Tensions boil after Egypt-Israel border clash

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 19, 2011 

CAIRO — Furious over a murky Israeli military operation that left five Egyptian security personnel dead at the border, the Egyptian Cabinet early Saturday announced that it would summon the Israeli ambassador and demand an apology.

Al Jazeera English reported that the government also will seek compensation for the families of the Egyptians killed in Thursday's raid along the border.

On Friday, top Egyptian politicians had demanded a full investigation and urged a swift government response, including diplomatic pressure and halting natural gas exports.

Skirmishes along the tense Egypt-Israel border flare up periodically, but this time the reaction from Cairo's political elite reflects a new reality: With authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak gone, Israel has few friends left in Egypt.

That could mean an escalation of the already pervasive lawlessness in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, which shares a frontier with Israel and is mostly controlled by Bedouin tribes.

Hundreds of Egyptians protested Friday at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, and the crowds grew late into the evening, with witnesses reporting that protesters toppled concrete barricades and set off fireworks. Armored military vehicles were dispatched to the scene but left without incident.

"To Sinai we go by the millions!" protesters chanted. "Generation after generation, Israel is our enemy!"

The demonstration encapsulated the lingering anger over the Mubarak regime's close relationship with Israel, which is widely despised here as a former occupier of the Sinai that more recently has enforced a devastating blockade of Palestinians in neighboring Gaza. Fifty-four percent of Egyptians want their country's longstanding peace treaty with Israel annulled, according to a poll conducted by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center after the popular uprising that forced out Mubarak.

"Our glorious revolution aimed to bring back Egyptian dignity, inside and outside of Egypt, and what could have been accepted before the revolution will not be anymore," Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf wrote on his Facebook page. He added that he was discussing all available options "regarding the murder of the honest Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai."

Egypt's interim military rulers lodged a formal complaint with Israel over the deaths and dispatched the army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Sami Anan, to lead an investigation, according to the state news agency MENA.

But politicians gearing up for Egypt's first post-Mubarak elections in November seized on the incident to distance themselves from the old regime's policies, vowing tougher stances on Israel. Several presidential contenders — Islamist, liberals and moderates — condemned the raid and suggested several ways to censure Israel, including revisiting the peace treaty, suspending diplomatic relations and stopping natural gas exports.

"Israel must understand that the days when they killed our sons without a proper and strong reaction are gone and not coming back," former Arab League chief and potential presidential candidate Amr Moussa wrote on his Twitter account.

The deadly raid Thursday was part of Israel's retaliation for an ambush that killed eight Israelis, six of them civilians, near the Egyptian border earlier that day. Palestinian gunmen apparently carried out the attack, entering southern Israel from the Egyptian desert that serves as a buffer between the two nations, according to Egyptian officials and news reports.

Israeli military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai said the attackers had entered Israel through a gap in a security fence that Israel is building along its southern border.

Details of the ensuing fighting between Israeli forces and the suspected assailants were sketchy, but three Egyptian security officers were killed, according to official accounts. News reports said that seven other Egyptian personnel were wounded; two died Friday of their injuries.

Israeli warplanes hit dozens of targets across Gaza overnight, while militant groups launched rocket attacks at southern Israeli cities.

Israeli officials said that diplomatic relations with Egypt were "strained" over the attacks.

"We are not dealing with the usual players there. It is a new reality on the ground and our security vis-a-vis Egypt is not certain," said an Israeli diplomatic official who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing diplomatic protocol.

He added that Israel's vocal complaints about lax Egyptian security in Sinai would likely only damage relations further.

"There have been calls in Israel for the Israeli military to re-enter Sinai. That is not realistic at this juncture, and likely to become dangerous if it is seen as a threat or insult to Egypt," he said.

Israeli officials said they had issued repeated warnings that an attack on Israel could be launched from the Sinai Peninsula. In a briefing to an Israeli parliamentary committee last week, military intelligence officials reiterated that Islamist groups could easily form attack and training cells in the sparsely populated Sinai desert.

"We have highlighted this as a threat for some time. But in Israel they got used to thinking of Egypt as the 'quiet' border, and we focused on other frontiers," said one official who took part in the committee, speaking anonymously because the committee hearings are confidential. "Now the threat has become reality."

(Special correspondent Frenkel reported from Los Angeles. Adam Sege in Washington and special correspondent Refaat Ahmed in Cairo contributed.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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