Israel tries to calm tensions with Egypt

After Cairo recalls its ambassador, Tel Aviv orders a joint inquiry into cross-border shootings that killed three security officers

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The Independent Online

Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak sought to defuse a serious diplomatic crisis with Cairo yesterday with a public statement of "regret" that three Egyptian security force members were killed in the aftermath of the attack by gunmen which left eight Israelis dead last week.

The move came shortly before the cycle of violence triggered by Thursday's attack - with multiple Israeli air strikes on Gaza and up to 75 rocket launches by Gaza militants into Israel over the last three days - worsened last night when an Israeli was killed by a Grad rocket which made a direct hit on a house in Beersheeva which left four others seriously wounded.

The Popular Resistance Committees. the Palestinian militant group blamed by Israel for Thursday's attack. claimed responsibility for the fatal rocket launch on Beersheeva while for the first time since Thursday the military wing of Hamas, the faction in control of Gaza, claimed responsibility for another rocket which inflicted minor injuries on two children in the Negev town of Ofakim. Up to yesterday evening Israeli air strikes had claimed the lives of at least 14 Palestinians, mainly militants, but including a civilian doctor and three children aged two, five and 13.

It was not immediately clear whether Mr Barak's statement - agreed after hasty consultations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the hard line foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman - would be enough to deflect Egypt's tough response to what Cairo said was the killing by Israeli troops of three of its security personnel in cross border fire on Thursday. Egypt had threatened to recall its ambassador to Tel Aviv.

The angry reaction to the deaths in the aftermath of the attacks by gunmen along the border which left eight Israelis dead on Thursday was the sharpest sign yet of growing Egyptian impatience with its northern neighbour since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

And it threatened to leave Israel. already at odds with Turkey over its refusal to apologise for the fatal shooting of nine Turks aboard the Gaza-bound flotilla in May 2010, facing mounting problems with two of only three Muslim countries in the region with which it has long enjoyed diplomatic relations.

Mr Barak ordered an Israeli military investigation of the Egyptian deaths which would would take place before a further joint investigation by both countries of their circumstances. Egypt had earlier indicated it would recall the ambassador Yasser Reda until the completion of an investigation.

Egypt says that its men were killed as Israeli troops fired at gunmen retreating back across the border after the well planned and equipped attack 20km from the Red Sea resort of Eilat, which exacted the worst death toll of Israelis on a single day for more than three years.

Israel says the gunmen responsible for Thursday's attack, were PRC members who had crossed from Gaza through tunnels into the increasingly lawless Sinai peninsula. A squad from among the 15 or so gunmen then infiltrated into Israel and opened fire on an Eilat-bound bus crowded with off duty soldiers and civilians in the first of a series of attacks on private cars and a military patrol vehicle, officials in Jerusalem say.

With the political atmosphere in Cairo heightened by the prospect of a presidential election, rival candidates strongly criticised Israel as the interim Cabinet appointed by the Egyptian military demanded an official apology for "hasty and regrettable" criticisms by Israel suggesting it had lost control of the Sinai. Mr Barak, who on Thursday, had himself made such criticisms did not ecplitly do so yesterday but stressed the importance of the 1979 treaty between Egypt and Israel and thanked Cairo for its "discretion and responsibility." Thousands of protesters had earlier demonstrated outside the Israeli embassy, some burning an Israeli flag and demanding the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador.

Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister, head of the Arab League and a possible future Egyptian president said on his personal twitter account: "Israel has to realize that the days in which our sons are killed without an appropriate and strong reaction are forever gone….. the blood of our martyrs which was spilled while carrying out their duties, will not be shed in vain."

Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood now seen as a more liberal Islamist, called on the ruling military council to treat the matter as one of national security, halt Egyptian gas supplies to Israel and expel its ambassador. In a pregnant, if oblique, reference to the 1979 treaty he told the New York Times in Cairo that " all treaties and agreements are not worth the ink they’re written with if the blood of our citizens is spilled and the sovereignty of our land and sky is breached.”

While Israel initially suggested the soldiers had been killed by a militant who had blown himself up after fleeing across the border a senior military officer acknowledged to reporters in Jerusalem on Friday that some Egyptian soldiers might have been killed accidentally by Israeli fire against the gunmen and that “we are sorry that Egyptian soldiers and officers died in any case.” He said that the Israeli and Egyptian militaries had remained in close contact before and since Thursday's attack.

Israel said on Thursday that it had hit seven of the gunmen in exchanges of fire but the identities of those killed remain unknown, even prompting some Gazans to claim they are skeptical over whether the PRC were really responsible for the attack.

Meanwhile with a UN report imminent on the shooting of the Turks aboard the Gaza bound Mavi Marmara last year, there was no immediate sign of a thaw in Israeli-Turkish relations over the incident with Israel resisting pressure by the US to meet Turkey 's demands for an apology. Israeli sources have suggested the report will say the naval blockade of Gaza is legal but may criticize the way it was enforced.