Gazan breached border fence for moshav attack


The Gaza Palestinian who stabbed a woman in an Israeli farming town near the Egyptian border had breached an unguarded border fence.

The attacker entered the Sde Avraham home of Yael Raam-Matzpun early Monday morning. Raam-Matzpun managed to send her four children to safety and fight off the attacker, sustaining stab wounds to her face and shoulder.

She locked the assailant in the bathroom, but he escaped through a window. Israeli soldiers pursued the attacker, and he was shot and killed him when he put the soldiers' lives at risk, according to reports.

The breach in the border fence came during a protest by Palestinians on Nov. 23 near Khan Younis, according to Ynet.

Raam-Matzpun and other residents of the southern Israeli moshav said they were lucky the attack did not end like the one in March 2011 in Itamar, a West Bank settlement, when five members of the Fogel family were killed by two assailants.

Egypt sentences 14 to death for Sinai attacks


An Egyptian court on Monday sentenced 14 Islamists to death for attacks on security forces in the Sinai Peninsula, showing Egypt's determination to put down militancy in a region critical to relations with neighbouring Israel.

The Jewish state has voiced concern about security in Sinai, where at least four cross-border attacks have taken place since President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February 2011.

The Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, has made the issue a priority since he was elected in June.

Sixteen Egyptian border guards were killed in August, and hundreds of police and troops with tanks, armoured vehicles and helicopters have been sent to raid militant hideouts and seize weapons in an operation coordinated with Israel.

The court in Ismailia sentenced 14 members of the Tawheed wal Jihad group to hang for killing three police officers, an army officer and a civilian in attacks on a police station and a bank in the town of Arish in June and July last year.

Eight were tried in absentia, court sources said. Four other militants were sentenced to life imprisonment.

“This court decision is a milestone. It gives a strong message to the militant groups that the state, President Mohamed Morsi's government, will not tolerate attacks on the Egyptian armed forces and police,” said Nageh Ibrahim, an expert on Islamists who is himself a former militant.

The verdicts prompted cries from the accused.

“Morsi is an infidel and those who follow him are infidels,” shouted one.

Others cried “God is Greatest” as they listened to the judge from inside their metal cage in court. The men all had beards and traditional white robes and some held Korans.

The prosecutor said that Tawheed wal Jihad (“Monotheism and Holy War”) propagated a hardline Islamist view that allowed adherents to declare the head of state an infidel and to wage war on the government.

The same group was accused of carrying out a series of bomb attacks in 2004 and 2005 against tourist resorts in South Sinai, in which 34 people died.

Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, Egypt's highest Islamic legal official, sanctioned the death penalty before it was pronounced.

“The accused wanted to spread corruption in the earth,” he said. “They went out armed with deadly weapons, machine guns and explosives to target security forces … all in the name of Islam. They therefore deserve the death sentence.”

Ibrahim, who was jailed during the 1990s but later became one of the leading Islamists to call for an end to violence against the state, said the verdicts would deter other militants from attacking Israel.

“Morsi's government is adamant about stemming any attacks across the border because this will give Israel an incentive to reoccupy Sinai. Now is the time for development, not war,” Ibrahim said.

The U.S.-brokered 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel sets strict limits on military deployment in the Sinai, which is designated a demilitarised buffer zone.

Additional reporting and writing by Marwa Awad; Editing by Kevin Liffey

IDF soldier, assailants killed in skirmish near border with Egypt


One Israeli soldier and three armed assailants have died in a skirmish near the border with Egypt.

Army Radio reported that two soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces were hit Friday morning after the assailants opened fire on them while they were patrolling the border with Egypt.

The other Israeli soldier who was hit sustained medium injuries, according to the report, which the IDF Spokesperson confirmed.

One of the dead assailants had a suicide bomb belt around him, the IDF said, describing the three as terrorists.

“The IDF stopped a very big terrorist attack,” IDF spokesman Brig.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai said.

The incident, according to the report, happened near the Har Charif bulge, some 30 miles southwest of Mitzpe Ramon.

Last month, an Israel Air Force aircraft fired a missile on an armored personnel carrier that a team of terrorists had stolen from an Egyptian army base and driven  across the border. The terrorists killed 16 Egyptian troops in the takeover. In June, terrorists launched an anti-tank missile at a convoy of construction workers building the border fence along the Israel-Egypt frontier. One Israeli civilian and two terrorists were killed in the attack.

Over the past few months terrorists in Sinai launched rockets at Eilat and the border region on a number of occasions, but no Israelis were injured.

Agreement reached on African migrants at Israeli border


Israel said it will allow two female African migrants — one who is pregnant — and a teen to enter the country, and turn over more than a dozen other refugees who have been trapped at its border to Egyptian authorities.

Thursday's decision by the Israel government came hours after the Israeli Supreme Court decided to hold another hearing on the migrants' situation on Sunday. The hearings are in response to a petition filed by We are Refugees, an Israeli NGO, that calls on Israel to provide food, water and medical care to the refugees.

Officials in the Prime Minister's Office called the decision a humanitarian solution to the problem of the 20 African migrants who have been trapped for a week between Israel's border fence with Egypt, The Jersusalem Post reported.

