By Ahmed Mohamed Hassan and Nidal al-Mughrabi
CAIRO/GAZA (Reuters) -Egypt is moving to prevent a mass exodus from the Gaza Strip into its Sinai Peninsula, as Israeli bombardments halted crossings at the only exit point from the Palestinian enclave on Tuesday, Gaza officials and Egyptian security sources said.
Israel’s assault on Gaza has caused alarm in Egypt, which has urged Israel to provide safe passage for civilians from the enclave rather than encouraging them to flee southwest towards Sinai, two Egyptian security sources said.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Tuesday that the escalation in Gaza was “highly dangerous” and that Egypt was pushing with regional and international partners for a negotiated solution to the violence.
Egypt would not allow the issue to be settled at the expense of others, Sisi said in comments reported by state news agency MENA, an apparent reference to the risk that Palestinians could be pushed into Sinai.
Rafah is the sole possible crossing point into Sinai for Gaza’s 2.3 million residents. The rest of the strip is surrounded by Israel and the sea.
The passage of people and goods is strictly controlled under a blockade of Gaza enforced by Egypt and Israel.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Israeli military revised a recommendation by one of its spokespeople that Palestinians fleeing its air strikes in Gaza head to Egypt.
Israel has been pounding Gaza with the fiercest strikes in the 75-year history of its conflict with the Palestinians since Hamas launched a deadly incursion into Israel on Saturday.
Egypt, the first Arab country to normalise relations with Israel, has mediated between Israel and Palestinian factions during previous conflicts in Gaza and has pressed to prevent further escalation in the current fighting.
Gaza’s Hamas-run Interior Ministry said bombardments on both Monday and Tuesday had hit an entry gate on the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing. The crossing was also closed from the Egyptian side and Palestinians planning to travel to Gaza retreated to north Sinai’s main city of Al Arish, Egyptian sources said.
The latest strike follows a similar incident on Monday that partially disrupted operations at the border, though Egyptian security sources said access for registered travellers and humanitarian activity had been restored by Tuesday morning.
On Monday, about 800 people left Gaza through the Rafah crossing and about 500 people entered, though the crossing was closed for the movement of goods, according to the United Nations humanitarian office.
North Sinai’s governor met local authorities on Monday to plan for any crises resulting from events in Gaza, his office said. So far, there has been no sign of mass gatherings of Palestinians at the Rafah crossing, with only planned departures proceeding until Tuesday.
Security in the area around Rafah is also of concern to Egypt because Sinai has been the site of an Islamist insurgency that flared a decade ago.
More recently, Egypt’s military has largely asserted its control over northern Sinai, facing sporadic attacks there.
(Reporting by Ahmed Mohamed Hassan, Yusri Mohamed and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Additional reporting by Nadine Awadalla and Ahmed Eliman; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Alison Williams, Gareth Jones, Susan Fenton and Nick Macfie)