Tension and confusion in Egypt after Israel kills 4 of its soldiers

Mostafa Ali, Michael Gunn, Ahram Online, Friday 19 Aug 2011

As hundreds protest outside the Israeli diplomatic missions in Cairo and Alexandria, political figures take a strong tone in condemning Israel while the military fails to set out what happened

Alex Israel
Protesters raise Egyptian and Palestinian flags over Israeli consulate in Alexandria (Photo: Ahram Online)

The Egyptian government and political street have reacted all day to Israel’s killing of three Egyptian policemen, one officer and two soldiers, near the Gaza-Egypt border yesterday.

Israeli troops are reported to have killed all three Egyptians while chasing Palestinian militants on the Egyptian side of the border.

The Israeli attack came hours after unknown armed men ambushed an Israeli bus near the town of Eilat on the Red Sea, killing 10 Israelis and injuring 27.

Last night, the Egyptian Coalition of Revolutionary forces called for an emergency rally at the Israeli embassy in Cairo today at 1pm. The Coalition, which is made up of more than 40 revolutionary youth groups and political organisations, mobilised in protest at the murder of the security personnel.

Soon after Friday’s noon prayers ended, 300 people gathered at the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

The Coalition is calling on the Egyptian government to expel the Israeli ambassador to Egypt in order to send a resounding message to the Israelis. It has also called on the ruling military council to hand power to a civilian administration and return to its barracks from where it can focus on Egypt's border security.

Protesters at the embassy have threatened to prevent the ambassador from entering the embassy in the meantime.

Meanwhile, in Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, hundreds of protesters have laid siege to the Israeli consulate. Supporters of presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei and members of the Revolutionary Socialists managed to reach the roof of the consulate’s building from where they flew the Egyptian and Palestinian flags.

Back in Cairo, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf has summoned his Cabinet to an emergency meeting Friday to discuss the grave security problems his government faces in the Sinai peninsula.

The minister of interior and representatives of the Egyptian Army are set attend the cabinet meeting.

On the other hand, Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, a Liberal Islamist and possible candidate in Egypt’s upcoming presidential elections, has added his voice to those calling on the ruling military council to immediately expel Israel’s ambassador to Egypt and to stop the flow of Egyptian natural gas to Israel.

In a statement released today (19 August) in response to Israeli forces killing an Egyptian army officer and two soldiers yesterday while allegedly chasing Palestinian militants across the Gaza-Egypt border, Aboul-Fetouh denounced Israel. “The Egyptian people who defeated oppressive rulers in the 25 January Revolution can defeat external enemy,” Aboul-Fetouh wrote.

Meanwhile, Amr Moussa, the former head of the Arab league and another presidential hopeful, also denounced Israel’s attacks on Egyptian soil in a message he sent to his supporters through his Twitter account. “Gone forever are the days when Israel will kill our children while we do not respond,” he wrote.

Later this afternoon, Egypt issued Israel with an official protest over the deaths of the security personnel.

"Egypt has filed an official protest to Israel over the incidents at the border yesterday (Thursday) and demands an urgent investigation over the reasons and circumstances surrounding the death of three of Egypt's forces," an Army official told Reuters.

Egypt's military chief-of-staff Sami Enan headed to Sinai on Friday to probe the deaths of policemen killed by Israeli gunfire the previous day, a military source said.

"Enan will head a committee that will investigate the deaths of soldiers by Israeli gunfire,"  the source said.

The Israeli attacks appeared to have caught Egypt's security forces by surprise, as they engage in a sweeping week-long crackdown on Islamist militants in the peninsula, with conflicting reports being issued by the military and police about how the Egyptian policemen died.

A military official told the official MENA news agency on Thursday night they were accidentally killed by Israeli helicopter fire aimed at fleeing militants.

But on Friday, the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper quoted a military official as saying the policemen were killed by gunmen trying to slip in from Israel.

Enan's visit was announced shortly after another policeman was declared dead following a border gunfight on Friday, which left one of his colleagues gravely wounded with a bullet in the head.

As the political winds blew, hundreds of Egyptians have been waiting at Assiut airport in Upper Egypt for the body of officer Ahmed Galal Abdel Qader, one of the three soldiers Israel killed, to arrive from Sinai.

The Governorate of Assiut and residents in this Upper Egyptian city are planning a large military funeral for the fallen officer.

Back in Sinai, several hundred holidaying Israelis began to evacuate the peninsula Friday morning, following warnings from the Israeli government about the dangers they face by remaining in Egypt.

Tourists cut short their trips to the popular resorts of Dahab, Nuweiba, Taba and Sharm El-Sheikh to return to Israel via the reopened Taba crossing, according to a report on Ahram's Arabic portal.

Before the January revolution, the number of Israelis visiting the Sinai peninsula each year was said to be in the hundreds of thousands.

The manager of a leading chain hotel in Sharm El-Sheikh, speaking to Ahram Online on the condition of anonymity, said reports of an exodus from the peninsula's major resort were exaggerated.

"Israelis generally don't visit Sharm, they prefer the camps and cheaper, more basic accommodation," he said. "If people left today it was in minimum numbers."

It was a similar story in laidback Nuweiba, where Mahmoud Sokar, manager of Petra Camp, a backpacker favourite, said the last six months have seen very few Israeli tourists.

"Apart from a few, very infrequent reservations, we have had almost none since the revolution," he told Ahram Online by phone.

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