JERUSALEM ““After a deadly string of terrorist attacks in southern Israel, officials in Jerusalem are on the alert for how instability in neighboring Egypt may be opening up more avenues for terrorists intent on attacking Israel.
Thursday’s coordinated attacks left seven Israelis dead – six civilians and one soldier – and seven terrorists were killed in subsequent firefights with Israeli soldiers.
Palestinian gunmen attacked two buses and two cars traveling near the southern resort city of Eilat just after noon Thursday, according to the Israel Defense Forces. When Israeli troops arrived, roadside bombs planted by the terrorists detonated. More than 40 people were reported injured in the attacks.
At the same time that the vehicles near Eilat came under fire, Palestinians in Gaza fired rounds of mortar fire at Israeli soldiers working near the security fence where Gaza, Egypt and Israel meet.
The attacks “demonstrate the weakening of Egypt’s control over the Sinai Peninsula and the expansion of terrorist activity there,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said. He added that Israel’s military will retaliate against the attacks, which he said “originate in Gaza.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement also spoke of harsh retaliation.
“If the terrorist organizations believe that they can attack our citizens and get away with it, they will soon learn how wrong they are,” he said. “We will exact a price, a very heavy price.”
Israeli officials believe that Palestinian terrorists crossed from the Gaza Strip into Egypt in order to infiltrate Israel’s border near Eilat, some 150 miles away. Since the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt last winter, the Sinai – the part of Egypt that abuts southern Israel – has become an increasingly lawless place. Militants have attacked and disabled the gas pipeline that runs from Egypt to Israel multiple times, and Bedouin smugglers run a brisk trade under the border between Egypt and Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas.
On Thursday, Israeli media reported that some of the attackers had fled across the border into Egypt, and that Egyptian border troops opened fire on the terrorists. Egypt said it was not involved in the attack.
The attack began with the ambush of Egged bus 392, which runs between Beersheba and Eilat. Gunmen also attacked a car whose passengers included two young children on their first-ever trip to Eilat.
One of the Egged buses shown on Israeli television had several of its windows shot out and bullet holes on its side. The driver managed to keep the bus on the road during the attack and drove to the nearest Israeli army checkpoint while soldiers riding the bus exchanged fire with the attackers, according to reports.
After the attacks near Eilat, Israeli jets reportedly carried out an airstrike on a site in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, that killed the head of the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees and five other members of the group, the Palestinians said. The group reportedly was responsible for the attacks. The IDF did not confirm the strike.
Meanwhile, Ynet reported that the Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted a rocket fired at Ashkelon from Gaza.
The Prime Minister’s Office urged Israeli citizens to heed travel warnings against visiting the Sinai.
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni called for retaliation and said her Kadima Party “will support the government when it comes to anti-terrorism operations and closing the border.”
The White House in a statement said, “We condemn the brutal terrorist attacks in southern Israel today in the strongest terms.” It also said that “The U.S. and Israel stand united against terror, and we hope that those behind this attack will be brought to justice swiftly.”
JTA Wire Service