CAIRO – Egypt said today it will withdraw its ambassador from Israel to protest the deaths of Egyptian security forces in what it called a breach of a peace treaty, sharply escalating tensions between the two countries after a cross-border ambush that killed eight Israelis.
Retaliatory violence between Israel and the Islamic militant group Hamas also spiked in the aftermath of Thursday’s attack, which Israel blamed on Palestinian militants who crossed from Egypt into the Gaza Strip. Israeli airstrikes killed at least 12 Palestinians, most of them militants, in the Gaza Strip, and nine Israelis have been wounded by Palestinian rockets fired into southern Israel.
The Egyptian troops were killed as Israeli soldiers pursued suspected militants who killed eight Israelis on Thursday in the deadliest attack on Israelis in three years.
There were conflicting statements about how the Egyptians were killed, but an Egyptian Cabinet statement said it held Israel “politically and legally responsible for this incident,” which it deemed a breach of the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries. It demanded an immediate investigation.
In strong language, it said Israel was to blame because lax security from its side allowed the ambush to take place.
“The Egyptian ambassador to Israel will be withdrawn until we are notified about the results of an investigation by the Israeli authorities, and receive an apology from its leadership over the sad and hasty remarks about Egypt,” the Cabinet statement said.
It was the first time in nearly 11 years that Egypt decided to withdraw its ambassador from Israel. The last time was in November 2000 when the Egyptians protested what they called excessive use of violence during the second Palestinian uprising.
The decision to withdraw Egyptian Ambassador Yasser Reda came as hundreds of protesters staged demonstrations in front of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, unfurling a Palestinian flag, throwing firecrackers toward the top floor and calling for expulsion of the Israeli ambassador in response to the killings.
Egypt’s official news agency blamed the Israelis for shooting and killing the Egyptian forces while chasing militants who killed eight Israelis in Thursday’s ambush across the border in southern Israel.
Israeli officials did not immediately comment on Egypt’s decision, although the military promised on Friday to investigate the shootings.
Thursday’s attack signaled a new danger for Israel from its border with the Sinai Peninsula, an area that has always been restive but was kept largely under control by former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. The desert area has become increasingly lawless since Mubarak was ousted on Feb. 11 following a popular uprising.
Relations between the two countries have been chilly since they made peace in 1979, but Israel valued Mubarak as a source of stability with shared interests in containing Iran and its radical Islamic proxies in the region.
The violence could further damage ties if Egypt’s political upheaval and a resulting power vacuum in Sinai allows Gaza militants, who had been pummeled by a punishing Israeli three-week war 2 1/2 years ago, to open a new front against Israel in the frontier area.