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 Monday.
The attack 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 increasingly become targets of militants along the desert 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 turned increasingly chaotic after Egypt's longtime President Hosni Mubarak was toppled 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 last August. Israel contends al-Qaida 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.
Egypt's new 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 Defense Minister Ehud 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," Barak told the Israeli parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee on Monday.
Israeli military spokesman Brig.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai told Army Radio on Monday that the militants attacked the Egyptian troops at a border checkpoint, 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.
But 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.
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 militants who returned to Egypt.
Egypt-Israel relations 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. .
Sunday's attack took place around sunset near the Egyptian border town of Rafah, when the troops at the checkpoint were having the traditional meal at the end of the daily fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Immediately after, Egypt shut the Rafah crossing with Gaza, an ominous sign for the Palestinian territory's 1.6 million people. Israel, fearing militant attacks, bars Gazans from entering Israel, so the Rafah crossing — the only passage from Gaza that is not under direct Israeli control — is their only gateway to the outside world.
Gaza's deputy prime minister, Mohammed Awad of the ruling Hamas movement, said militants from the territory were "not involved in this awful crime." But a leading Hamas member, Mohammed Zahar, undercut that denial, telling Al-Jazeera TV that he asked Egypt to provide the names of possible suspects from Gaza so that "we will immediately bring them to justice."
The attack could harm Hamas' efforts to persuade Morsi to ease restrictions at the crossing. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and had hoped that Morsi, a fellow member of the region-wide movement, would be sympathetic to its requests. But he has moved cautiously, in part because of concerns about an influx of militants from Gaza.
A senior Hamas official in Gaza confirmed that Muslim extremists with links to global jihadist groups are present in Gaza. Their numbers are small and they are tightly controlled by Hamas security, the official claimed, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue with reporters.
Morsi convened an emergency meeting with military and security leaders following the attack, and in an interview afterward with Egyptian state TV, declared that "this treason, this aggression and criminality cannot be appeased. Troops will totally control Sinai."
In a statement late Sunday, Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood urged Egyptian authorities to take all necessary measures to "confront this serious challenge to Egyptian sovereignty and to protect Sinai from all armed groups."
Since Mubarak stepped down, Israel has allowed Egypt to send in more troops to Sinai, which has been mostly demilitarized according to the 1979 peace deal between the two countries. The attack Sunday touched off renewed calls in Egypt to amend the treaty to allow for more troops in Sinai.
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