Jerusalem – Attackers mounted at least three separate strikes on Israeli civilians and soldiers around the popular Red Sea resort of Eilat on Thursday, killing five and wounding at least 20 in what the country’s defense minister called a “grave terrorist incident.”
The Israeli military said the attacks originated in Gaza but were the result of increased lawlessness in eastern Egypt following the country’s revolution, representing the first time violent attacks inside Israel had been tied to the political upheaval in the Arab world this spring.
The first attack took place around midday in a sparsely populated desert area close to Israel’s border with the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula as gunmen opened fire on an Israeli bus. Shortly after, the military said assailants fired an anti-tank missile at a private car and, in a third attack, detonated a roadside bomb next to Israeli soldiers patrolling near the border with Egypt.
“This is a grave terrorist incident in a number of locations,” said the defense minister, Ehud Barak. “The incident reflects the weakness of Egypt’s hold over Sinai and the spread of terrorist elements. The source of the terrorist attacks is in Gaza, and we will act against them with full force and determination.”
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A spokesman for the Israeli ambulance service said five Israelis had been killed, though he could not say whether they were civilians or soldiers. Seven Palestinian attackers were killed and Israeli forces were “still sweeping the area and there are still shots fired,” said Ofir Gendelman, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The gunmen in the bus attack, who shot from a car, sped away from the scene and Israeli forces and helicopters were chasing them. The military spokesman said there was initial contact between the Israeli forces and the attackers.
Television pictures from the scene showed the bus, which had come to a stop near a roadblock at Netafim, a few miles northwest of Eilat, with shattered windows and bullet holes in the front. Passengers said they saw three gunmen wearing blue overalls. The bus was traveling from the southern city of Beersheba to Eilat, and was carrying soldiers and civilians.
The Israeli military shut down two highways around the town of Eilat after the attack, complicating efforts to report from the scene. Reuters retracted an earlier bulletin describing an explosion in Beersheba, about 150 miles from the site of the bus attack.
Israeli analysts speculated that the gunmen in the bus strike may have come from Gaza, traveled south via Sinai and crossed the border from there into Israel, or that they originated in the Sinai.
The Sinai has become notorious for lawlessness, and Israel has repeatedly issued stern warnings to tourists about the risk from Islamic extremists operating in the desert region.
Egyptian news media, citing state television, said unnamed security officials had denied that Thursday’s attacks were launched from Egypt.
In recent days, Egyptian soldiers were sent to crack down on lawlessness in the northern Sinai. The campaign came after attack on a police post in northern Sinai. The North Sinai region is dominated by Bedouin tribes and is a hotbed of illegal weapons sales, smuggling and other activities. A pipeline that runs through the area and carries natural gas to Israel from Egypt has been disrupted by five bombings in recent months.
In early 2007, a Palestinian walked from Egypt across the border into Israel, hitched a ride from an Israeli motorist and then blew himself up inside a bakery in Eilat, killing three.
Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem and J. David Goodman from New York.