Gunmen near the southern Israeli resort town of Eilat launched attacks Thursday on several civilian and military targets, killing at least eight people and wounding 40, Israeli military officials said.
The attacks shattered a period of relative calm along Israel’s border with Egypt and heightened concerns about growing instability in Egypt’s increasingly lawless Sinai peninsula. Israelis are also worried about a possible resumption of terrorist attacks as Palestinians prepare to push for statehood recognition from the United Nations next month.
Though no group immediately claimed responsibility for the strikes, Israeli officials said they suspect that militants from the Gaza Strip crossed into Israel, possibly via Egypt.
Israel’s military retaliated hours later with airstrikes that killed at least six people in southern Gaza, including Kamal Nairab, a senior commander of the militant Popular Resistance Committees, Palestinian officials said.
The violence began about noon just north of the city of Eilat, on the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba, where gunmen in a car opened fire on a public bus carrying soldiers as it drove south from Beersheba to Eilat on a highway near the Israel-Egypt border.
Shortly after, two cars and another bus, also traveling south, were struck by gunfire and antitank missiles nearby, the military said.
The third attack involved a roadside bomb apparently set to explode next to military vehicles as they responded to the emergency. Several soldiers were wounded.
Six civilians and two soldiers were among those killed in the attacks, authorities said.
Israel Defense Forces engaged in a battle with the assailants that lasted into the evening. Military officials said that as many as seven gunmen had been killed.
Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza, denied involvement in the attacks. Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu warned that Israel would attempt to use the violence as a pretext to launch an offensive against Gaza.
Officials of the Palestinian Authority, which has condemned the use of violence in fighting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, declined to comment.
It remained unclear whether the attacks were executed by the same group of militants or separate cells were involved, Israeli military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovitz said. But some gunmen appeared to be still at large Thursday evening, opening fire on a military patrol and wounding two soldiers.
The region remained closed to the public because of concern that other cells might still be operating.
Israeli television showed pictures of one soldier in a bloodied uniform rushing into a hospital. In the parking lot was a blue minivan, with a child safety seat strapped in the back and its windows shattered.
Such strikes in Israel have been relatively rare in recent years, but some fear that violence may increase due to Palestinian frustration over stalled efforts to achieve an independent state. Instability in neighboring Egypt, particularly in the Sinai, also worries Israel.
Some witnesses reported that the gunmen appeared to be wearing Egyptian uniforms. Egyptian officials denied any involvement and pledged to cooperate in the investigation.
Gunfire from an Israeli plane targeting suspected militants at the Taba border crossing killed a military officer and two soldiers, an Egyptian military official was quoted as saying by the state news agency MENA. The official said the Israeli plane was pursuing infiltrators on Israel’s side of the border. When the infiltrators fled to the Egyptian side, the plane opened fire, striking the Egyptian troops.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel still holds Egypt partly responsible.
“It shows Egypt’s weakening grip on the Sinai peninsula and the growth of terrorist activities there,” Barak said. “The source of the terrorism is in the Gaza Strip, and we will act against [the terrorists] with full force and determination.”
After the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February, the long-restive Sinai region has spun further out of control. This week, Egypt’s military dispatched more than 1,000 soldiers to the region in a crackdown against armed groups believed to have launched several attacks in recent months against Egyptian police and a natural gas pipeline that exports supplies to Israel and Jordan.
After the attacks in Israel on Thursday, Egyptian state media quoted an unnamed security source as saying that authorities had seen no suspicious movement along their borders. The source said security forces were tightening checks on border points and sweeping the area in search of suspicious elements.
Israel has supported Egypt’s crackdown in the Sinai, accusing Bedouin tribes and anti-Israel extremist groups there of smuggling weapons into Gaza.
Special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City and Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo bureau contributed to this report.