At least seven Israelis were killed yesterday in bold and co-ordinated attacks by gunmen armed with assault rifles, mortars, and a roadside bomb. They were said by Israel to have infiltrated the country from Gaza through an increasingly lawless Sinai Peninsula.
Israel said the attack, which exacted the worst death toll on its citizens on a single day for over three years, underlined growing concerns it had been expressing in recent months to the post-Mubarak authorities in Egypt and the international community about the capacity of militant groups to exploit instability in Sinai.
Shortly after the attacks, as fierce gun battles continued in the area between the militants and pursuing Israeli troops, the Defence Minister Ehud Barak said: "The incident underscores the weak Egyptian hold on Sinai and the broadening of the activities of terrorists. The real source of the terror is in Gaza and we will act against them with full force and determination."
The Israeli reaction was swift. Up to six Palestinians were reported to have been killed in Rafah before sundown yesterday in the first of what Gazans expected to be a series of Israeli air strikes on the territory in retribution for the attacks, which also left up to 40 soldiers and civilians wounded.
Hamas, Gaza's ruling faction, strongly denied involvement in the operation and promised "to defend the Strip and with all the strength it has against any aggression" by Israel.
Unconfirmed reports said the dead Palestinians included members of the militant group the Popular Resistance Committees, including the leader of its military wing, named as Abu Awad Neirab. A senior Israeli defence official told the Associated Press last night that gunfire from both sides of the Israel-Egypt border had continued into the evening.
The attacks began around midday, when gunmen armed with AK 47 rifles fired on a 392 Egged bus from Beersheeva to the Red Sea resort of Eilat after trailing it in a car as it travelled on a desert stretch of Route 12 along the Egyptian border. More than a dozen injured passengers were taken 20km to hospital in Eilat as troops began an extensive man hunt for the assailants.
One passenger, Idan Kaner, told Israeli Channel Two TV: "We heard a shot and saw a window explode. I didn't really understand what was happening at first. After another shot, there was chaos in the bus and everyone jumped on everyone else."
Over the next hour up to three private cars were fired at, before a military patrol vehicle ran over a roadside bomb a few miles from the scene of the original attack. The military said that seven gunmen had been "targeted" in fierce exchanges of fire with Israeli troops, and that the Israeli dead were six civilians and one soldier. Two people were reportedly critically wounded during renewed gunfire in the area yesterday evening.
Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said there was "specific information" the attackers came from Gaza. "This is not an assessment. This is not an estimation. This is very, very precise information that they came out of Gaza. We have no doubt."
Mr Barak's earlier statement did not identify Hamas, but Israeli officials made clear they were standing by their policy of holding the Islamic faction responsible for any attacks from Gaza.
One said Hamas would not be allowed to "subcontract terrorist attacks" and added "they are responsible for terrorism emanating from Gaza". Asked about suggestions earlier this week from within the Israeli security establishment that Hamas was in fact seeking to prevent other factions launching rockets from Gaza, the official said that when this happened it was only because Israel continued to hold it responsible.
Last night, organisers of the escalating social protests against the Israeli government's economic policies announced they were cancelling a series of rallies planned - especially in Jerusalem - for this weekend, out of respect for the victims of yesterday's attack.
Last week, Egypt announced it was moving thousands of troops into the Sinai peninsula in preparation for a promised large-scale operation against militants linked to al-Qa'ida said to have been increasingly active in the area. There have been a series of bombings on a natural gas pipeline supplying Israel and Jordan.
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