Later Thursday, an Israeli official told the French news agency AFP that the agreement was reached between military commanders from both Israel and Egypt, along with the migrants, who had refused to be sent back to Egypt.

Israeli soldiers have been ordered not to let in the refugees but reportedly have provided them with water.

“It is important that everyone understand that Israel is no longer a destination for infiltrators,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Thursday evening after the agreement was announced. “We are determined to stop the flood of infiltrators that has been here. We built this fence and it has already lowered the number of infiltrators by 90 percent. We will intensify steps against those who employ illegal infiltrators, and we will continue the effort to return infiltrators to their countries of origin.”

Also Thursday, Israeli police and troops blocked a delegation from the Israeli chapter of Physicians for Human Rights from visiting the trapped migrants.

The Prime Minister's Office on Wednesday evening released a statement saying that Israel is not obligated under international law to allow the migrants to enter, since they do not face persecution in Egypt. Also Wednesday, the envoy for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel, William Tall, called on Israel to allow the refugees to enter Israel and apply for asylum.

Last month, a group of migrants stuck along the border was allowed to enter Israel after four days. They were sent to a holding facility for illegal migrants.

African migrants remain trapped at border following hearing


A group of African migrants remain trapped at the border with Egypt after Israel's Supreme Court decided to hold another hearing next week on their situation.

The decision to hold a second hearing was made at a court hearing on Thursday. The hearings are in response to a petition filed by the We are Refugees, an Israeli NGO. The petition calls for Israel to provide food, water and medical care to the refugees.

Also Thursday, Israeli police and troops blocked a delegation from the Israeli chapter of Physicians for Human Rights from visiting the trapped migrants.

The 20 African migrants have been trapped for a week between Israel's border fence with Egypt, and Israeli soldiers have been ordered not to let them in.The soldiers reportedly are providing water to the migrants, who include a pregnant woman and a teenage boy. The migrants have refused to be sent back to Egypt.

The Prime Minister's Office on Wednesday evening released a statement saying that Israel is not obligated under international law to allow the migrants to enter, since they do not face persecution in Egypt.

Also Wednesday, the envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel, William Tall, called on Israel to allow the refugees to enter Israel and apply for asylum.

Last month, a group of migrants stuck along the border was allowed to enter Israel after four days. They were sent to a holding facility for illegal migrants.

Egypt replaces tanks with armored vehicles in Sinai


Egypt's military is deploying light armored vehicles in Sinai to replace some heavy tanks whose presence at the border area had raised concerns in Israel, security sources said on Tuesday.A source said last week the army had begun withdrawing some of the tanks, after they had been deployed as part of an operation against militants who attacked and killed 16 border guards on August 5.

Disorder has spread in Sinai since former President Hosni Mubarak's overthrow last year. Analysts say Islamists with possible links to al Qaeda have gained a foothold, which has alarmed Israel.

The unrest has occurred mainly in North Sinai, where many people have guns and where Bedouin tribes have long complained of neglect by central government. They say they have seen no benefits from the expanding Sinai tourist resorts.

Hundreds of troops, along with tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters were sent to the area in a joint operation with police to raid militant hideouts, arrest suspects and seize weapons, including rockets and other arms, rife in the area.

But Israeli officials have privately voiced concerns about heavy equipment being sent to areas where there have been restrictions on weapon deployments under a 1979 peace treaty, the first such treaty reached between Israel and an Arab state.

“Twenty tanks have been withdrawn from the central sector of Sinai toward Suez,” a security source said, adding that about 20 armored vehicles have reached Al-Arish city, the administrative centre of North Sinai.

The sources did not give a clear answer to whether the withdrawal of tanks was taken in response to Israel's concerns or say how many tanks were still in Sinai.

The army said last week it would broaden its campaign in Sinai, involving a redeployment of forces but did not specify which areas they would redeploy to.

“The operation is entering a new phase that requires different equipment capable of facing and handling the situation in Sinai,” military official told Reuters on Tuesday.

Another security source said the tanks were removed to be replaced with more “useful equipment”.

Analysts said there was no doubt that the tanks were taken out to assuage Israeli concerns. “Egypt's decision to remove tanks was taken to calm Israel after it voiced concerns about the presence of tanks near its borders,” Safwat al Zayaat, a retired army general and military expert said.

“As if the tanks were, as Egypt is saying now, not useful then why did it send them there in the first place?” he said.

A security source said security forces defused a land mine and a bomb on Tuesday planted by militants east of Al-Arish. It was the fourth such incident since last week.

No one had yet claimed responsibility for the killing of the border guards on August 5. But a Sinai-based Islamist militant organization, the Salafi Jihadi Group – which denies any involvement in the border attack – warned the Egyptian army that the crackdown would force it to fight back.

Reporting by Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia, Yasmine Saleh and Marwa Awad; Writing by Tamim Elyan; Editing by Alison Williams

Egypt broadens Sinai campaign against militants


Egypt’s military said on Wednesday it would broaden its offensive against militants in the Sinai Peninsula, a campaign that has raised concerns in Israel about the movement of heavy armor into the area near its border.

After militants attacked and killed 16 border guards on Aug. 5, Egypt launched an operation using the army and police to raid militant hideouts, arrest suspects and seize weapons, including rockets and other arms, that are rife in the area.

