As Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants continued to clash Friday, Egypt expressed anger over the deaths of at least three of its soldiers apparently killed by Israeli helicopters pursuing militants across the Israeli-Egyptian border a day earlier.
The incident threatened to destabilize relations between Israel and Egypt, already tense after the overthrow in February of Hosni Mubarak as Egyptian president.
Egypt said early Saturday that it would recall its ambassador to Israel, according to news reports.
The Egyptian government submitted a formal protest to Israel and called for an urgent investigation of the deaths of the soldiers, the Egyptian state news agency MENA said. Officials also closed until further notice the Al Awja crossing between Egypt and Israel, used for the passage of trade and exports, MENA said.
Egyptian voices outside the government also condemned the Israeli action.
“The Zionist attacks that killed three Egyptian soldiers on Thursday need a different response than the pre-Jan. 25 revolution period,” said Saad Katatni, general secretary of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, referring to the popular protests that brought down Mubarak. “Zionists should realize that Egyptian blood now has a price, and it’s a very high price after the success of our blessed revolution.”
Early Saturday, nearly 1,000 demonstrators massed outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, threatening to storm the building. They were monitored by a heavy police and army presence.
Israeli officials called the deaths regrettable, but said Egypt must to do more to bring the Sinai peninsula under its control.
The atmosphere between Egypt and Israel has been strained since shortly after the fall of Mubarak, who was seen as an ally of Israel. The lawlessness in the Sinai increased, Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing into the Gaza Strip, and Cairo embarked on a foreign policy less compliant with the U.S. and Israel, including closer ties to the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Much of this had to do with the interim government reacting to Egyptian public sentiment, long suspicious of Israel but suppressed during the Mubarak era.
The violence began Thursday with a coordinated attack in southern Israel that killed eight people, including six civilians and two Israeli soldiers. Israel says the attackers originated in Gaza and infiltrated Israel through the Sinai desert.
“We’ve been saying for months that the Sinai is becoming a no-man’s land, a Wild West where criminal gangs and terror groups have operated above the law,” said an Israeli government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
“We would hope that these events would serve as an impetus to create arrangements so they won’t reoccur. Ultimately we’d like to see effective Egyptian control over the peninsula.”
The overall death toll from the violence since Thursday rose to 27, officials said.
Israel said it killed seven militants in gunfights Thursday. It followed that Thursday night and Friday morning with at least a dozen airstrikes on militant targets in Gaza, including a suspected weapons-manufacturing site and tunnels to Egypt, military officials said.
In Gaza, Palestinian officials said nine people were killed, including two top commanders of the Popular Resistance Committees, an armed group that Israel accused of orchestrating the attacks in Israel. Two children were also killed, according to hospital officials.
Militants in Gaza retaliated Friday with more than 17 rocket attacks against several southern Israeli cities.
Two Grad missiles struck the town of Ashdod, damaging a religious school and injuring 10 people, some seriously, officials said.
Israel said Friday that it would hold Hamas responsible for the violence because the Islamist group controls Gaza.
“If we see that Hamas is choosing to escalate, we will not hesitate to expand the scope of our actions, respond in strength and exact a price from Hamas,” military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai said Friday on Israel Army Radio.
Hamas has denied any involvement in Thursday’s attacks and said it had not responded militarily to the Israeli airstrikes, some of which hit its facilities.
Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo, Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo bureau and special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.