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Israel and Egypt have a common interest in keeping the border between them safe, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday during a tour of the site of Sunday’s deadly attack in which Sinai-based gunmen killed at least 15 Egyptian police officers and injured at least seven.
Quoting Egyptian media sources, Israel Radio has since reported that the death toll had reached 17.
In the Sunday incident, the jihadist terrorists took control over an Egyptian checkpointand and commandeered two Egyptian armored vehicles with which they charged toward the border crossing with Israel. The vehicles were destroyed and the terrorists killed as they attempted to infiltrate the Israeli border.
The incident began around 8 p.m., when Israeli soldiers heard shooting coming from the Philadelphia Route, a narrow strip of land situated along the border between Gaza and Egypt. Five minutes later, Sinai terrorists took control of the Egyptian checkpoint, shot the soldiers and charged the commandeered vehicles toward the border, firing in all directions.
Around 8:10 p.m., one of the armored vehicles exploded at the border crossing, blowing a hole through the fence that allowed the other vehicle to cross into Israel. However, the second vehicle was quickly targeted from the air by waiting Israel Air Force aircraft, and was destroyed. Several terrorists were identified trying to flee from the burning vehicles, but they, too, were killed.
According to Israeli intelligence officials, the attack was orchestrated by a Salafi organization. Israeli intelligence services also had previous reports of an impending attack from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and were able to thwart the assault.
“We were prepared for it, so there was a hit,” IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai said.
“I wish to express sorrow over the killing of the Egyptian soldiers,” Netanyahu said. “I think its clear that Israel and Egypt have a common interest in maintaining a peaceful border between them. However, when it comes to the security of Israeli citizens, it seems time and again that Israel must and can only rely on itself.”
Egyptian army helicopters, with the help of army rangers, have since been attempting to apprehend suspects in the attack, an Egyptian security source reported Monday. An Egyptian source, speaking to Ahram Online, said that early on Monday army units surrounded the city of Rafah, on the Egyptian side of the Egypt-Gaza border, to prevent suspects from escaping. A television journalist in the northern Sinai said the area had been sealed off by security forces, who blocked the road from the main town of Arish in the direction of the Gaza border crossing at Rafah. Egyptian state television reported that the Rafah border crossing would be sealed indefinitely.
The attack was the deadliest such event that Egypt's tense Sinai border region has seen in decades. Earlier Monday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak urged the Egyptian authorities to “wake up” and take decisive action to prevent terror activity in the lawless Sinai Peninsula. Addressing a parliamentary committee, Barak also praised the work of Israeli forces in thwarting the attack, saying, “vigilant IDF troops foiled an attack that could have produced many casualties.”
Israel has repeatedly complained about poor security in Sinai following the overthrow of Egypt's former president, Hosni Mubarak, last year. For the past year there has been growing lawlessness in the vast desert expanse, as Bedouin bandits, jihadists and Palestinian terrorists from the adjoining Gaza Strip fill the vacuum, tearing at already frayed relations between Egypt and Israel.
Former Deputy IDF Chief of General Staff and former GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. (res.) Dan Harel told Army Radio that, “Egypt either does not want or does not have the power to stop Islamist terror in Sinai.”
Nitzan Nuriel, former director of the Counterterrorism Bureau, also told Army Radio on Monday that the attack constituted a definite escalation by terrorist organizations. “There is no doubt that the perpetrators who carried out this attack took a huge risk in involving Egyptian security personnel,” he said.
Egyptian security had reportedly ignored Israeli warnings of an impending attack. Last week, an Egyptian security source accused Israeli travel agencies of being behind Israeli authorities’ warnings to Israeli tourists in Sinai, urging them to leave.
“It has become common in Israel for travel agencies to spread these rumors to keep Israeli tourists inside Israel instead of going to Sinai, which causes losses for these agencies,” the source told the German news agency DPA.
The terrorists were armed with explosives belts, guns, bombs and other weapons, and were apparently planning a large demonstration of power, the initial investigation into the incident suggested.
“Considering the explosives that the terrorists brought in the small vehicle that exploded at the start, and the explosives belts fitted on six or eight terrorists inside that armored vehicle, there is no doubt that their entry into an Israeli town or a military base by surprise could have incurred extensive damage,” Barak said.
“This was an extremely successful joint operation of the IAF and Armored Corps. The speed of the cooperation between the various forces enabled us to thwart a terror attack within 15 minutes, according to the assessments. I would like to express my appreciation for the troops' vigilance, specifically that of the intelligence personnel, and the determination of the soldiers operating in the field,” said IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.
Meanwhile, an initial investigation into the incident revealed that the second vehicle had penetrated a full 2 kilometers into Israeli territory before it was destroyed, and that military troops had pursued the vehicle at high speed, complete with gunfire, on a civilian road alongside civilian vehicles.
In Egypt, President Mohammed Morsi addressed his nation on television shortly after the attack, following an emergency meeting at the presidential palace in Cairo, and declared that the perpetrators of the attack would “pay a high price.”
“What happened [Sunday] is a criminal attack by our enemies upon our sons from the armed forces at a border point, the sons of whom were martyred at that place, while they were taking part in a fast-breaking Ramadan meal. These martyrs’ blood will not be shed in vain,” he said. “My deepest condolences go out to the families of these martyrs, and our condolences to the Egyptian people.”
The attack was an early diplomatic test for Morsi, an Islamist who assumed office at the end of June after staunch U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak was overthrown last year in a popular uprising. The attack may also complicate Egypt's relations with Hamas, the Islamist party that rules the Gaza Strip and is close to Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, if it emerges that Palestinian gunmen were involved.
In a statement posted on the website of Gaza’s Hamas leaders, Hamas also condemned “the ugly crime committed today against the Egyptian soldiers, and sent its condolences to the families of the victims, to Egypt's president and to his government.”