Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Palestinian militants who attack Israelis will “pay a very heavy price,” after squads of gunmen killed eight people and wounded 30 in a series of assaults outside the resort town of Eilat.
“Those who thought they could hurt us without any response will see there is a price to pay, a very heavy price,” Netanyahu said in broadcast comments late yesterday before meeting top ministers to discuss possible Israeli action.
After the attacks, an Israeli air strike on the Hamas- controlled Gaza Strip killed six members of the umbrella Popular Resistance Committees, including its two top commanders. The group said it would avenge their deaths. A rocket fired from Gaza later hit near the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, the army said. No injuries were reported.
The violence raised the possibility of an escalation between Israel and the Islamic militant Hamas that has controlled the Gaza Strip since ousting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party in 2007 after winning parliamentary elections a year earlier.
“The military is already striking those responsible for the attacks and if there is a need, the operations will be expanded,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in broadcast remarks.
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.
Israeli Shares Fall
Israel’s benchmark TA-25 Index started falling after reports of the violence and closed down 3.8 percent in Tel Aviv, the largest drop in 10 days. The shekel weakened 1 percent against the dollar, the biggest drop since Aug. 8, and was trading at 3.5639 shekels to the dollar at 9:06 p.m. in Tel Aviv.
Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and European Union. The group refuses to negotiate with Israel or recognize any agreements signed with it. Hamas denied it was involved in yesterday’s attacks.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat urged the international community to step in to prevent an escalation and said “such violence doesn’t advance the Palestinian cause for freedom and independence.”
Palestinian Statehood Bid
The Palestinians plan to ask the United Nations next month to recognize their state in the absence of peace talks with Israel. The negotiations fell apart last September after Netanyahu refused to renew a 10-month partial freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank and Abbas said he wouldn’t return to talks without a total halt on building.
Israel’s army is reinforcing points on its frontiers and boosting stockpiles of rubber bullets and tear gas to prepare for possible unrest stemming from the Palestinian initiative, a senior officer said on July 19.
A major military operation in Gaza “could bring about an escalation that could spiral out of control as Israel heads towards the difficult period in September,” said Yoram Meital, chairman of Ben Gurion University’s Herzog Center for Middle East Studies in Beersheva. “Hamas is not interested right now in an escalation.”
Seven militants involved in the attacks were killed in gun battles with Israeli troops yesterday, the Israeli army said.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the press on the matter, said the gunmen left Gaza, entered Sinai, and crossed into Israel in an area less heavily patrolled than the Hamas-controlled territory’s border with Israel.
Egyptian Border Security
The bloodshed came 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,” 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.”
Egyptian security forces in the northern Sinai Peninsula arrested 20 people, including Palestinians, suspected of involvement in attacks on police stations and a natural gas pipeline to Israel, the state-run Middle East News Agency said yesterday.
Root of Problem
“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.”
Major General Al-Sayed Abdel-Wahab Mabrouk, governor of Egypt-North Sinai, denied that the armed men who carried out the attacks in Israel came from Egypt, the state-run news agency said yesterday.
“Border guards have complete control of border lines between Gaza and Egypt,” Mabrouk said, according to MENA.
The U.S. government condemned yesterday’s attacks, which caused the most Israeli fatalities in a single terrorist incident since March 2008, when eight students were killed by an armed Palestinian who opened fire in a Jerusalem religious school.
“The U.S. and Israel stand united against terror and we hope those behind this attack will be brought to justice swiftly,” a statement from President Barack Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, said.
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