seemed uncertain about what to do with Israeli tourists.
The tourists were quickly processed through an Israeli checkpoint at Neot Sinai, along with a group of reporters and photographers who also sought to cross into the part of the Sinai Peninsula that has already been returned to Egypt. But Israeli customs officials, who know better about such things, signaled the first hint of troubles to come when they waved to the departing bus, laughed and shouted in Hebrew, "See you again."
After passing through a quarter-mile neutral zone and arriving at the El Arish immigration terminal, the group was told by a smiling Egyptian official, Northern Sinai Governor Mohammed Showkat, that visas would henceforth be required, but the bus would be allowed nevertheless to pass on its way to Cairo. "This is the first day of the open border, and we will make an exception," Showkat declared.
But, after several hours of standing around waiting for their passports to be stamped with visas, the tourists were told by another official, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Karrar, head of the Northern Sinai police, that they would have to return to Tel Aviv and apply for Egyptian visas.
"This is not a permanent entrance. It is a temporary entrance," Karrar said, as the angry tourists surrounded him and argued heatedly that there seemed to be nothing peaceful about the Egyptian position.
"Either this is a border or it is not a border. It can't be half a border," declared Walter Arbib, co-owner of Vip Tours, which organized the bus trip. About 50 yards away, a group of Egyptian children on bicycles watched with amusement as the debate wore on, and finally -- more than six hours after arriving -- the tourists gave up the fight and reboarded their bus for the return trip.
Only two tourists from Israel, a Israeli woman from the nearby Yamit settlement and a Finnish passport holder, managed to cross on their way to Cairo. Both had obtained the required visas in advance.
From the other direction, only nine travelers from Egypt crossed, most of them French citizens who work in Cairo. They breezed through both immigration terminals, although they had to wait until nightfall to hitch a ride to Tel Aviv with the frustrated VIP Tours group.
Watching the group return through the neutral zone, a bemused Israeli immigration official shook his head slowly, and said, "just another average day in the Middle East."