Disorder has spread in Sinai since former President Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow last year. Analysts say Islamists with possible links to al Qaeda have gained a foothold. This has alarmed Israel.

Israeli officials have privately voiced concerns about heavy equipment being sent to areas where there are restrictions on weapon deployments under a 1979 peace treaty.

Egypt has sent hundreds of troops, along with tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters into the North Sinai region since the start of military operations there on Aug.8.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi told Reuters on Monday in his first interview with international media that Egypt was committed to all treaties and, without naming Israel, said no other states should worry about its actions in Sinai.

“As of the morning of Aug. 29, in continuation of the military operation, there will be a redeployment of forces in various locations in Sinai to complete the hunt for terrorist elements,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

A military source told Reuters this would involve spreading security forces over a wider area to root out militants.

The campaign is led by the defense minister and head of the armed forces, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, appointed by Morsi in a shake-up of the military top brass on Aug. 12. The Islamist president has promised to restore order.

Sisi briefed Morsi on the Sinai operation on Monday.

The ministry statement on its website said 11 militants had been killed and 23 arrested in the campaign. It said 11 vehicles had been seized, along with ammunition, including five boxes of Israeli-made ammunition, but did not give details.

WEAPONS SMUGGLING

The 1979 peace treaty limits the military presence in the desert peninsula though in recent years Israel has agreed to allow Egypt to deploy more forces there to stem weapons smuggling by Palestinian gunmen and crime.

An Egyptian security source said on Wednesday tanks were being withdrawn from the border area in a move that could calm Israel’s concerns. Three other security sources confirmed this and said the tanks were being moved to another part of Sinai, without giving further details.

No one had yet claimed responsibility for the killing of the border guards. But a Sinai-based Islamist militant organization, the Salafi Jihadi Group – which denies any involvement in the attack – warned the Egyptian army last week that the crackdown would force it to fight back.

Leaders of the Cairo-based Jihad Group, which fought against Mubarak but has since renounced violence, met earlier in the week in Sinai with members of the Salafi Jihadi Group in an attempt to defuse tensions.

“We went to prevent a new rivalry with the state,” said Magdy Salem, a member of the Cairo group. He said the visit was approved by Morsi.

The unrest has occurred mainly in North Sinai, where many people have guns and where Bedouin tribes have long complained of neglect by central government. They say they have seen no benefits from the expanding Sinai tourist resorts.

Mubarak’s military-backed government worked closely with Israel to keep the region under control. Diplomats say security contacts continued after Mubarak’s fall. But Egyptian security sources said Israel should not expect day-to-day reports.

Clinton urges Egypt, Israel to talk about Sinai


U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Egypt’s foreign minister to keep lines of communication open with Israel amid tensions over an Egyptian push against militants in the neighboring Sinai desert, the State Department said on Thursday.

Clinton spoke with Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr on Wednesday and stressed the importance of acting transparently as Cairo deploys aircraft and tanks in Sinai, for the first time since a 1973 war with Israel, to pursue Islamist militants blamed for killing 16 border guards in an August 5 attack.

“This call was in keeping with a series of contacts we’ve had in recent days with both Egyptians and Israelis encouraging both sides to keep the lines of communication open,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

Israeli officials have expressed concern over the Egyptian deployment, saying the vehicles’ entry into the Sinai was not coordinated and was in violation of a 1979 peace treaty.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has not lodged a formal protest, preferring to try and resolve the issue in quiet contacts including U.S. mediation to avoid worsening ties with Cairo, already strained since Hosni Mubarak was toppled by a popular revolt last year.

Nuland said the Sinai security situation should be addressed “in a way that first and foremost strengthens Egypt’s security but also has a positive impact on the security of neighbors and the region as a whole.”

Nuland declined to say whether the United States believed Egypt had been insufficiently transparent or failed to keep Israel informed.

“Our view is that effective mechanisms do exist and that they just need to continue to be used,” she said.

The U.S.-brokered 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel sets strict limits on military deployment in the Sinai, which is designated as a demilitarized buffer zone.

But Israeli media have speculated that coordination with Egypt may suffer after a shakeup this month of Egypt’s military, including Islamist President Mohammed Mursi’s dismissals of officials Israel had long been in contact with.

Reporting By Andrew Quinn; Editing by Vicki Allen

Egypt’s deployment of armor in Sinai worries Israel


Israel is concerned about the deployment of Egyptian armor in a push against militants in the neighboring Sinai desert, saying the vehicles’ entry wasn’t coordinated and is in violation of a 1979 peace treaty, an Israeli official said on Monday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has not lodged any formal protest preferring to try and resolve the issue in quiet contacts including U.S. mediation, to avoid worsening ties with Cairo already strained since Hosni Mubarak was toppled by a popular revolt last year.

Egyptian security sources said this week they were preparing to deploy aircraft and tanks in Sinai for the first time since a 1973 war with Israel, in a crackdown on Islamist militants blamed for killing 16 border guards in an August5 attack.

The U.S.-brokered 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel sets strict limits on military deployment in the Sinai.

The Israeli official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Egypt had already sent “some” armored vehicles into the desert peninsula and that “Israel is bothered by the entry of armored vehicles in Sinai without coordination.”

