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Cross border attack tests Israel-Egypt peace treaty, clashes with Palestinians surge
JERUSALEM (AP) ' Israel's landmark 1979 peace treaty with Egypt is being tested by a cross-border attack blamed on Palestinian militants. Israel made a rare apology Saturday for the deaths of three Egyptian soldiers after Cairo threatened to withdraw its ambassador.
The attack on Thursday set off a new cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Israeli airstrikes have been answered by Palestinians pelting southern Israel with at least 80 rockets and mortars since Friday. An Israeli was killed Saturday in the desert city of Beersheba, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Gaza.
"Israel is sorry for the deaths of the Egyptian policemen during the attack on the Israel-Egypt border," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said after Egypt threatened to withdraw its ambassador to protest the deaths of its soldiers.
The Egyptian government said late Saturday Israel's apology was welcome, but not enough. Still, it reaffirmed Egypt's commitment to the peace.
Israel's apology was a clear move to try to quickly contain the damage to already shaky relations with Egypt. Egypt's threat to take diplomatic action put Israel in the uncomfortable position of having to apologize for violence that was triggered after its borders were breached and its people attacked and killed.
Israeli officials promised to investigate the deaths of the Egyptians and insisted the peace treaty was stable.
"No one had any intention to harm Egyptian security personnel," Amos Gilled, a senior Israeli Defense Ministry official who works closely with Egypt, told Israel Radio.
But even before the clashes on Thursday, the February ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak in a popular revolt had unleashed an outpouring of anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt and criticism of the peace treaty. Israeli officials were also growing wary about instability in post-Mubarak Egypt.
Although the military leaders who now rule Egypt have expressed their commitment to the peace accord, Israel is watching closely for signs they might respond to the rising anti-Israel sentiment and distance themselves from the Jewish state.
As the country moves through a chaotic and rocky transition to democracy, Islamist groups tightly curbed under Mubarak look headed for a more powerful role in the new Egypt ' something else that rattles nerves in Israel.
Mubarak was seen by his people as too sympathetic to Israel, negotiating a highly unpopular deal to supply it with natural gas. Israel, in turn, counted on Mubarak as a trusted, if cool, ally, maintaining the peace despite Egyptian disappointment that a wider agreement could not be reached with Palestinians and other Arab states.
The simmering hostilities in Egypt boiled over after the soldiers died. Egypt said it was a violation of the peace accord.
Israel says the attacks began when Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip crossed into Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, probably through one of the hundreds of smuggling tunnels under the border, then made their way more than 100 miles (150 kilometers) through the barren desert before crossing into southern Israel. Israel and Gaza both border the Sinai Peninsula.
The militants ambushed Israeli buses and cars with gunfire and a bomb and killed eight Israelis.
Israel and Egypt gave different versions of how the Egyptian soldiers died. Egypt said they were killed in an airstrike. Israel offered conflicting accounts. One account said there was an exchange of fire between its soldiers as they pursued the militants along the border.
A senior Israeli defense official told The Associated Press Saturday night that "initial reports in the investigation show that the terrorists came from Gaza and apparently opened fire on purpose near Egyptian positions in order to bring them into the fighting." He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to reporters.
The Israel-Egypt and Israel-Palestinian issues are closely intertwined. Egypt has tried for decades to broker a peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians. And in recent years, Egypt has tried to mediate an end to the internal Palestinian split between Fatah, which runs the West Bank through the Palestinian Authority, and the Islamic Hamas, which rules Gaza.
The aftermath of the clashes Thursday showed just how quickly Israeli-Palestinian violence can escalate.
Israeli airstrikes have killed 12 Palestinians, including two children, since Thursday, and Israeli leaders have made it clear that they will not put up with mounting violence from Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened senior ministers and security commanders late Saturday in an extraordinary session to discuss the surge in violence.
In Israel, one person was killed Saturday and dozens have been wounded in the barrage from Gaza, including a 2-week-old baby, hospital officials said. The flurry of exploding rockets damaged buildings all over Israel's south.
It was the heaviest salvo of rockets from Gaza since Israel staged an all-out ground and air operation in Gaza to stop daily rocket attacks in early 2009.
Israel is also concerned about an upsurge in Islamic militant activity in Sinai since Mubarak's fall. But no Israeli official has gone on record faulting Egypt for the way it is policing Sinai, where mountainous desert terrain and permeable borders have beckoned to extremists, contraband smugglers and African migrants for years.
Last week, Egypt moved thousands of troops into Sinai as part of a major operation against al-Qaida inspired militants who have been increasingly active since Mubarak's ouster. Since Mubarak was toppled, the natural gas pipeline running through Sinai has been sabotaged five times, disrupting supplies to Israel and Jordan.
Under Mubarak, the killings of troops would have elicited criticism on the front pages of Egyptian dailies. In post-Mubarak Egypt, however, youth activists on social networking sites spread calls for demonstrations in front of the Israeli embassy.
Thousands of protesters gathered outside the embassy in Cairo for a second day on Saturday, demanding the expulsion of the Israeli envoy who is now vacationing abroad. A Palestinian flag was unfurled at the site, and some of the demonstrators threw firecrackers at the building.
A dozen armored vehicles were stationed in the area and soldiers formed a cordon in front of the main gates to prevent any protesters from reaching the embassy building.
In Jordan, the only other Arab country at peace with Israel, about 150 protesters called Saturday for cancellation of the 1994 treaty and expulsion of the ambassador.
Michael reported from Cairo. AP writer Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem also contributed to this report.