Cairo – Egypt has registered a formal complaint with Israel over the killings of three Egyptian officers at the Sinai border and demanded an immediate investigation, state television reported Friday, as tensions threatened the once stable alliance a day after armed attackers carried out deadly strikes near the Red Sea resort of Eilat in Israel.
Eight Israelis were killed and more than 30 were wounded on Thursday in the attacks. Israel said the attackers were Gazans who had crossed into Israel from the Sinai, an assertion the Egyptians rejected. If Israel’s version proves correct, the assault would be the most serious on Israel from Egyptian territory in decades.
Egyptian security officials said that the three officers were killed when an Israeli aircraft fired at people suspected of being militants who fled into a crowd of security personnel on the Egyptian side of the border on Thursday.
The tensions underscored how the fallout from the Egyptian revolution — lawlessness in the northern Sinai Peninsula and the government’s greater responsiveness to the public’s deep anti-Israel sentiment — has frayed ties with Israel.
On Friday, a few hundred people demonstrated outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, demanding that the Israeli ambassador be expelled.
At the border, the fallout from the Eilat attacks continued. By Friday morning, Gaza militants had fired more than 10 rockets at southern Israeli cities, according to the Israeli military. One fell near a religious seminary in Ashdod, apparently causing some injuries.
The Israeli military said in a statement early Friday that its warplanes struck seven targets in the Gaza Strip overnight.
“In northern Gaza, the targets included a weapon manufacturing site and two terror activity sites,” the statement said, without elaborating. “In southern Gaza, the targets included two smuggling tunnels, a terror tunnel and a terror activity site.”
On Thursday, the Israeli military said it had killed at least four of the attackers in the desert near the Egyptian border, and then launched several airstrikes on Gaza. In the first, six Palestinians, several of them members of a militant group, were killed, according to the group’s spokesman and medical officials in Gaza.
The attacks near Eilat were the deadliest in Israel since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office two and a half years ago, and they come at a time of great uncertainty as the Palestinians plan to seek recognition of statehood at the United Nations in the fall.
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The defense minister, Ehud Barak, described the attacks as “a grave terrorist incident” that had originated in Gaza and could probably be attributed to the “loosening” of Egypt’s hold over the Sinai since the revolution. Yet Israel appeared reluctant to blame the Egyptian authorities, not wanting to inflame an already delicate situation and preferring to use the events to urge what it considers more constructive Egyptian action.
“Our hope,” one Israeli official said, “is that this tragedy will serve as an impetus for the Egyptians to firmly exercise their sovereignty in all of Sinai and to end the security vacuum that has started to emerge there.”
In a short televised address to the nation on Thursday night, Mr. Netanyahu did not mention Egypt by name and directed the blame at Gaza, which is governed by Hamas. Referring obliquely to that evening’s first swift airstrike on Gaza, he said, “Those who gave the order to murder our citizens, while hiding in Gaza, are no longer among the living.”
Egyptian officials denied that any attackers had crossed Egyptian territory to get to the Eilat area. Hamas also rejected the Israelis’ accusations, calling them part of a plot “meant to justify an Israeli aggression against Gaza.”
Officials in Gaza said the militants killed in the Israeli airstrike belonged to the Popular Resistance Committees, a shadowy group that has worked with Hamas. The group’s military commander was among those killed in the airstrike, which hit a house in Rafah, in southern Gaza.
A spokesman for the group said that three of the commander’s assistants and a 3-year-old boy were also killed. The group later claimed responsibility for firing three rockets at the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon in retaliation. No one was killed in the rocket attack.
Further Israeli strikes hit Hamas training and security facilities. Officials in Gaza said a 13-year-old boy was killed in a house near one of the sites; Hamas had already evacuated the facilities.
Israeli analysts pointed to the group’s possible connections to the multipronged attack near Eilat.
“If Hamas did not give the order, it must have known about plans for such a large-scale attack,” said Ely Karmon of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.
The attacks on Thursday began about midday when gunmen opened fire on an Israeli passenger bus carrying soldiers and civilians from the southern city of Beersheba to Eilat. The Israeli military said other attackers fired on a second bus and on two civilian vehicles at another point on the road, which runs along the Egyptian border, and detonated a roadside bomb near Israeli soldiers who were on their way to the scene of the initial attack.
Israeli officials said six of the eight Israelis killed were civilians, and the other two were soldiers.
The attacks unfolded over several hours, with the second of the soldiers being shot to death at nightfall.
Television images from the scene showed shattered windows and bullet holes in the first bus. The second bus, which was empty except for the driver, was a burned-out shell. Military officials said it appeared that a suicide bomber had detonated explosives alongside it.
The military shut down two highways near Eilat after the attacks, complicating efforts to report from the scene.
Israel has repeatedly warned about the risks from Islamic extremists in the Sinai desert. Israel blamed the military wing of Hamas for rocket attacks last year on Eilat and the neighboring Jordanian resort of Aqaba, saying the fire came from Sinai.
Under President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian forces had kept a close watch on the Sinai border, in part to keep out Islamist radicals who Mr. Mubarak feared could threaten his rule and in part to preserve ties with the United States and Israel.
But the revolution has turned Egypt inward, ushering in a transitional government that is more concerned with the approval of its own citizens than the security of Israel, or even the threat of subversion.
Egypt’s new leaders have unnerved Israel by cultivating closer ties with Hamas and Iran. And while they have focused on securing Cairo, they have allowed the northern Sinai region along the Israeli border to slide into lawlessness, leaving Bedouin tribes to keep the peace. The smuggling of goods and migrants has surged through a network of tunnels under the Gaza border.
Egypt was forced to take action recently to restore order after a police station in the regional capital of Arish was attacked by what the authorities said were Islamist militants. In the last few days, the Egyptian military has sent more than 1,000 troops to the area to apprehend the suspects.
Egyptian analysts acknowledged Thursday that the lax security might well have played a role in the attacks on the Eilat area.
“The security situation in north Sinai is deteriorating, and now radical militant elements got loose,” said Gamal Abdel Gawad, the director of the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “It is not a remote possibility for them to cross the border and launch attacks against Israeli targets. It makes a lot of sense.”
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