Egyptian television footage showed General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Sinai addressing troops with tanks and heavy equipment behind them. Other images from his visit broadcast by Egypt’s private ON TV showed a row of six tanks and five armored personnel carriers.

While Israel does not view the armor as a threat, the official said, it wants to make sure it has a say over what weaponry is deployed in the Sinai, which the peace treaty intended as a demilitarized buffer zone.

“There is no precedent for armored vehicles being deployed in Sinai and certainly not without any coordination,” he said.

Israel had urged Egypt to crack down on the militants, and its security cabinet had approved an Egyptian request to use attack helicopters in Sinai two weeks ago, after the Islamist gunmen who attacked Egypt’s security personnel also penetrated Israel’s border where they were killed.

But local media say Israel was worried coordination with Egypt may suffer after a shakeup this month of Egypt’s military, including Islamist President Mohammed Morsi’s dismissals of officials Israel had long been in contact with.

In Cairo, Yasser Ali, a spokesman for Morsi, told Reuters security measures in Sinai were “crucial” to Egypt’s security.

An Egyptian military source told Reuters the Sinai security sweep was in keeping with agreements reached with Israel a year ago after eight Israelis died in a cross-border attack.

“We don’t need to issue a daily report to Israel on the operation as it is a matter of sovereignty and national security,” the source went on to say.

Additional reporting by Edmund Blair, Yasmine Saleh and Omar Fahmy in Cairo; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Myra MacDonald

Report: Morsi ‘interested in amending’ peace treaty with Israel


Following unrest in the Sinai including a terrorist attack that killed 16 soldiers, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi “is interested in amending” the country’s 1979 Camp David Accords with Israel “with regards to the deployment of forces in Sinai,” said his judicial adviser, Mohamed Gaddalah, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masri Al-Youm reported.

The Camp David peace treaty currently stipulates that Egypt restrict military forces in the Sinai, which is partially demilitarized.

Additionally, Morsi has ordered his army chief to appoint new commanders for Egypt’s airforce, navy, military intelligence and military police, Gaddalah said.

“President Morsi is chief of command and it is his right to change the military establishment and high command as needed and demand changes to existing international military agreements,” he said.

Little sign of battle in Egypt’s Sinai region


Egypt poured troops into North Sinai on Thursday in an offensive meant to tackle militants in the Israeli border region, but residents were skeptical, saying they had seen no sign of anyone being killed in what they described as a “haphazard” operation.

The offensive is crucial to maintaining good relations with Israel, which fears Islamist militants based in the increasingly lawless desert region could link up with hardliners in neighboring Gaza to launch attacks on the Jewish state – potentially threatening a 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.

Army commanders said as many as 20 “terrorists” had died in the offensive launched after suspected Islamist militants killed 16 Egyptian border guards on Sunday and drove a stolen armored car into Israel which was then destroyed by Israeli forces.

Hundreds of troops and dozens of military vehicles had reached al-Arish, the main administrative center in North Sinai, security sources said on Thursday.

Armored vehicles, some equipped with machine guns, could then be seen driving out of al-Arish towards the border settlement of Sheikh Zuwaid – which had been targeted by aircraft on Wednesday. The troops saluted passersby and flashed victory signs, or filmed their departure with video cameras.

But residents interviewed later in Shaikh Zuwaid and surrounding villages said they had seen no sign of fighting.

In al Toumah, a village surrounded by olive fields, one witness said he saw troops firing in the air.

“We thought they were chasing someone, but their arms were directed up and we didn’t see who they were fighting with,” the witness, who declined to be named, said. “We couldn’t find any bodies or signs of battle after they left.”

In Shaikh Zuwaid, controlled by Bedouin tribal leaders since police deserted the area last year, life continued as normal, its markets bustling. Witnesses reported a military presence on the outskirts, but no fighting since Wednesday’s air strikes.

CHALLENGE FOR NEW PRESIDENT

Lawlessness has been growing in North Sinai, a region awash with guns and bristling with resentment against Cairo, since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in February last year.

On Thursday night, thousands of Egyptians protested in Cairo in an area where the funeral of the 16 soldiers killed in the border attack was held on Tuesday, demanding a tougher response to the killings.

“We want death to those who killed our martyrs in Rafah,” one banner said. The crowd closed down a main street, creating a huge traffic jam.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, elected in June, has vowed to restore stability in what the military has billed the biggest offensive in the region since Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel.

He has also brushed aside accusations that his background in the Muslim Brotherhood, and ideological affinity with the Islamist Hamas rulers in Gaza, might lead him to take a softer line on militants bent on the destruction of Israel.

Israel has welcomed Egypt’s offensive while continuing to express worries about the deteriorating situation in Sinai, home to anti-Israel militants, Bedouin tribes angered by neglect by Cairo, gun-runners, drug smugglers and al Qaeda sympathizers.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Egypt was acting “to an extent and with a determination that I cannot previously recall”.

“Whether this ends with (their) regained control of Sinai and allows us not to worry as much as we have in the past few months, this I do not know,” he told Israel Radio.

In the region itself, all signs pointed to problems ahead.

In al-Arish, gunmen fired shots towards a police station early on Thursday before running off. That followed attacks on checkpoints in the town on Wednesday.

