Gunmen cross Egyptian border, kill 8 Israelis in series of attacks
The Sinai region has been lawless since revolution
JERUSALEM - Armed attackers, described by authorities as Gazans who had crossed into Israel from Egypt, carried out multiple deadly attacks near the Red Sea resort of Eilat yesterday, prompting an Israeli bombing raid on Gaza and threatening to escalate tensions there.
Eight Israelis were killed and more than 30 were wounded in attacks near Eilat, the most serious on Israel from Egyptian territory in decades. The attacks highlighted how the fallout from the Egyptian revolution - lawlessness in the northern Sinai and a softer line in Cairo toward Iran and the militant group Hamas - had frayed ties with Israel.
The Israeli military said it had killed at least four of the attackers in the desert near the Egyptian border. Hours later, it retaliated with several airstrikes on Gaza. In the first such strike, 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 2 1/2 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 this the fall.
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 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 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 address to the nation last night, Netanyahu did not mention Egypt 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 the attackers had crossed Egyptian territory to reach 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 began about midday when gunmen opened fire on an Israeli passenger bus carrying soldiers and civilians from Beersheba to Eilat. The Israeli military said other attackers fired on a second bus and 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.
The latest attacks threatened to create new strains in the relationship between Israel and Egypt. Tensions have grown since the Egyptian uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak, a steadfast ally.