By Nidal Almughrabi
(Reuters) – Israel struck militants in Gaza and Palestinians fired rockets back on Friday following deadly gun attacks along the desert border with Egypt that have raised tensions between Israel and the new rulers in Cairo.
Egypt formally protested and demanded Israel investigate the deaths of three of its security men, who, it said, where killed when Israeli forces hunted for the gunmen behind Thursday’s roadside ambushes. In all, more than 20 people have been killed.
Eight Israelis perished in the assault along the Egyptian border, and at least seven of the attackers also died as Israeli forces tracked them down along the largely open frontier with Egypt.
Israel swiftly pinned the blame on a Palestinian group that is independent of the Hamas Islamist movement which governs Gaza, and struck back with two days of air strikes killing 10 militants and two civilians, children aged 2 and 13.
An airstrike killed the faction’s leadership on Thursday and there were numerous other strikes throughout Friday. Huge crowds gathered for the funerals, chanting anti-Israeli slogans and vowing revenge.
Israel, stunned by an assault along a long quiet border, threatened further attacks.
“We have a policy of exacting a very heavy price of anyone who attacks us and this policy is being implemented,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday while visiting wounded compatriots in hospital.
Hamas Islamists in control of Gaza also cautioned they would respond. “We will not allow the enemy to escalate its aggression without getting punished,” the group’s armed wing said.
Militants in the tiny coastal Gaza enclave fired 22 rockets at southern Israeli cities on Friday, the Israeli military said. Two rockets targeting the city of Ashdod hit a synagogue and a school, injuring two people, one of them seriously.
Israel struck back by launching more than a dozen aerial attacks, the latest of them killing two gunmen in the central Gaza Strip after darkness fell, Palestinian medics said.
DISAGREEMENTS IN NEW YORK
Israel said Thursday’s attackers had slipped out of Gaza and into Egypt’s Sinai desert, and then headed south before infiltrating Israel close to the Red Sea resort of Eilat.
Israeli forces had been on high alert for a possible attack and was swift to blame the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) armed faction. [nL5E7JI43Z] The group denied involvement in Thursday’s ambushes, but did claim responsibility for some of Friday’s rocket fire.
The PRC said its commander, Kamal al-Nairab, his deputy, Immad Hammad, and three other members were killed in Thursday’s air strike on a home in Rafah, by the Gaza border with Egypt.
In New York, the U.N. Security Council met to consider a U.S.-drafted statement condemning the attack on the Israelis, but Lebanon, the sole Arab member, prevented agreement after insisting that the 15-nation body also condemn the Israeli strikes in Gaza, U.N. diplomats said.
U.S. envoy Rosemary DiCarlo described the failure of the council to speak on the issue “regrettable.”
Israeli leaders accused Egypt’s new military leaders of losing their grip on the Sinai peninsula. Cairo rejected the charge, but Israel fears its once sleepy southern flank is rapidly becoming a major security threat.
“We would hope that yesterday’s terrorist attack on the border would serve as an impetus for the Egyptian side to more effectively exercise their sovereignty in Sinai,” said a senior Israeli official, who declined to be named.
Cairo rejected the charge and voiced anger at the death of an army officer and two security officials on their side of the border on Thursday, although it was not clear how they died. Witnesses said those who attacked the Israelis had disguised themselves as Egyptian security forces.
“Egypt has filed an official protest to Israel over the incidents at the border yesterday and demands an urgent investigation over the reasons and circumstances surrounding the death of three of Egypt’s forces,” an army official in Cairo said.
On Friday evening, about 100 protesters gathered at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, tearing down the metal barriers at the entrance to the building.
“I call on all Egyptians to protest until the Israeli ambassador is kicked out of the country,” said one of the demonstrators, Essam Hafiz.
The Israeli military said there was an exchange of fire between its troops and the militants along the border on Thursday night. “The IDF (army) will investigate the matter thoroughly and update the Egyptians,” it said in a statement.
The sparsely populated Sinai forms a huge desert buffer zone between Egypt and Israel, who sealed an historic peace treaty in 1979 after fighting two wars in less than a decade.
Israel enjoyed good relations with U.S.-backed former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but following his downfall in February, Israeli officials have regularly voiced concern about a security vacuum along their joint border.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the “brutal and cowardly attacks” on the Israelis near Eilat. She said the violence “only underscores our strong concerns about the security situation in the Sinai Peninsula.”