Israeli Defense Minister Barak Expresses Regret over Egyptian military deaths on Thursday in Eilat-areaattacks

Acknowledging the significance and importance of the moment, after a chaotic day of ambushes, fighting and hot pursuit in the area of Eilat on Thursday — and some 48 hours of subsequent reprisal attacks on Gaza — Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Saturday that “Israel regrets the deaths of the three Egyptian policemen during the attack on the Israel-Egypt border”.

At least three Egyptian military personnel — Egyptian officials are more consistently now mentioning five — were reportedly killed by IDF soldiers in pursuit, apparently, of people they assumed were among the attackers.

Funerals of Egyptian military or police killed on 18 August in attacks near Eilat - Photo by AFP, published on Israel's YNet website

Haaretz said that “IDF soldiers fired across the Israel-Egypt border as they intercepted the terrorist cell behind the attacks near Eilat”.

According to the report in Haaretz, published here, “Barak ordered the IDF to investigate the incident after which a joint investigation will be conducted with the Egyptian military to determine the circumstances of the incident”.

Barak reportedly “expressed appreciation for the ‘discretion and responsibility’ shown by Egypt”.

Demonstrations were held outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on Friday, while Egyptian politicians have demanded the recall of Egypt’s Ambassador to Israel. On Saturday morning, Egyptian reports indicated that the Ambassador had already been recalled — but after some hours of confusion, this was refuted during the afternoon. Egyptian statements, however, were adamant about a demand for an official and public apology [despite a private verbal apology which some sources indicated had already been extended].

However, Al-Ahram reported that an Egyptian official “acknowledged some attempts from influential Western capitals to dissuade Egypt from an overly harsh, angry reaction over the killing of Egyptian soldiers on the borders with Israel Thursday night. The soldiers were killed in the wake of an Israeli attack on the besieged Gaza strip that spilled into Egyptian border and territories”. This is published here.

Another report in Al-Ahram said that Egypt still made a strongly-worded request for an explanation of the Egyptian deaths.

The Haaretz article added that “Barak’s statement came after he held a special situation assessment with IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and other security and intelligence officials … According to a senior Israeli source, the statement said that ‘the main aim is to halt deterioration [in bilateral ties] and prevent the departure of the Egyptian ambassador’.”

Earlier Saturday, Haaretz said, Barak participated in discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Barak also said, according to the report in Haaretz, that “The attacks came from the Gaza Strip… Most of the perpetrators were killed and the officials responsible for sending them were eliminated shortly after the attacks. The IDF has been striking hard over the past two days against those responsible for [Thursday’s] attacks in the south and is operating efficiently against rocket launchers in Gaza in order to protect Israel’s citizens”.

Egyptian officials have disagreed with Israel’s instantaneous conclusion that the attackers came from Gaza.

So, we asked IDF Spokesperson Avital Leibovich today, via Twitter, “what has happened to the bodies of the August 18 attackers killed in fighting in the Eilat area, who they are, + how many?”

Her reply was: “They are terrorists originating from #Gaza. We have targeted 6 terrorists on Thursday. There’s a cemetery for terr. bodies”.

Clearly, some must have gotten away… Eyewitness reports say there were at least 7 attackers. Other Israeli military officers with intelligence information said they estimated at least 10 were involved in the planning of the “multi-pronged” attack on
18 August.

We then asked her “Can you please also tell us how many Egyptian soldiers were killed on 18 August near Eilat? Their bodies left in Egypt?”.

But, the IDF Spokesperson has not yet replied…

In any case, with this new information, we can now issue an UPDATED Eilat attacks deathtoll: 8 Israelis [incl 1 soldier, 1 police sniper]; 5 Egyptian military; 6 attackers [via @AvitalLeibovich] = 19 total. This is a downward revision from yesterday’s estimate of 21 [changes are: 1 fewer Egyptian military death, 1 fewer attacker death...]

Egypt’s Ambassador to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, Yasser Othman, told Maan News Agency that recalling Egypt’s Ambassador to Israel would send “a strong message to Israel that Egypt stands by its civilians and soldiers”. The Ma’an report said Othman noted that “Israel knows well Egypt’s critical role in maintaining security in the Sinai area, he said, and it shares responsibility for the attack Thursday in Eilat because both sides are responsible for protecting the border. He pointed out that investigations into the Eilat attack were ongoing”. The Ma’an report is posted here.

Ma’an noted that “The Egyptian government had asked ‘for an official apology from Israel’ at the end of a crisis meeting overnight, the state-run MENA news agency reported in a statement. Information Minister Osama Heykal said the policemen were killed ‘inside Egyptian territory as a result of an exchange of fire between Israeli forces and armed elements inside Israeli territory’.”

