Cairo: More than one month after her meeting with the Israeli ambassador in Cairo, Hala Mustafa finds it hard to understand what all the fuss is about.

Hala, the editor of Al Democratia (Democracy), a monthly magazine published by the state-run Al Ahram press institution, angered many of her colleagues when she met Israeli ambassador Cohen Shalom in her office.

It was not the first time that an Israeli diplomat had entered Al Ahram, Hala said. She added that the controversial meeting was meant to prepare the ground for a seminar on the stalled Middle East peace process which was expected to be attended by Israeli academics among others.

The controversy prompted Al Ahram's board of directors to convene an emergency meeting to denounce Hala's act and to ban links with Israeli diplomats and researchers.

The spat exposed an Egyptian split over peace with Israel 30 years after then president Anwar Sadat antagonised many in Egypt and in the Arab world by signing a peace treaty with the Jewish state, the first by an Arab country.

Press Syndicate grilling

A few days ago, the Egyptian Press Syndicate questioned Hala on the controversial meeting, which violated a ban imposed by the independent body on its members, prohibiting them from dealing with Israel.

After defending herself before the Press Syndicate's disciplinary board Hala, a member of President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party, called for reconsideration of the ban which she described as outdated. "Many journalists, including me have not even read [about] this ban," she said.

Despite official diplomatic ties, most professional unions in Egypt bar their members from maintaining any association with Israel.

This ban should be maintained as long as the Zionist entity continues its expansionist policy and occupies the Arab lands, Abdullah Al Senawi, editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper Al Arabi, told Gulf News. In fact, there is no peace with Israel. Instead, there is bloodshed caused by Israel and a campaign of extermination being perpetrated against the Palestinian people, he said.

"I urge those who humanise Israel's face to remember its deadly war against the Palestinians in Gaza (at the turn of the year) or at least to read the Goldstone report (issued by a UN fact-finding panel) on Israel's war crimes in Gaza, " he said.

Earlier this year, anti-Israel activists in Egypt filed five lawsuits pushing for the abrogation of the peace treaty and accusing Israel of repeatedly breaching it. A Cairo court, however, threw out these lawsuits, explaining that concluding such treaties falls within the state's powers.

"Israel is no longer an enemy of Egypt," Ali Salem, a famous playwright and an advocate of normal ties with Israel, said.

"The Egyptian media and those opposing normalisation of ties with Israel promote a culture of hatred and seek to pass it on to new generations," he told the private Egyptian TV Dream.

"Our peace with Israel is a matter of fact, and as the late president Sadat put it, the 1973 war with Israel was the last one."

Still, tensions in both countries' relations are not uncommon, a situation described by observers as cold peace. In November 2000, Egypt briefly recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv in protest against an Israeli crackdown on a Palestinian uprising.

Last December, Egypt officially lashed out at Israel in public after it unleashed a devastating attack on Gaza hours after a visit to Cairo by then Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni.

But for the average Egyptian, the current debate is a luxury.

Mustafa Ahmad was barely two years old when Egypt signed its peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Ahmad, a commerce graduate, feels the current debate among Egyptian intellectuals about whether to review ties with Israel is a waste of time.

"I am almost 32 years old and have not been able to marry because of the high costs," he told Gulf News.

Ahmad works for a private company for 700 Egyptian pounds (Dh472) a month. "I am more interested in how to make ends meet," he says.

He is so desperate that he is thinking of moving to Europe to find work. He would even consider moving to Israel if that meant securing stable employment.

"To me Israel is like any other country, we have a peace treaty with them so why the fuss?"

As for Israel's continued oppressive tactics against the Palestinians, Ahmad has a ready answer.

"The differences among Palestinian factions are sharper than differences between Palestinians and Israelis. For more than two years now, Hamas and Fatah have been unprepared to reconcile and end their struggle for power. They are unwilling to resolve the Palestinian problem and terminate the long suffering of their people. Why should we be more royal than the king himself?"

Over the past years, hundreds of Egyptians have gone to Israel for work and married Israeli women. There are no clear figures, but government estimates say no more than 1,500 men went to Israel while the opposition claims that number is somewhere in the realm of 15,000.

Independent lawmakers have been pushing for Egyptians married to Israeli women to be stripped of their nationality, citing the serious threat they pose to national security.

"I wonder how such young people have no qualms about working in Israel and marrying Israeli women," said Mahfouz Khater.

"Despite the peace treaty, the Israelis remain our enemy. Israel is not interested in peace at all as it continues to occupy Arab lands, brutally attack Palestinians, desecrates the Al Aqsa Mosque and kills Egyptian soldiers on the border in cold blood," Khater told Gulf News.

A retiree, living on a government pension, Khater says he is proud to have fought in Egypt's 1973 war against Israel.

"We gave them an unforgettable lesson in 1973 and removed the stigma of the Nakba," he said, referring to Egypt's military defeat during the Six-Day War in June 1967.

Despite diplomatic relations between the two countries, anti-Israel protests are common in Egypt, which is the Arab world's most populous country.

Many in the Arab world are convinced that the Egypt-Israel peace treaty has only served Israel's interests and has done nothing for the Egyptians.