Gazans are blocked from fleeing through Egypt, which has kept tight control of its border. An Israeli invasion of Gaza could test President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s approach.
As Israeli warplanes pound Gaza, killing more than 1,400 people and crushing buildings in response to last weekend’s unprecedented attack by Hamas, Israel’s leadership has repeatedly urged civilians to flee the territory while they can.
“Get out now,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday, vowing to unleash the full force of Israel’s military.
But the only viable exit is a border crossing into Egypt, and that country, as ever in times of war, is keeping it firmly shut.
The Egyptians are adamantly opposed to allowing Gazans to cross the border for fear the country could become sucked deeper into the crisis — even as Israel presses ahead with a punishing siege that is rapidly escalating into a dire humanitarian crisis.
“Egypt will not allow the Palestinian cause to be settled at the expense of other parties,” President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said, according to Egypt’s state media on Tuesday, echoing long-held worries that Israel will somehow try to make the Gaza conflict an Egyptian problem, too.
Instead, the Egyptians say they will facilitate a humanitarian corridor to get urgently needed aid into Gaza, where Israel has cut off supplies food, fuel and water as part of what its defense minister calls a “complete siege” — a tactic that aid and human rights groups have denounced as collective punishment and a likely war crime.
American officials, though, are pushing for civilians to be given safe passage out of Gaza. At a news conference in Israel on Thursday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said he had discussed the issue with Israeli officials, and expected to continue those talks in the coming days.
A State Department official said the United States was also consulting with Egypt about possible safe passage through the Rafah crossing point, between Egypt and Gaza.
Gaza is a densely packed strip of land about 140 square miles. More than two million Palestinians live in the coastal enclave, which has endured a 16-year blockade enforced by Egypt and Israel.
Nearly 340,000 people in Gaza have fled their homes since the new conflict began, according to the United Nations, including 180,000 packed into U.N.-run shelters, huddling as intense airstrikes lay waste to entire sections of the territory. Several shelters have been hit, and the U.N. says at least 11 of its workers have been killed.
Egypt says it wants to relieve their plight, and on Thursday its Foreign Ministry urged countries and aid groups to send shipments to the international airport at El Arish, in Egypt’s North Sinai region, 35 miles from the border.
Although Egypt says that border is open, multiple Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza side on Monday and Tuesday have rendered it effectively closed. And Israel said that no humanitarian aid would be allowed to enter until Hamas releases the 150 people, including children and older people, it captured during the brutal raids on the weekend.
“Humanitarian aid to Gaza? No electric switch will be turned on, no water tap will be opened, and no fuel truck will enter until the Israeli abductees are returned home,” Israel’s energy minister, Israel Katz, said on social media on Thursday.
Egypt’s position is a reminder of its uniquely delicate role in Gaza — part border guard, part mediator — which has evolved over decades and is now at risk of being upended by an unpredictable conflagration that has set the entire region on edge.
Egypt has long insisted that Israel must solve the Palestinian issue within its borders, to keep alive aspirations for a future Palestinian state. Allowing large numbers of Gazans to cross over, even as refugees, would “revive the idea that Sinai is the alternative country for the Palestinians,” said Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, a political scientist at Cairo University.
A related scenario that worries Egypt is that it could end up as the de facto administrator of Gaza.
“Egypt could never accept that,” Mr. al-Sayyid added.
Still, he said, Egypt might make some concessions, like allowing foreign nationals or wounded people trapped in Gaza to leave via Egypt.
Gaza has always been a headache for Mr. el-Sisi, the trouble spot where his close ties with Israel and the United States rub up uncomfortably against the pro-Palestinian views of his own people.
He is also wary of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot founded in 1987 at the start of the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising. In 2008, tens of thousands of Palestinians poured into Egypt after Hamas blew a hole in the border fence at Rafah. Then during a round of conflict in Gaza in 2014, a year after Mr. el-Sisi toppled a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood leader, Egypt urged Israel to destroy Hamas, said Steven Cook, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“They were telling the Israelis to kick down every door in Gaza — to finish them off,” he said.
Israel did not go that far, although it did cooperate with Egypt to destroy a network of tunnels along the border used by Palestinians to smuggle food and other supplies from Egypt and by Hamas to obtain weapons.
Egyptian and Israeli security forces coordinated closely to monitor Gaza, and the Egyptians used strict border controls to allow a trickle of Gazan residents into Egypt — mostly to study, obtain medical treatment or travel to a third country.
The Egyptians kept an especially tight grip on the border during the four most intense periods of conflict since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007.
But Mr. el-Sisi must also be sensitive to a public that believes he should be taking the side of the Palestinians.
On Sunday, a day after the Hamas attacks in Israel, which killed at least 1,200 in Israel, an Egyptian police officer shot dead two Israeli tourists and their Egyptian guide at an ancient Roman site in Alexandria, in northern Egypt.
An opinion poll by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research released this week found that 82 percent of respondents believe Palestinians have the right to respond with violence to Israeli attacks.
To bridge those tensions, Mr. el-Sisi has tried to position himself as a peace broker. Along with Qatar and Turkey, his government negotiated several cease-fires that helped to end earlier cycles of violence in Gaza, winning him kudos from Western allies like the United States.
But Egypt’s security cooperation with Israel was strained this week after Mr. Netanyahu denied suggestions that Egyptian officials had given Israel a specific warning about an impending attack before last weekend.
Yet the greatest test of Mr. el-Sisi’s approach could be the Israeli invasion of Gaza widely seen as imminent.
Aid officials say large number of Gazans could flee toward the Rafah border crossing seeking refuge, pressuring Egypt to let them cross. And the situation is worsening by the hour.
The only power plant in Gaza shut down on Wednesday because the blockade enforced by Egypt and Israel has prevented shipments of fuel. Hospitals might not be able to keep their backup generators running, said Adnan Abu Hasna, the media adviser for the U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees, speaking from Gaza City.
Patients, meanwhile, continue to pour in for treatment amid Israeli airstrikes.
“We are facing a huge disaster,” Mr. Abu Hasna said.
Edward Wong, Raja Abdulrahim and Monika Pronczuk contributed reporting.