Despite Egypt's denials, Israeli Foreign Ministry sources said Tuesday that Egypt has inquired about the possibility of moving Egyptian refugees from Iraq through the Israeli port of Eilat.
About 20,000 Egyptians fleeing Iraq and occupied Kuwait are waiting in the Jordanian port of Aqaba for transportation home.
The Egyptian ambassador in Jerusalem, Mohammed Bassiouny, reportedly asked Foreign Minister David Levy on Monday about allowing them to pass through nearby Eilat en route to Taba in Egypt.
Levy agreed in principle, the Foreign Ministry sources said, and Bassiouny was to consult with his government on details.
The sources said Levy told Bassiouny: "It is natural that Israel lend its assistance to those from a friendly state who flee to their homeland fearing tyranny."
Egyptian officials issued a denial Tuesday in Cairo after the exchange was leaked to the press here, resulting in what was described as embarrassment at the premature disclosure.
In the past, Egyptian migrant workers in Iraq and Kuwait have traveled through Jordan to Aqaba and then by ferry to Egypt, either to the Sinai port of Nuweiba or to Suez City.
If they are permitted to pass through Eilat, which is only a mile or two from Aqaba, it would ease considerably the jam of refugees at Aqaba.
About 800,000 Egyptians have been working in Iraq, their usual numbers increased by the recent Iraq-Iran War. Most young Iraqis were conscripted into military service, causing a shortage of workers. Like other foreigners in Iraq and Kuwait, many Egyptians have fled for home since Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2.
Mayor Rafi Hoffman of Eilat said Tuesday that, if asked, his staff would assist in the transfer of Egyptian refugees.
"I can tell you that if we get notice, we will do everything possible to help," Hoffman said. "We have been looking for many years to open a bridge with Aqaba."
Jordan has no official border crossing into Israel in the Eilat-Aqaba area. The only such crossings are at bridges over the Jordan River to the north.
Meanwhile, the Israeli Supreme Court decided to reject a petition demanding the immediate distribution of gas masks to civilians.
Danny Ernst, a lawyer and legal adviser to the Israel Consumer Council, had asked the court to force distribution of gas masks on grounds that there may not be enough time in the event of an attack.
The court ruled that the matter is not a judicial one and should be decided by the government.
The argument over gas masks, which has developed since the invasion of Kuwait, has become a political issue within the conservative government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Some officials contend that a premature move could cause panic and serve to provoke Iraq, but Foreign Minister Levy has taken the position that the masks should be distributed now. Defense Minister Moshe Arens says they will be delivered at the appropriate time.