By Phil Stewart and Aidan Lewis
CAIRO (Reuters) – The top U.S. general overseeing American troops in the Middle East made an unannounced trip to Egypt for talks on Thursday with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that focused on the Israel-Hamas war and how to get aid to the Gaza Strip.
Egypt’s Sinai peninsula adjoins the Gaza Strip and its Rafah border crossing is the sole route for aid to enter Gaza directly from outside Israel. It is also the only exit that does not lead to Israeli territory.
More than 100 trucks were waiting close to the crossing on the Egyptian side on Thursday, though it was not expected that aid would enter before Friday, Egyptian security sources said. More aid is being held in the Egyptian city of Al Arish, about 45 km (28 miles) from Rafah.
A statement from Sisi’s office said the talks with U.S. Army General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, head of U.S. Central Command, included in particular “the developments in the Gaza Strip”.
“The president outlined Egypt’s efforts for de-escalation, stressing the importance of the international community’s concerted efforts to contain the crisis and stop its escalation in dangerous directions,” the statement said.
The meeting in Cairo, where Kurilla also met Egypt’s Defence Minister Mohamed Zaki, came as Washington and Egypt have been pushing for a deal with Israel to get aid deliveries to Gaza.
Sisi’s office said delivering aid in a “sustainable manner” was a top priority given deteriorating humanitarian conditions.
Aid has been piling up on the Egyptian side after Israeli bombardments in reaction to the attacks by Hamas in Israel on Oct. 7 made the Rafah crossing inoperable, though work was expected on Thursday to repair roads to send aid across.
The Rafah crossing has become a focal point in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas as a humanitarian crisis unfolds and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians head to south Gaza from the enclave’s north to escape Israeli bombing.
Egypt has been alarmed at the idea that Israel’s unprecedented bombardment and siege of Gaza could force its residents southwards, and has said it will not allow any new mass displacement of Palestinians.
Most of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents depended on aid before the current conflict started on Oct. 7, and about 100 trucks daily were providing humanitarian relief to the enclave, according to the United Nations.
In a sign of its concerns, Sisi on Wednesday said Egyptians in their millions would reject the forced displacement of Palestinians into Sinai, adding that any such move would turn the Egyptian peninsula into a base for attacks against Israel.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Aidan Lewis; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)