In al Toumah village, residents said troops had searched fields and raided one house, finding nothing.

Some residents complained the army’s limited actions so far – including Wednesday’s air strikes – seemed indiscriminate.

“We are not against attacking militants, but the pilots have to set their targets properly because we have been subjected to haphazard bombardment which led to the destruction of homes and cars,” said Mohamed Aqil in al-Goura village near Sheikh Zuwaid.

“They said they killed 20 militants, where are they? Show them to us,” said one resident at al Goura.

INTELLIGENCE CHIEF SACKED

Morsi on Wednesday fired the region’s governor and Egypt’s intelligence chief in response to public anger over the deaths of the 16 border guards, the deadliest assault on Egyptian security forces in northern Sinai since the 1973 war.

No one has claimed responsibility for the assault which happened during the evening “iftar” meal which breaks the daytime fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

But with wide respect in Egypt for rank-and-file soldiers who are often poorly paid conscripts posted far from their families, public anger has focused on outgoing intelligence chief Mourad Mwafi.

Media outlets had quoted him as saying Egypt had been aware of a threat before the attack “but we never imagined that a Muslim would kill his Muslim brother at iftar”, he said.

Israel says militants based in Sinai and Palestinian hardliners in neighboring Gaza pose a growing threat to its border. It says Palestinians use illegal tunnels to smuggle in guns and travel across to join those on the Egyptian side.

Egypt began work to block the tunnels on Wednesday. It has also closed the Rafah border crossing, drawing an appeal from Ismail Nahiyeh, the head of the Hamas government, to reopen what he called “lifeline” for Gaza.

Residents in al-Arish welcomed the security sweep, seeing it as an opportunity to curb criminality among Bedouin, including those in Sheikh Zuwaid, where many make a living smuggling goods and people through more than 1,000 tunnels into Gaza.

“We want the army to return to the border,” said 45-year-old shopkeeper Hassan Mohamed. “The tunnels have destroyed the lives of people in al-Arish. We want them to hit the Bedouin hard.”

Additional reporting by Yusri Mohamed in Sinai, Yasmine Saleh in Cairo, Maayan Lubell and Steven Scheer in Jerusalem; Writing by Myra MacDonald and Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Michael Roddy

Egyptian troops move into Israeli border zone


Gunmen fired shots towards a police station in the main administrative center of Egypt’s North Sinai on Thursday, underscoring lawlessness in the desert region bordering Israel as a Egyptian military offensive there entered its second day.

Hundreds of troops in armored cars drove out of the town to hunt Islamist militants blamed for killing 16 Egyptian border guards on Sunday, the biggest spike in violence which has been growing steadily since last year’s overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

The gunfire in Arish, the nerve center of the government’s otherwise shaky control of the North Sinai region, showed how difficult it will be for Egypt to impose order. It followed attacks on checkpoints in the town on Wednesday.

Israel has welcomed Egypt’s offensive while continuing to express worries about the deteriorating situation in Sinai, home to anti-Israel militants, Bedouin tribes angered by neglect by Cairo, gun-runners, drug smugglers and al Qaeda sympathizers.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Egypt was acting “to an extent and with a determination that I cannot previously recall”.

“Whether this ends with (their) regained control of Sinai and allows us not to worry as much as we have in the past few months, this I do not know,” he told Israel Radio.

The unidentified gunmen in Arish fled before police could respond, a security source said, denying a report by state television that police had fought back.

Hundreds of troops and dozens of military vehicles had reached the town, security sources said, part of an offensive not seen since Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel.

Dozens of armored vehicles, some equipped with machine-guns, could then be seen driving out of al-Arish towards the settlement of Sheikh Zuwaid which military aircraft attacked on Wednesday. The troops saluted passers-by and flashed victory signs, or filmed their departure with video cameras.

PUBLIC ANGER

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi – whose Islamist background in the Muslim Brotherhood has been eyed with suspicion by Israel since he was elected in June – on Wednesday fired the region’s governor and country’s intelligence chief in response to public anger over Sunday’s attack.

No one has claimed responsibility for the assault, in which the assailants seized two armored vehicles to storm an Israeli border crossing. One made it through before the attackers were killed by Israeli fire.

Israel says militants based in Sinai and Palestinian hardliners in neighboring Gaza pose a growing threat to its border. It says Palestinians use illegal tunnels to smuggle in guns and travel across to join those on the Egyptian side.

Israel has also been wary of Morsi’s ideological affinity with Hamas, the Islamist group ruling Gaza, fearing he would take a softer position on Palestinian militancy than Mubarak.

Morsi has brushed aside accusations that his politics would make it difficult for him to take a strong stance against violent groups sworn to Israel’s destruction.

His response to Sunday’s attack, which happened during the evening “iftar” meal which breaks the daytime fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, may also be underpinned by public anger over the deaths of the border guards.

In Egypt, there is wide respect for rank-and-file soldiers who are often poorly paid conscripts working in isolated places far from their families.

Comments suggesting outgoing intelligence chief Mourad Mwafi had been aware of a threat but took no action fueled that anger – despite suggestions he had been used as a scapegoat.

“…we never imagined that a Muslim would kill his Muslim brother at iftar,” Egypt’s state news agency MENA quoted Mwafi as telling his Turkish counterpart.

