September 10, 2011 in Nation/World

Israel-Egypt rift worsens

Embassy attacked; ambassador flees
Aya Batrawy Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

A protester holds the Egyptian national flag as a fire rages outside the building housing the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.
(Full-size photo)

CAIRO – Protesters broke into the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on Friday and dumped documents out of the windows as hundreds more demonstrated outside, prompting the ambassador and his family to leave the country. The unrest was a further worsening of already deteriorating ties between Israel and post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt.

Egyptian police made no attempt to intervene during the day as crowds of hundreds tore down an embassy security wall with sledgehammers and their bare hands or after nightfall when about 30 protesters stormed into the Nile-side high-rise building where the embassy is located.

Just before midnight, the group of protesters reached a room on one of the embassy’s lower floors at the top of the building and began dumping Hebrew-language documents from the windows, said an Egyptian security official.

In Jerusalem, an Israeli official confirmed the embassy had been broken into, saying it appeared the group reached a waiting room on the lower floor.

Israel’s ambassador, Yitzhak Levanon, his family and other embassy staff rushed to Cairo airport and left on a military plane for Israel, said airport officials. Israeli officials refused to comment on the ambassador’s departure.

Since the fall of Mubarak – who worked closely with the Israelis – in February, ties have steadily worsened between the two countries.

Anger increased last month after Israeli forces responding to a cross-border militant attack mistakenly killed five Egyptian police officers near the border. Egypt nearly withdrew its ambassador from Israel, and protesters demanded the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador. Calls have grown in Egypt for ending the historic 1979 peace treaty with Israel, a pact that has never had the support of ordinary Egyptians.

Several large protests have taken place outside the embassy in recent months without serious incident.

On Friday, Egyptians held their first significant demonstrations in a month against the country’s military rulers, with thousands gathering in Cairo and other cities. Alongside those gatherings, a crowd massed outside the Israeli Embassy’s building.

It quickly escalated with crowds pummeling the graffiti-covered security wall with sledgehammers and tearing away large sections of the cement and metal barrier, which was recently put up by Egyptian authorities to better protect the site from protests.

For the second time in less than a month, protesters were able to get to the top of the building and pull down the Israeli flag. They replaced it with the Egyptian flag.

Crowds outside the building photographed documents that drifted to the ground and posted some of them online.

Several Egyptian military policemen appeared and escorted the Israelis to safety but did not attempt to arrest any of the protesters, who then set about dumping files out the windows, he said.

It was not until several hours later that Egyptian police and military forces firing tear gas moved in to try to disperse the protesters from around the embassy. By that time, the crowds of youths had swelled to several thousand. Protesters were cleared from inside the building but held their ground outside, lobbing firebombs at the forces and setting fire to several police vehicles.

The military moved about 20 tanks and troop transport trucks into the area. State radio reported that one person died of a heart attack. About 450 people were injured, including 200 who had to be hospitalized, the Health Ministry said.

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