Egypt acts on border region as Israel tensions linger

Egypt announced plans to develop a region bordering Israel on Monday after Israeli officials blamed its loosening grip on the area for the killing of eight Israelis by armed militants, inflaming tensions between the two neighbors.

Five Egyptian security personnel died when Israeli troops repelled the gunmen following the attack near Israel’s Red Sea resort of Eilat on Thursday. Egypt said Israel’s actions breached their 1979 peace treaty.

Israel said the gunmen had entered the country by crossing the Egyptian Sinai from Gaza.

Cairo has struggled to assert its grip on the isolated desert peninsula, especially after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February left a power vacuum that was quickly exploited by a local population resentful of the government in Cairo.

Israel expressed its regret for the Egyptian deaths and said it was investigating the incident, but pressure was growing in Egypt for sterner sanctions.

A group of politicians including former Arab League head Amr Moussa and other candidates for Egypt’s presidency called for the return of the Egyptian ambassador from Israel, more troops in Sinai and trials for Israelis responsible for the killings.

“Egypt after the January revolution is not like Egypt before. The corrupt, oppressive and compliant regime is gone for good,” they said in a statement published in newspapers.

They described Mubarak’s government as “a strategic asset to Israel.”

“It has been replaced by a strong popular will that does not know weakness or complicity and understands well how to achieve retribution for the blood of the martyrs.”

Hundreds protested angrily outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo at the weekend. A protest of any size near the Israeli embassy would have been quickly smothered by state security forces in the Mubarak era.

The spat has highlighted the dilemma faced by the generals ruling Egypt, caught between pressure to preserve the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and popular hostility to the Jewish state.

The army is trying to keep a lid on social tension as Egypt prepares for elections later in the year as part of a promised transition to democratic civilian rule after Mubarak’s removal.