Israel apologized to Egypt Saturday for the deaths of three Egyptian soldiers during a cross-border clash with Palestinian militants, hours after Cairo threatened to withdraw its ambassador to protest the killings.
Israel said the militants, who attacked on Thursday, came from the Gaza Strip and went through Egypt's Sinai desert, which borders both Israel and Gaza. They then crossed into southern Israel, where they killed eight Israelis. There are conflicting reports of how the Egyptian soldiers were killed later that day, as Israel was pursuing militants along the border with Sinai. "Israel deeply regrets the deaths of the Egyptian officers," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement after Egypt threatened to recall its ambassador. The Egyptian government initially put an announcement on its website overnight saying it had pulled the envoy, but later backtracked and issued a new statement saying it was only considering the move.
Late Saturday, Palestinians in Gaza unleashed a barrage of about 70 rockets at southern Israel, the military said, killing one Israeli and wounding dozens. The huge salvo threatened to escalate the already tense situation between Israel and Gaza militants into a full-blown conflict.
The violence is testing Israel's landmark 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, already strained by the fall of longtime autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak. The attacks have also raised concerns about the increasingly lawless northern Sinai, whose porous borders with both Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip make it an attractive staging ground for Palestinian militant attacks on Israel.
The fall of Mubarak in a popular uprising in February has given way to a chaotic transition with many in the discredited police force disappearing from the streets and leaving a tremendous security vacuum throughout the country, including Sinai.
Egypt last week moved thousands of troops into the Sinai Peninsula as part of a major operation against al-Qaida inspired militants who have been increasingly active since Mubarak's ouster. At the same time, anti-Israel sentiment is up in Egypt after Mubarak's ouster and Israel is watching closely for signs that the military rulers who took power might be responding to that sentiment.
The ambush has also threatened to stoke the Mideast conflict as retaliatory violence between Israel and Gaza militants spiked. Israeli airstrikes killed at least 12 Palestinians, most of them militants, Friday in Gaza. Palestinian armed men have fired about 50 rockets into southern Israel since Thursday, wounding more than a dozen people, including three Palestinians illegally residing there.