Mursi’s powers, are in any case, hemmed in by the army, which retains a strong role in setting security policy.

Residents in al-Arish, meanwhile, welcomed the security sweep, seeing it as an opportunity to curb criminality among Bedouin tribes, including those in Sheikh Zuwaid, who make their living smuggling goods and people through a network of more than 1,000 tunnels into Gaza.

“We want the army to return to the border,” said 45-year-old shopkeeper Hassan Mohamed. “The tunnels have destroyed the lives of people in Arish. We want them to hit the Bedouin hard.”

Reporting by Tamim Elyan and Yusri Mohamed in Sinai, Yasmine Saleh and Shaimaa Fayed in Cairo and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Myra MacDonald

Sinai border attack seen as test in Egypt-Israel relationship


The attack this week along the Israel-Egypt border poses dilemmas both for Israel and for the new Egyptian president.

Should Israel accede to pressure to modify its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt and allow more Egyptian troops into the Sinai to quell the unrest there?

For Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, will his crackdown on militancy in the Sinai be seen domestically as his offering a helping hand to Israel, a country much of his constituency still views as an implacable foe?

After the attack, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Gazan Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, which is affiliated with the Brotherhood, blamed Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency for the attack. Hamas claimed it was an attempt to disrupt Morsi’s new Islamist government, and the Muslim Brotherhood reportedly called for a review of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

But it’s not clear that Morsi endorsed that statement; rather, he ordered the Egyptian army to take “control” of the Sinai.

Israeli defense and government officials are saying that Sunday’s attack—in which militants in the Sinai Peninsula killed at least 15 Egyptian soldiers before breaching the Israeli border and being stopped by deadly Israeli fire—is an important moment in the Israel-Egypt relationship.

Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, called the attack a “wake-up call” for Egypt.

As part of the 1979 peace treaty, Egypt agreed to leave the Sinai mostly demilitarized, with specific restrictions on the number of troops and type of weaponry allowed there. Israel agreed to ease those restrictions in January 2011 after protests against then-President Hosni Mubarak intensified and attacks began on the gas pipeline between Egypt and Israel.

Since Mubarak’s fall, the Sinai has become increasingly lawless, with multiple bombings of the Egypt-Israel gas pipeline before Egypt halted gas delivery earlier this year; stepped up smuggling between Egypt and Hamas-controlled Gaza; and terrorist attacks launched against Israel from the Sinai. African migrants from Sudan, Eritrea and elsewhere also have used the Sinai as a base for sneaking into Israel.

This week’s assault was the deadliest incident along the border since Mubarak’s fall, although an attack last summer left eight Israelis dead in Eilat. Aside from the Egyptian soldiers killed in Sunday’s attack at the Rafah security checkpoint, several Egyptian soldiers may have been kidnapped by the terrorists, according to reports. Barak identified the attackers as members of the Global Jihadi terrorist group.

After killing the Egyptians, attackers used two vehicles to cross the border into Israel at the Kerem Shalom checkpoint. Israeli helicopters responded, killing the terrorists. At least six were wearing suicide vests, according to the Israel Defense Forces. Israeli intelligence had information on the planned attack, enabling the military to have helicopters in the area to strike the terrorists, an IDF spokesman said Monday. Israel shared its intelligence with Egypt in advance of the attack, according to reports.

“I think that it is clear that Israel and Egypt have a common interest in maintaining a quiet border,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday while touring the site of Sunday’s attack. “However, as has been made clear on numerous occasions, when it comes to the security of the citizens of Israel, the State of Israel must and can rely only on itself.”

The border crossing was reopened on Tuesday.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a condolence message to Egypt on the deaths of its troops. The message pointed out that the attack “aimed at shattering the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.”

The message said, “Peace between the two countries has been, and still is, an interest common to both peoples; Israel will continue to act in a spirit of cooperation with Egypt in order to preserve this vital interest and ensure security and stability in the region.”

The attack came two days after Israeli authorities warned Israelis to return immediately from the Sinai, citing a terrorist threat.

“From information at our disposal, it arises that terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip and additional elements are actively planning to perpetrate terrorist attacks, especially abductions, against Israeli tourists in Sinai in the immediate term,” said a warning issued by the National Security Council Counter-Terrorism Bureau.

The following day, the U.S. Embassy in Israel called on American citizens to “take precautions” in traveling to the Sinai. The embassy’s security message pointed out that there have been multiple kidnappings in the Sinai of U.S. citizens in the past four years, and that kidnappings of foreign tourists in the Sinai have increased since January.

In mid-June, terrorists infiltrated Israel from Egypt and killed an Israeli contractor in a border attack.

Israel began construction last year to complete its border fence with Egypt, both to halt the infiltration of illegal migrants and to prevent attacks. The fence will include barbed wire, cameras and motion detectors, and is set to be completed by the end of the year.

“There is no doubt that if they had entered a town here or an army base by surprise, they could have caused very serious damage,” Barak said Monday at the site of the attack. “This will not be the last time that we come across attempts to harm us.”

Israel moves tanks to border with Egypt after attack kills civilian


Israel reportedly moved tanks close to the border with Egypt following a cross-border attack in which an Israeli civilian was killed.

