A shooting rampage by an apparently berserk Egyptian policeman at a Sinai beach yesterday that killed seven Israeli vacationers has threatened to strain relations between Israel and Egypt further amid charges here that Egyptian authorities blocked medical attention to the victims for several hours.
The shootings came after a week of rising tension in the Middle East. On Tuesday, an Israeli bombing raid on Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunisia killed 73 PLO aides and Tunisians and since then three Israelis have been slain in the West Bank, apparently by terrorists in retaliation.
Although at the official level both governments sought to minimize the diplomatic repercussions of the rampage, in which the assailant also killed his Egyptian commander, eyewitnesses and an Israeli Cabinet minister charged that some of the victims would have survived had Egyptian police allowed their evacuation to a hospital sooner.
Israeli Health Minister Mordechai Gur, who visited two of the wounded in a hospital here today, charged that at least one victim bled to death while Egyptian police fired at other Israeli tourists who sought to go to his aid.
Egypt's charge d'affaires in Tel Aviv, Mohammed Bassiouni, labeled as "malicious rumors" reports by witnesses that evacuation of the wounded was deliberately delayed for four hours by Egyptian police.
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, in a request to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak today for a formal investigation into the shooting, said that the "entire nation" of Israel was in mourning and that it was "regrettable that a hostile atmosphere was impeding the progress of peace."
Mubarak, speaking to reporters in Cairo, described the shooting on a sandy Sinai hilltop at Ras Burka, on the Gulf of Aqaba shoreline about 25 miles south of Eilat, Israel, as a "limited incident that can happen anywhere, carried out by an insane man." He said Egypt remained committed to the Middle East peace process.
Egyptian Defense Minister Mohammed Abu Ghazala said the policeman, who also shot to death an Egyptian officer who tried to arrest him, would be put on trial to "decide whether he was insane or has done it deliberately."
Israeli officials said the Foreign Ministry had asked Egypt why the Israeli casualties were not given first aid sooner, and clarification of whether the gunman was a policeman or soldier. Egypt is forbidden by the 1979 peace treaty to have Army troops in that area of the Sinai.
Gur told reporters that after the Egyptian gunman opened fire on 11 Israeli campers who had trekked up a sandy hill to visit Egyptians at an outpost -- as they had earlier -- Egyptian authorities prevented an Israeli doctor and two Israeli reserve Army medics from reaching the victims.
Gur said a child died of "loss of blood" from leg wounds because the Egyptians prevented his evacuation to a hospital in Eilat.
One witness to the shooting, Davoria Vardia of Jerusalem, who said she was standing on the beach below the hill, said Egyptian officers shot at Israelis who sought to reach the victims.
Vardia told Israeli radio, "Time was passing. It was a half hour, an hour, and time was life because they were bleeding. No water, nothing. Nobody took care of them. We were there for two hours, and no help, no ambulance. Nothing."
Vardia said the Egyptians closed the road to Eilat so campers stopped a vehicle of the Sinai multinational peace-keeping force and asked the driver to seek help in Eilat.
She said she thought the Egyptian officers "were afraid this crazy soldier would kill other people . . . . They didn't know what to do."