After terror attacks, rockets from Gaza and worries over Egypt border

Israeli soldiers carry an injured person on a stretcher at the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba following a Palestinian terrorist attack near the Egyptian border, Aug. 18, 2011. (Shay Levy/Flash 90)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – After deadly terrorist attacks in southern Israel, officials in Jerusalem are on alert for how Egyptian instability may be opening up more avenues for terrorists intent on attacking Israel.

Thursday’s coordinated attacks north of Eilat by terrorists who crossed over the border from Egypt left eight Israelis dead — six of them civilians. More than 30 people were reportedly injured in the attacks.

The attacks “demonstrate the weakening of Egypt’s control over the Sinai Peninsula and the expansion of terrorist activity there,” Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, said. He added that Israel’s military will retaliate against the attacks, which he said “originate in Gaza.”

The attacks led to Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and Palestinian rocket attacks that continued into Friday. On early Saturday morning Hamas announced an end to its truce with Israel, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Since the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, the Sinai has become an increasingly lawless place. Saboteurs have repeatedly attacked and disabled the gas pipeline that runs from Egypt to Israel, and smugglers run a brisk trade along the border between Egypt and both Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza.

The attacks came on a portion of the border with Egypt protected only by a wire fence. Israel said it would accelerate efforts to complete construction of a high-tech security fence along the Egyptian border.  Israel said that the terrorists came from Gaza and infiltrated Israel via Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Armed with guns, grenades and explosive vests, the terrorists ambushed two Israeli buses and several private cars traveling north of the southern resort city of Eilat just after noon Thursday.

When Israeli troops arrived, the terrorists detonated roadside bombs they had planted.

Israeli security forces killed five of the terrorists, and the Egyptian army reportedly killed two others. It is not known precisely how many terrorists participated in the attacks, and some are believed to have escaped.

Three Egyptian police officers were also killed in the fighting, apparently mistakenly by Israeli aircraft trying to attack suspected terrorists. Egypt registered a complaint with Israel and demanded an investigation into the incident.

Following the attacks on Thursday, an Israeli airstrike on a site in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, killed the military commander of the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees, the group that Israel believes was behind the attacks. The airstrike also killed five others, three identified by the Popular Resistance Committees as the commander’s assistants and one as a 3-year-old boy, according to The New York Times.

“We have a policy of extracting a very high price from anyone who causes us harm, and this policy is acted upon,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday as he visited soldiers hurt in the attacks.

Israeli officials also said that Hamas would be held responsible. Hamas and Popular Resistance Committee officials have been quoted denying responsibility for the attacks, even as they praised them.

Israeli airstrikes also hit Popular Resistance Committee members trying to carry out rocket strikes, Hamas facilities in Gaza and a Gaza power plant. According to the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency, 11 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza by Israeli airstrikes and shelling since Thursday’s attacks.

The Israeli military reported that some 22 Grad and Qassam rockets had been fired at Israel from Gaza on Thursday and Friday. One person was seriously injured and another moderately hurt after a Grad rocket landed Friday in a yeshiva’s courtyard in the Israeli city of Ashdod, with four others treated for shock, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Thursday’s attacks began with an attack on a car and the ambush of Egged bus No. 392, which runs between Beersheba and Eilat and was loaded with soldiers. The driver of the car, who survived the attack, tried to warn the bus driver of the ambush. The bus’s driver managed to keep the bus on the road during the attack and drove to the nearest Israeli army checkpoint while soldiers riding the bus reportedly exchanged fire with the attackers. Passengers suffered light to moderate injuries, according to Haaretz.

Shortly thereafter, a terrorist blew himself up using an explosive belt by another bus, killing its driver, though no passengers were aboard. The terrorists also killed four occupants in a car, as well as the driver of another car.

When Israeli soldiers arrived on the scene, Staff Sgt. Moshe Naftali, 22, was killed in the ensuing firefight. Around 6:45 p.m. terrorists killed an Israeli counterterrorism police officer, 49-year-old Pascal Avrahami, who was patrolling the border near the scene of the original fighting.

The names of five of the six civilians killed in the attacks were released on Friday: They are sisters Flora Gez, 52, and Shula Karlitzky, 54, and  their husbands, Moshe, 53, and Dov, 58, who were headed to Eilat for a vacation, as well as Yosef Levi, 52, the driver of another car.

Levi’s wife, Etie, was injured by a bullet in the shoulder and survived by playing dead in the car next to her husband’s body, Haaretz reported.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni called for retaliation and said that her Kadima Party “will support the government when it comes to anti-terrorism operations and closing the border.”

The White House condemned the attacks. “The U.S. and Israel stand united against terror, and we hope that those behind this attack will be brought to justice swiftly,” the White House said in a statement.