The move Monday was in violation of the Camp David Accords. The tanks were later withdrawn from the area, according to Haaretz. 

The terrorists who infiltrated Israel from Egypt killed an Israeli contractor during a border attack.

The terrorists detonated an explosive device Monday morning near two Israeli vehicles carrying contractors who are working on the border fence between Israel and Egypt. Gunfire was also directed at the vehicles, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Three terrorists had infiltrated into Israel in a place where the border fence is not yet complete. Some terrorists remained on the Egyptian side of the border, the IDF said. The incident took place near the Philadelphi Corridor, a narrow strip of land along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt

Golani Brigade soldiers who arrived at the scene within minutes of the incident opened fire on the terrorists, killing two. One of the terrorists was carrying a large explosive device that went off after he was fired upon, according to the IDF. No terrorists remain inside of Israel, according to Brig.-Gen Yoav Mordechai of the IDF Spokespersons Unit.

The attack comes a day after two long-range Grad missiles fired from the Sinai Peninsula were discovered in southern Israel.

“We see here a disturbing deterioration in Egyptian control in the Sinai,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Monday during a meeting with his Polish counterpart, Tomasz Siemoniak, in Tel Aviv.  “We are waiting for the results of the election.  Whoever wins, we expect them to take responsibility for all of Egypt’s international commitments, including the peace treaty with Israel and the security arrangements in the Sinai, swiftly putting an end to these attacks”

IDF troops returned later Monday to the scene of the attack to retrieve the terrorists’ bodies, according to reports. A helmet, vest, uniforms, and Kalashnikov rifles were found near the terrorists.

The Israel-Egypt border project currently employs 1,500 workers, according to Ynet.

Israeli troops foil terror attack on Egypt border


Israeli troops thwarted a terror attack on Israel’s border with Egypt.

During a routine patrol on the Israel-Egypt border to prevent smuggling, Israeli soldiers stopping a smuggling attempt witnessed a man leave a bag on the Israeli side of the border and flee back to Egypt. The bag was found to contain a “powerful explosive device,” according to a statement from the Israel Defense Forces.

Army sappers detonated the device in a controlled explosion.

According to the IDF, terrorists likely were planning to use the explosive device as a roadside bomb against Israel soldiers patrolling near the southern border.

“This incident is a reminder that the smuggling routes along the Israel-Egypt border are constantly being used by terror organizations to execute terror attacks against the citizens of Israel and IDF soldiers,” said the IDF statement, which also praised the soldiers’ alertness.

Work stepped up on Israel-Egypt border fence


Construction has been completed on the first permanent section of a border fence between Israel and Egypt.

On Wednesday, Israeli Defense Ministry Director Gen. Udi Shani toured the fence site, which will be nearly 135 miles long when it is completed in mid-2012. A decision to speed up construction of the border fence was made in the ministry just days after Egypt opened its Rafah border crossing with Gaza in the Sinai.

Infiltration of the border by illegal migrants has dropped by 50 percent since construction of the fence began in November 2010, Shani reportedly was told.

African migrants generally enter Israel through its largely unmonitored border with Egypt’s Sinai.

More than 33,000 African migrants have entered Israel, including 2,600 since the beginning of the year, according to the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority.

Egypt FM: Gaza border crossing to be permanently opened


Egypt’s foreign minister said in an interview with Al-Jazeera on Thursday that preparations were underway to open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza on a permanent basis.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi told Al-Jazeera that within seven to 10 days, steps will be taken in order to alleviate the “blockade and suffering of the Palestinian nation.”

The announcement indicates a significant change in the policy on Gaza, which before Egypt’s uprising, was operated in conjunction with Israel. The opening of Rafah will allow the flow of people and goods in and out of Gaza without Israeli permission or supervision, which has not been the case up until now.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Concern rising along the Israel-Egypt border


Driving along the Israel-Egypt border near this southern Israeli town, rusted metal posts strung with barbed wire give way to sand dunes and an exposed, open border as wide open as the question of what will become of the countries’ relations now that Egypt is in turmoil.

During a break between border patrols, which have been stepped up since the recent protests in Egypt began, a few Israeli soldiers climbing into a Hummer say they have been told to be on alert for possible trouble.

But for now, the same quiet borne of 32 years of a cold but functional peace prevails.

“It’s a very quiet border and we never expected it to continue being anything else but quiet,” said Sigalit Efrat, 36, who moved to Be’er Milka, overlooking the Egyptian border, eight years ago.

Efrat and her husband came here from the Golan Heights, Israeli territory disputed by Syria, seeking life in an agricultural community in a seemingly more stable part of Israel.

“You can never know what will be, but it’s in everyone’s interest to keep things calm,” said Sigalit’s husband, Adi Efrat, who grows pomegranates and lilies here, mostly for export to Europe.

He was referring not only to the Israeli and Egyptian governments, but Bedouin smugglers who make brisk business smuggling migrant workers and refugees across the border. They also run a lucrative sideline trafficking in drugs and women.

For the residents of the five Israeli villages near the Egyptian border, the mood is watchful waiting.

Last week, a group of Chinese migrants were found hiding in the greenhouses of the Kadesh Barnea, the Israeli town nearest the border. Residents shrug it off as nothing new.

