Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the incident, along with the firing of two rockets on southern Israel over the weekend, indicates “a disturbing deterioration in Egyptian control of security in the Sinai.”
He said Israel expected the winner of Egypt’s presidential election this past weekend “to take responsibility for all of Egypt’s international commitments, including the peace treaty with Israel and the security arrangements in the Sinai, and to swiftly put an end to these attacks.”
Egyptian Gen. Abdelwahab Mabrouk, the governor of North Sinai, the border province from where the attack was allegedly launched, expressed doubt about the veracity of the reports.
“Sinai is secure and under control on our side,” he said, according to a statement carried by the state-run Middle East News Agency. “Any intruders are arrested immediately.”
According to Lt. Col. Avital Leibovitz, an Israeli army spokeswoman, the incident started about 6 a.m., when three gunmen attacked two vehicles carrying laborers who had arrived to work on the border fence. The gunmen targeted the vehicles with an explosive charge, rifle fire and a rocket-propelled grenade, she said.
Leibovitz said a vehicle hit by the explosive and by the gunfire overturned and went into a ditch, killing one worker, whom news reports identified as an Israeli Arab. The spokeswoman said the other workers were not injured.
Israeli troops on border patrol arrived minutes after the attack and traded fire with the assailants, two of whom were killed when a large quantity of explosives carried by one of them detonated, Leibovitz said. She said a third attacker fled back to the Egyptian side of the border, where other members of the attack squad allegedly remained. No soldiers were hurt.
Israeli farming communities and army bases in the border area were locked down after the attack as troops searched for additional infiltrators. Border roads were closed to civilian traffic.
The workers are employed by one of the companies contracted by the Israeli Defense Ministry to construct the 140-mile-long border barrier of steel mesh and razor wire. The fence is still under construction, and the attackers crossed in an area where the barrier was not complete.
Leibovitz said it was unclear where the attackers — who she said were equipped with helmets, flak jackets, camouflage uniforms, Kalashnikov assault rifles and grenades — had come from. But she said the quality and amount of explosives and combat gear they carried were reminiscent of a deadly cross-border attack in August that Israel blamed on a small militant Palestinian faction in Gaza, the Popular Resistance Committees.