Earlier in the day, Egypt had threatened briefly to recall its ambassador, prompting an expression of regret from the Israeli defense minister, two days after at least three Egyptian security personnel were killed by gunfire at the border after a deadly attack in southern Israel.
The border killings, which have been blamed in Egypt on an Israeli helicopter tracking the attackers, have sparked a public outcry here and prompted calls by political parties and civic organizations for Egypt’s interim military leadership to respond and to reassess the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
On Saturday and into Sunday morning, thousands of people gathered outside the Israeli Embassy to protest the killings. At one point, the Israeli flag was removed from the building and replaced with an Egyptian flag.
In an effort to head off a diplomatic crisis, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak issued a statement Saturday expressing regret over the deaths of an Egyptian soldier and two police officers at the border, promising a joint investigation of the incident and commending Egypt’s conduct in the relationship with Israel.
“Israel regrets the death of the Egyptian policemen during the attack on the Israeli-Egyptian border,” the statement said. Barak did not acknowledge Israeli responsibility for the deaths.
The ruling military council faces a dilemma, observers said. If its response is seen as too weak, it risks fueling public resentment. If its statement is too strong, it could jeopardize Egypt’s relationship with Israel and anger its ally the United States.
“As far as the Egyptian ruling power is concerned, I don’t think they want to see any tension,” said Hani Shukrallah, editor in chief of the English-language al-Ahram Online Web site. The Israelis, he said, “are putting the Egyptian authorities in a very embarrassing situation before their public at a time when it’s very difficult not to be responsive to public opinion in post-revolution Egypt.”
The Egyptian government had demanded an Israeli apology and joint probe, and it criticized statements by Israeli officials about Egypt after the raid that left eight Israelis dead. Barak said at the time that Egypt’s hold on the Sinai Peninsula, from where the attackers are thought to have infiltrated Israel, had weakened.
In the statement Saturday, Barak said that he had ordered a military investigation of the incident, followed by a joint inquiry with the Egyptian army.