“The people who gave the order to murder our citizens and were hiding in Gaza are no longer alive,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in televised remarks. “If the terrorist organizations think that they can harm our citizens without a response, they will discover that Israel will exact a price from them, a very high price.”
The suspected infiltration of the porous frontier with Egypt heightened Israeli concerns about growing lawlessness in the Sinai region since the ouster of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February. Israeli officials said they had prior indications that militants who had slipped out of Gaza into Sinai through smuggling tunnels were preparing a cross-border attack.
“The event reflects the weakening of the Egyptian hold on Sinai and the broadening of the activities of the terrorist elements,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said. “The source of the terrorist activities is Gaza, and we will act against them with full force and determination.”
An Israeli official described conditions in Sinai, where Bedouin tribes involved in smuggling and illegal arms sales have defied the central government, as “a Wild West situation.”
“This is not just a problem for Israel and Egypt,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. “There’s a global interest in making sure Sinai doesn’t become a no man’s land and a platform for regional terrorism.”
In Washington, the White House said in a statement that the United States stands with Israel “against terror.”
“We condemn the brutal terrorist attacks in southern Israel today in the strongest terms,” the statement said., adding that the United States hopes the perpetrators “will be brought to justice swiftly.”
Egyptian officials dismissed Israel’s assertions that the assailants had crossed from Sinai. “There is no evidence that any people entered Israel from Egypt,” said Maj. Gen. Abdel Wahab Mabrouk, the governor of northern Sinai. “Maybe the attackers came from Israel.”
In the first of Thursday’s attacks, gunmen struck about noon on a road several miles from Eilat, opening fire on an inter-city bus carrying mostly soldiers. The driver, Benny Bilbaski, told Israel Radio that he saw “two men in fatigues shooting at me” and that he quickly drove out of range, where the injured were treated.
At about the same time, another bus and two cars were targeted nearby, and then an explosive device was detonated near a military vehicle carrying troops to the scene, the army said in a statement. A soldier was killed in the blast and ensuing exchange of gunfire, the army said.