The Arab League will hold an emergency meeting today after Israel stopped short of apologizing for the deaths of three Egyptian policemen amid attacks Aug. 18 near a southern Israeli resort town.
The meeting, being held in response to a Palestinian request, is to discuss the “grave situation caused by the continuous Israeli aggression on Gaza,” Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency said, citing the Cairo-based group’s deputy secretary-general, Ahmed Ben Heli.
“Israel is sorry for the deaths of Egyptian policemen during the attack along the Egyptian-Israeli border,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday in an e-mailed statement. Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said by phone that “Israel expresses deep regret” for the Egyptian loss.
While Israel’s statement is a positive step, it doesn’t meet the seriousness of the event or the anger of the Egyptian people, Information Minister Osama Heikal said in a statement early today after the Cabinet met in Cairo. Egypt earlier said it was withdrawing its ambassador to Israel until an apology was made.
Israeli officials have said the gunmen who killed eight people near Eilat came from the Gaza Strip and entered Israel from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Israel is investigating the possibility its forces inadvertently killed the Egyptians while shooting at the attackers, said a military officer who declined to be identified, citing regulations.
Strikes on Gaza
The Aug. 18 assaults have been followed by a round of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. The violence between the two sides is the worst since April and has raised the possibility of a more extensive Israeli military operation in the seaside strip controlled by Hamas. The Islamic group has denied involvement in the attacks.
The death toll from Israeli strikes reached 14, according to Gaza’s head of emergency services, Adham Abu Selmeya. The casualties came during what the Israeli military said was the targeting of smuggling tunnels, weapons factories and squads launching rockets. At least 55 rockets hit Israel yesterday, wounding four people, damaging cars and buildings, the military said.
Hamas ousted forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction in 2007 to gain control of Gaza after winning parliamentary elections the year earlier. A three-week operation that Israel began in December 2008 to halt rocket fire from Gaza left more than 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.
Hamas, which has refused to negotiate with Israel or recognize any agreements signed with it, is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.
The Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, said it had fired four Grad rockets at the Israeli town of Ofakim, where three people were injured, according to a text message sent yesterday to journalists in Gaza. Islamic Jihad, a smaller Gaza militant group, sent a text message to journalists yesterday, claiming responsibility for firing 15 Soviet-designed Grad rockets at Israel.
One Israeli died and at least seven were injured by a rocket fired into the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, according to Israeli Police Commander Yohanan Danino. The Popular Resistance Committee, an umbrella group for Gaza militants that isn’t affiliated with Hamas and is blamed by Israel for the Aug. 18 attacks, said in a text message it had fired the rocket.
Abbas asked the Palestinians’ United Nations envoy, Riyad Mansour, to demand an urgent Security Council session “to force Israel to stop its attacks on Gaza,” the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, said by phone yesterday.
The so-called Quartet on Middle East peace that includes the U.S., the European Union, the UN and Russia called for restraint from all sides and expressed concern about the security situation in Sinai, according to an e-mailed statement.
The violence comes amid Israeli concern that Egyptian security forces have been losing control of the border area since the February ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Natural-gas supplies to Israel, which receives about 40 percent of the fuel from Egypt, were disrupted after four attacks on the pipeline network between Feb. 5 and July 12.
The military officer from Israel’s Southern Command who spoke anonymously told reporters the attack near Eilat was carried out by about 15 Palestinians who traveled from Gaza into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, from where they infiltrated into Israel. There is less security along the border between Israel and Sinai than between Gaza and Israel.
Egypt’s North Sinai governor, Major General Al-Sayed Abdel-Wahab Mabrouk, denied Israeli claims that the men who carried out the attacks entered Israel from Egypt, MENA said on Aug. 18.
Following the Egyptian Cabinet statement, Barak instructed the army to conduct an investigation into the deaths of the Egyptian policemen, and also carry out a joint inquiry with Egyptian counterparts, according to the statement from his office.
“The peace agreement between Israel and Egypt has great importance and huge strategic value for the stability of the Middle East,” Barak said.
The accord was signed in 1979 and called for Israel to withdraw from Sinai, which it had seized in a 1967 war. The withdrawal was completed in 1982.
Israel’s benchmark TA-25 Index closed down 3.8 percent on Aug. 18, the largest drop in almost two weeks. Israel’s credit-default swaps, or the cost of insuring government debt against non-payment for five years, rose seven basis points Aug. 19 to 159, the highest level in a week, according to London prices from CMA, which is owned by CME Group Inc. and compiles prices quoted by dealers in the privately negotiated market.