Gunmen killed seven people in a series of attacks in southern Israel near the Egyptian border in the country’s deadliest terrorist incident in more than three years.
Seven militants involved in the attacks were killed in gun battles with Israeli troops, the Israeli army said. About 40 people were wounded, according to the army. At least two more Israeli soldiers were wounded later in the day in a clash with more gunmen in the same area, Channel Two reported.
Shortly after the incident, Israel’s air force launched a strike on the Gaza Strip, a military official said, speaking anonymously in accordance with regulations. The Popular Resistance Committees, an umbrella group of militants in the Gaza Strip, said in a text message to journalists that the strike killed six people, including its three senior commanders. The group said it would avenge their deaths.
“The people who sit in Gaza and gave the order to murder our citizens are no longer alive,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised address after the air strike. “If terrorist groups think they can attack our citizens without a response, they will learn that Israel will make them pay a price, a very heavy price.”
Natural Gas Supplies
The attacks come amid Israeli concerns that Egyptian security forces are losing control of the border area following the February ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Egyptian natural gas supplies to Israel, which receives about 40 percent of the fuel from Egypt, were disrupted after four separate attacks on the pipeline network between Feb. 5 and July 12.
“This reflects Egypt’s weakening hold on the Sinai and the widening of terror activity,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in an e-mailed statement. “The source of terrorist activity is the Gaza Strip, and we will act against them with force and determination.”
The Islamic Hamas movement, which governs the Gaza Strip, said it had no connection with the attacks.
“We deny any kind of involvement by Gaza or any of its people in the incident in Eilat today,” Taher al-Nounou, spokesman for the Hamas government in Gaza, said by phone.
Risk of Escalation
“Hamas is not interested right now in an escalation with Israel,” said Yoram Meital, chairman of Ben Gurion University’s Herzog Center for Middle East Studies in Beersheva. A major Israeli operation in Gaza “could bring about an escalation that could spiral out of control” as Israel heads towards a difficult period because of an initiative to seek a United Nations vote next month to recognize Palestinian statehood, Meital said.
A three-week military operation that Israel launched in December 2008 to halt rocket fire from Gaza left more than 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah faction controls the West Bank, has said he will ask the UN in September to recognize a Palestinian state there and in Gaza, a move Israel says could jeopardize the peace process.
The U.S. government condemned today’s attacks.
The incident today began at about noon when gunmen opened fire on a bus traveling to the southern resort city of Eilat, lightly injuring at least nine people, Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovich, an army spokeswoman, said in a phone interview.
Militants later opened fire on a second bus and two cars, Major General Tal Russo, commander of Israel’s southern front, said on Channel Two television. The gunmen also opened fire on soldiers arriving at the scene of the attack, Russo said, and used explosives in the attacks.
“This was a sophisticated operation carried out by squads of terrorists that infiltrated into Israel,” Leibovich said.
Seven people were killed in the incidents, said Eli Bin, director of the Magen David Adom emergency services.
It was the most fatalities in a single terrorist incident since March 2008, when eight students were killed when a Palestinian armed with an assault rifle opened fire in a Jerusalem religious school.
“The root of the problem is the weak security presence in the border area,” said Emad Gad, who heads the Israeli studies program at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “We don’t have enough forces to control the security situation. This has created a flow of traffic to and from Gaza.”
Egyptian security forces have been conducting an operation to capture “criminals and extremists” responsible for violence in the northern Sinai Peninsula, the state-run Al Ahram newspaper said on Aug. 16. It said that one person was killed in a shootout and 11 others arrested.
The TA-25 benchmark started falling after reports of violence and closed down 3.8 percent in Tel Aviv, the largest drop in 10 days. The shekel weakened 1 percent, the biggest drop since Aug. 8, and was trading at 3.5639 shekels to the dollar at 9:06 p.m. in Tel Aviv.
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