Eight Israelis were killed and 30 more wounded during a well-planned terror attack along the Israeli-Egyptian border Thursday.
The attack was planned in the Gaza Strip by the Popular Resistance Committees and perpetrated by terrorists who crossed from Gaza into Sinai via smuggling tunnels. They then traveled some 200 kilometers to reach an area of the border protected only by a tattered wire fence, about 15 kilometers north of Eilat.
Israeli forces killed five of the terrorists, and Egyptian soldiers reportedly killed two more. But the Israel Defense Forces estimates that 15 to 20 participated in the attack, meaning most escaped.
IDF officials believe the goal of the attack was to kidnap a soldier. The IDF had previously responded to warnings of a planned attack, beefing up its forces in the area.
The assault began around noon, when three terrorists armed with rifles, grenades and explosives entered Israel from Egypt and stationed themselves at intervals of about 200 meters along the highway to Eilat, Route 12, at a stretch of road that runs very close to the border. At 12:30 P.M., they opened fire on an Egged Bus 392, wounding seven passengers, causing light to moderate injuries. Most of those injured were soldiers.
A few minutes later, an empty bus and several cars arrived. The terrorists opened fire again, and when the bus stopped, one of the terrorists ran up to the bus and activated his explosive belt, killing himself and the driver.
The shooting killed four occupants of one car, plus the driver of another.
At that point, the first soldiers arrived in two vehicles. One vehicle ran down one of the terrorists, killing him. Soldiers in the second vehicle opened fire on the third terrorist. One soldier, Staff Sgt. Moshe Naftali of Ofra, was killed in the ensuing gun battle.
Additional police and army forces then arrived on the scene and killed the third terrorist. They also opened fire on two additional terrorists who were waiting on the Egyptian side of the border.
Assault helicopters joined the battle, and a terrorist fired a rocket-propelled grenade at one of the helicopters, but missed.
The two terrorists in Sinai were killed after policemen from Yamam, the special anti-terror unit, pursued them a short distance into Egyptian territory. The policemen returned to Israel immediately thereafter.
While all this was happening, the terrorists also fired mortars at a civilian work crew repairing the fence nearby, but caused no casualties.
The Egyptian army later reported that it killed two additional terrorists in Sinai. The IDF was in close contact with the Egyptian army throughout.
After the battle, the IDF brought in sappers, who discovered bombs planted along the road and dismantled them.
Then, at about 6:45 P.M., as senior defense officials were briefing reporters on the earlier attack, terrorists opened fire once again − this time at a Yamam force patrolling the border not far from the site of the original attack. One policeman was killed in the assault and another was wounded.
The second attack occurred about 45 minutes after the Israel Air Force attacked a group of senior PRC officials in Rafah, a Gazan town on the Sinai border. Among the six people killed were Kamel Nirab, the head of the PRC; Imad Hamed, the person responsible for its military activity in Gaza; Khaled Shaath, a leading member of the PRC’s military wing who was involved in rocket attacks on Israel; and Khaled Masri, who was involved in kidnapping soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006. The Shin Bet security service suspects that Hamed is the one who planned yesterday’s attack near Eilat.
In response to the air strike, Palestinians fired two Grad rockets at Ashkelon. One landed in an open area near the city and caused no casualties or damage. The other appeared headed for a populous area of the city and was shot down by an Iron Dome anti-missile battery that had been stationed there a few days before due to an escalation in the rocket fire from Gaza.
Two other rockets were fired at Ashkelon at about 10 P.M., and the IDF is preparing for further escalation in rocket fire in response to last night’s air strike.
IDF sources said that since Egyptians toppled President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in February, the number of warnings about terror attacks from Sinai has doubled. Arms smuggling into Gaza from Sinai has also surged since Mubarak’s fall. Most of the weapons come from Iran via Sudan, but more recently, arms taken from Libyan army depots left unguarded due to that country’s civil war have also arrived.
Israel recently authorized Egypt’s new government to send large forces into Sinai − far beyond the numbers permitted under the 1978 peace treaty − in order to deal with the numerous terrorists active there, including groups affiliated with Al-Qaida as well as Palestinian organizations. Just last week, 2,000 Egyptian soldiers, accompanied by tanks, entered Sinai for this purpose. But so far, there are no signs that Egypt has succeeded in regaining control of the peninsula.
Yesterday’s attack casts further doubt on whether Israel can continue to rely on Egyptian forces to protect its southern border. Following the 1978 peace agreement, the IDF removed most of its troops from the border, which is now patrolled by just a few battalions, mostly reservists. Though this force was beefed up temporarily in recent weeks, doing so over the long term would interfere with the army’s training program and other operational activity, and might require calling up additional reserve units.
Another question relates to intelligence. Israel has until now refrained from employing agents in Egypt; it relies on electronic intelligence and information from agents in Gaza. But given the new situation in Egypt, this may no longer suffice.
Defense Ministry sources said the ministry has already accelerated construction of a planned 200-kilometer-long high-tech fence along the southern border. Thus far, 45 kilometers have been finished, and construction is now due to be completed by the end of next year, rather than the end of 2013 as originally planned.
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