YNet noted that the Israeli Defense Minister said “The appropriate conclusions shall be drawn in line with the inquiry’s findings”. YNet added, it its report, that “While Egyptian officials accuse the IDF of killing the Egyptian troops during the battle against the terrorists, Israeli military officials have not yet ascertained the circumstance of the incident. One of the possibilities being looked into is that the Egyptian forces were killed by explosive devices or shots fired by the terrorists.  Meanwhile, referring to reports on Egypt’s envoy to Israel, Egyptian sources told Ynet: ‘We have not received official instructions. We are waiting for orders from Cairo; the procedural aspect has not yet been finalized’. Another indication that Egypt may be looking to terminate the tensions is the Egyptian information minister’s comments in a press conference, where he said Cairo was demanding an official Israeli apology but did not say Egypt’s ambassador will be recalled”.  This is published on the YNet website here.

The Jerusalem Post reported that Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman has, however, taken the occasion to say that “The Palestinians Authority leadership is fully responsible for the murderous terror attack against innocent Israelis for the crime of going on vacations … The Palestinians have no suitable leadership and the only thing that unites the Hamas regime in Gaza and the [PA] in the West Bank is terrorism and hatred of Israel”. The JPost report, published here, added that Lieberman was “expected to gather senior Foreign Ministry officials at 8 p.m. Saturday to discuss the diplomatic implications of recent events”.

[[YNet translated the same Lieberman remarks slightly differently. According to the YNet report, Lieberman said: “The Palestinian Authority, which constantly glorifies terror and incites against Israel, bears full responsibility for the murderous attacks on innocent Israelis Thursday. The Palestinians are devoid of proper leadership and the only thing that unites Hamas rulers in Gaza Strip and the PA rulers in Ramallah is their hatred for Israel”.  This is published here.]]

The same JPost report noted that “Also on Saturday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called for an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council [in New York] in an effort to halt Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, according to a statement by Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat cited by Palestinian media. According to the statement, Abbas instructed Palestinian representative at the United Nations Riyad Mansour to call for an urgent session of the Security Council to discuss the airstrikes on Gaza”.  And, the Arab League will hold an emergency meeting on Sunday, in Cairo.

A report received from UNHQ/NY overnight was published in Haaretz today, which said that Israel’s new Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor tried, for the first time, to actually get a presidential statement from the UN Security Council. This is a deviation from previous practice, as Haaretz reported –normally Israel just write letters of complaint and denunciation without asking for any specific action. What Israel wanted, however, was a condemnation “of the terror attack killing 8 and injuring dozens, and of its perpetrators”.

However, Lebanon — which now is a non-Permanent member of the UNSC for a two-year term, and which will be SC President in September — wanted the statement to include criticism of “the escalation in Israeli bombardment of Gaza”.

And, Haaretz reported, “Israel preferred to give up on the presidential statement altogether rather than adhere to the Lebanese request”. Another member of the Israeli delegation told Haaretz that: “It isn’t a coincidence that Lebanon, the only Security Council member state to oppose the condemnation, is a country controlled by a terrorist organization”. This is posted here.

The New York Times reported, meanwhile, that Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, “portrayed the Egyptian reaction as unfair, noting that they believe the militants who carried out the attacks had come across the Egyptian border out of a security vacuum in the Egyptian Sinai. Israeli officials asserted Saturday that some of the attackers had worn Egyptian uniforms. ‘The feeling is that all of this should not have happened’, said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the fraught diplomatic situation. ‘Now we have to take the heat, as if we were responsible for the attack’ … The officer acknowledged that some Egyptian soldiers might have been killed accidentally by Israeli fire during the battles with the assailants on Thursday night. ‘It is a possibility that it happened by mistake’, he said, adding, ‘We are sorry that Egyptian soldiers and officers died in any case’. The Israeli military said an investigation was still at an initial stage. Israeli military officials described Thursday’s battlefield as complex and confusing as Israeli soldiers rushed to the scene of the initial attacks and spent hours in pursuit of an unknown number of assailants”…

According to the NYTimes story, published here, “Egyptian officials in North Sinai have denied the attackers came across the border, though most analysts here consider such a possibility very likely because of the lack of security there. Egyptian police have all but completely withdrawn from the Bedouin-dominated North Sinai since the revolution, and in recent days the Egyptian military had been carrying out its own operations there to try to crack down on suspected militants. The Camp David accords limit the Egyptian military presence in the border area, so the Egyptian government had sought and received Israeli permission to send 1,000 additional troops to carry out the operation”.

The NYTimes added that “The senior Israeli military officer said the operation began weeks before and probably involved 10 to 15 terrorists. He said that a number of them crossed the border from Egypt into Israel in daylight, only about 150 feet from an Egyptian police post, with rifles, explosive belts and grenades. Others were carrying heavier weapons, he said. He said that some of the attackers might have been wearing Egyptian uniforms. The Israeli drivers of one of the buses and one of the cars that were attacked both said they saw men dressed in Egyptian military fatigues shooting at them”…

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