What is new, they note, is the behavior of the Egyptian soldiers manning the border. They are no longer facing Israel but toward the vast expanse of the Sinai Peninsula on their own side.

Menachm Zafrir, a farmer at Kadesh Barnea who for 25 years served as its civilian security chief, offered his own commentary Feb. 4 just hours after Egyptian Bedouin used rocket-propelled grenades to attack an Egyptian state security office in the northern Sinai.

“They have changed direction to make sure the Bedouin don’t slaughter them,” Zafrir said of the Egyptian soldiers.

Reports in Israeli media say that Egyptian soldiers are building reinforced gun positions on the rooftops of their border outposts to cope with possible attacks.

The Bedouin may want a modicum of quiet along the border to keep their smuggling business afloat, but they also harbor aggression against the Egyptian authorities, who they say have discriminated against them and mistreated them for years.

Israeli authorities fear the Bedouin will help smuggle weapons and militants into Gaza and Israel.

The 166-mile Israel-Egypt border has been Israel’s quietest front since the historic peace accord between the countries was signed in 1979 after Israel agreed to withdraw from the Sinai. The absence of a the threat of a mobilizing Egyptian army meant Israel did not have to concern itself with defending its longest border—even when it went to war against Lebanon in 1982 or, more recently, against Hamas in Gaza at the end of 2008.

The peace meant Israel could leave most of the border without a fence. Last year, however, a growing number of African migrants sneaking across the border prompted the Israeli government to begin construction of a fence.

Zafrir, 53, who settled Kadesh Barnea along with several others who, like him, had been evacuated from an Israeli settlement of the same name in Sinai, drives along the narrow paved border road in his white pickup truck.

His mother is Egyptian and grew up in Cairo. He grew up speaking Arabic at home and says he has been to Cairo dozens of times for business.

“I feel very much at home there,” Zafrir said. “What will happen there now depends entirely on which way the politics of it all goes. The people themselves are good people.”

As he drives on the road he speaks of the unpleasant uncertainty of what’s next.

“We are the soft underbelly of the border,” he said, noting the vulnerability of his town and the cluster of other Israeli villages.

Because of their isolated location, if there are security problems of any kind it is the army, not the far-away police, that are on call. Some local residents, all trained soldiers, are part of a first-response civilian team with access to army-issued weapons in a time of emergency.

Israeli soldiers were stationed here for the first time following the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza amid concerns that the security calculus might have changed. But the area has been quiet, for the most part.

“I like the peacefulness here, the endless views, the virginity of the place,” Zafrir said, driving up a rocky slope to an overlook. “This place has become my life’s work.”

Casting his gaze toward the Egyptian soldiers at a mustard-colored outpost about 300 yards away, he said, “They must be confused. They don’t know what will be.”

Zafrir’s neighbor, Moshe Gini, 52, does not know what will become of his job. Since the riots began in Egypt, he has been staying home, unable to go to work driving trucks into Israel from Egypt that are loaded with carbonated gas used for making beverages.

Before the unrest Gini would go to the nearby Nitzana border terminal, the only commercial crossing between Israel and Egypt, to pick up supplies.

“A lot of people work there,” he said. “In the past, the border might close sporadically because of diplomatic tension, but overall it worked well.

“We are all waiting to see what will happen in Egypt,” Gini adds, pursing his lips together. “Nobody knows what will be.”

Israel beefs up troops on Egyptian border


Israel’s military has increased its presence on the border with Egypt over fears that terrorists and migrants will take advantage of the unrest in Egypt to cross into Israel.

The army and Border Police also are concerned that large groups of Bedouin living in the Sinai will attempt to flee into Israel.

On Monday, Egypt moved 800 troops into the Sinai to quell Bedouin riots, Haaretz reported, part of the demonstrations throughout the country calling for the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The movement of troops into Sinai, which is a violation of the peace accord between Israel and Egypt, reportedly was undertaken with Israel’s permission.

At least 250,000 protesters gathered Tuesday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, with about 1 million assembling throughout the capital and tens of thousands more throughout the country for the planned million-man march calling for Mubarak to step down.

Soldiers surrounding the square checked protesters for weapons but otherwise have not interfered, following a pledge Monday not to use force on protesters, according to reports.

Also Tuesday, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood said it would not negotiate with Mubarak or members of his government, and called for Mubarak to leave the country, Al Jazeera reported.

Some pro-government protests also are gaining momentum, according to Al Jazeera.

Israel begins building barrier on Egyptian border


Israel began construction of a barrier along its border with Egypt.

Engineers were scheduled to fan out along Israel’s southern border Monday and prepare the ground of for the construction of the barrier and electronic fence.

The nearly $375 million, 155-mile project is being undertaken in order to prevent migrant workers from entering Israel as well as to deter terrorists and drug smugglers.

Hundreds of illegal migrants from Africa enter Israel each week. Nearly 11,000 have entered Israel since January, according to Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority. Most are economic migrants searching for work, though a couple hundred asylum seekers have been granted refugee status in recent years.

Dozens of migrants, who pay smugglers thousands of dollars to help them cross the border from Egypt into Israel, have been shot and killed by Egyptian soldiers.