By the time you read this, I will not be at this makeshift gateway between Egypt and the remaining Israeli-occupied sliver of the Sinai desert. As I write, I'm not sure where I'll be. But this is where I was brought up short a few days ago after setting out by taxi to Cairo from Tel Aviv.
The idea was to get some sense of what it is like for Israelis to have even just one open border (other than the sea), to be on more or less peaceful terms with at least one next-door neighbor state, to be able to drive, in the spirit of Camp David from, let's say, the Sea of Galilee to the Aswan dam.
The Israeli-Egyptian border passage will be even freer and easier after April 25, the deadline for the final Israeli withdrawal. Then, if all goes well, the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt comes into full force.
But passage is feasible now, given a somewhat better idea of exactly how (and when) to go about it than I set out with.
Result: what I got in the course of a long day's drive was not so much a sense of new Israeli running room as an acute awareness of why Israelis feel hemmed in, beleaguered, confronted all around by clashing cultures and religious beliefs-- and of how this justifiably must affect Israeli actions and attitudes.
By way of setting my mind at ease, my friend, Simon, at the wheel, stopped by his apartment on the way out of town to pick up a revolver. "Arabs," he explained cryptically. For good measure, he stopped again to pick up a hitchhiking Israeli policeman: "Now we have real security."
We didn't need it. It was central casting all the way. The wisdom of my decision to pass up the easy thing--a 45- minute trip by air--was reinforced by flashing glimpses of Bedouins on camels, small boys galloping donkeys along the highway, the colorful clutter of fruit stands in the Gaza strip, the famous Sinai.
The pulse quickens and visions of Cairo dance on the bright waves of sand as you draw up to this Israeli checkpoint. There, a long and languid guard raises his head only long enough to advise you that the border is closed. There are no Egyptian border officials working today, no Egyptian taxis on the other side to take you the rest of the way. (Israeli taxis are not allowed across.)
Why? Because, infidel, this is Friday, Egypt's "Sunday," a Muslim holiday.
Your wiser side says there's no use arguing. But police barriers are not for journalists. A sympathetic official in a nearby office gets permission from a superior to pass me through if the Egyptian soldiers on the other side are amenable. They aren't, understandably, without orders from above.
An antic effort is made by phone to pass a message to the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv for relay to an Egyptian contact in Cairo who might just be able to issue the necessary orders. But no, by the time that happened, if it could be made to happen, the ferry across the Suez Canal, assuming it was running, would be shut down.
Very well, then: overnight at a nearby hotel and an early Saturday crossing. No way, heathen. Saturday is Israel's sabbath, and nobody will be on hand on the Israeli side of the line.
As I fight back claustrophobia, Jordan comes to mind. Amman airport has frequent flights to Cairo. It's a mere matter of crossing the Allenby bridge across the Jordan river. Certain categories of travelers, including journalists, do it all the time.
But never on Israel's "Sunday" (Saturday) when the bridge is barred from the Israeli side. And not today (Friday) because it is now 11:30 a.m. The Allenby bridge is more than four hours away and it closes at two in the afternoon.
By this time you are on level terms with the average Israeli citizen, who can't cross into Jordan in any event. Northward, Syria is buffered by United Nations peacekeeping forces, and blocked off. The same may be said for Lebanon: only a fragile cease-fire saves that frontier from active hostilities.
Third countries flash through your mind: Cyprus, Greece, Turkey? By the vagaries of airline schedules, this would amount almost to a round trip to Rome at a cost of about $1,000, not figuring the cost of an overnight stay, tips and taxis.
Any scenic ride, veteran travelers will tell you, is worth taking both ways. It's two different views. The same may be true of the road from El Arish to Tel Aviv. But it's hard to tell-with your head in your hands, contemplating your lot (a two-day travel hang-up) and that of Israel (a way of life).