Israeli intelligence services had reports of an impending attack from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and therefore were able to thwart the latest assault by suspected Islamist militants who killed 16 Egyptian soldiers at a border checkpoint, then stole two of their vehicles to burst through a security fence into Israel, Israel’s chief military spokesman said yesterday.
The attack on Sunday evening — which Egypt and Israel blamed on Islamist militants from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula — was one of the bloodiest in years and the deadliest against Egyptian troops who have become targets of militants in the desert along the Egypt-Israel border.
It also raised new fears in Israel about the Egyptian government’s ability to reassert control over the lawless Sinai. The border had been largely quiet in the three decades since Israel and Egypt signed a peace agreement, but the Sinai has become increasingly chaotic since Hosni Mubarak was toppled as Egyptian president last year.
Militants, taking advantage of the security vacuum that followed Mubarak’s ouster, have attacked Israel from the desert peninsula three times over the past year, including a cross-border assault that killed eight people in August last year. Israel contends al-Qaeda operatives have infiltrated the area, as well as Palestinian militants who have crossed over from Gaza, and it is building a fence along the border with Egypt to avert attacks and block the entry of illegal African migrants.
New Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi accused the militants of “treason” and said they would “pay dearly” for Sunday’s attack, which the Israeli military said was part of a plot to abduct an Israeli soldier.
Israeli military spokesman Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai yesterday told Army Radio that militants attacked the Egyptian troops at a checkpoint along the border with Gaza and Israel, seized a truck and an armored car, then blew up one of the vehicles to punch a hole through a security fence to enter Israel.
However, Israeli intelligence services had information about an impending infiltration and sent aircraft to strike at the second car the militants had seized from the Egyptian forces.
“We were prepared for it, so there was a hit,” he said.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said eight militants were killed by Israeli forces who struck from the air, as well as with tanks and artillery. The gunmen were armed with explosive devices, submachine guns and grenades, said Mordechai, who claimed the military “averted a major attack on southern Israel.”
There were no Israeli casualties. Israelis living in the immediate area were ordered to remain in their homes while troops searched the area for other militants who might have remained behind, but by morning, were told they could resume their routines, he said.
An Egyptian military official said Sunday night that Egyptian troops were pursuing the militants who returned to Egypt.
Barak demanded that Egypt do more to enforce security and prevent attacks from the Sinai.
“We hope this will be a fitting wakeup call for the Egyptians to take things in hand on their side more forcefully,” he told the Israeli parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee.
Relations between the two nations have always been cool. But since Mubarak was overthrown and Islamist parties moved to the forefront of the Egyptian political scene, Israeli officials have expressed concern that ties would deterioriate further, while insisting that maintaining the peace treaty is in the interest of both countries.