CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt withdrew its ambassador from Israel Saturday, saying that the killing of five Egyptian security personnel while Israeli forces pursued gunmen across the border was a breach of its 1979 peace treaty with the Jewish state.
Israel said it regretted the deaths, which followed attacks inside Israel that killed eight people and sparked the most serious crisis in Israeli-Egyptian ties since Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in February.
Israel said it hoped that after Barak’s remarks the Egyptian envoy, who had not yet left, would remain in Tel Aviv. “We hope that the ambassador will not be recalled,” Yigal Palmor, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said. “He’s still here.”
Egypt “lays on Israel the political and legal responsibility for this incident, which constitutes a breach of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel,” the cabinet said in an official statement posted on its web site.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel regretted the deaths of Egyptian security personnel. Seeking to ease the tension with Cairo, he said he had instructed the Israeli army to conduct a joint investigation with Egypt into the incident.
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry will summon the Israeli charge d‘affaires to “convey Egypt’s official protest over gunfire from the Israeli side in a way that led to victims falling inside Egypt,” the state news agency MENA quoted a ministry official as saying. He said the Israeli ambassador was not in Cairo.
The official said Egypt planned to ask for a “formal joint investigation to uncover the circumstances of the incident and pin down those responsible and take legal procedures to safeguard the rights of the Egyptian victims and casualties.”
Hundreds of Egyptians protested onside the Israeli embassy in Cairo overnight, burning Israeli flags, tearing down metal barriers and demanding the expulsion of the Israeli envoy.
A senior Israeli defense official earlier said Israel sees keen to maintain its peace treaty with Egypt, which it sees as a “fundamental element of existence” in the Middle East.
“One thing is sure, there is not a single person in Israel who wants to harm an Egyptian policeman or soldiers,” Amos Gilad, a liaison officer with the Palestinians and Egypt, said on Israel Radio.
He said an investigation had not yet determined who had killed the Egyptian security personnel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been consulting cabinet ministers about a response, said an official who asked not to be named, referring to relations with Egypt.
Israel swiftly pinned the blame for Thursday’s attack on a Palestinian group independent of Islamist Hamas. It killed the faction’s leadership in an air strike on the Gaza Strip on Thursday and launched more than a dozen more raids Friday.
Egypt recalled its ambassador in Tel Aviv on previous occasions, including Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and heavy Israeli shelling of the Gaza Strip in 2000.
Israel has expressed concern about security in the Sinai peninsula and said the attackers infiltrated from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip via Egypt’s Sinai desert, despite stepped-up efforts by Egyptian security to root out Islamist radicals.
Cairo rejected charges it had lost control of Sinai and said
Israel was blaming Egypt for its own security failings.
The cabinet decisions followed a crisis meeting attended by army generals and Egyptian intelligence chief Murad Muwafi.
“The cabinet committee has decided to withdraw the Egyptian ambassador in Israel until the result of investigations by the Israeli authorities is provided and an apology from the Israeli leadership over the hasty and regrettable statements about Egypt is given,” the cabinet statement said.
Egypt will take every precaution to secure its border with Israel to deter any infiltrators, and to respond to any Israeli military activity toward the Egyptian border, it added.
Sinai forms a desert buffer zone between the rest of Egypt and Israel. Parts of their mountainous border remain porous.
An official in Egypt’s Suez Canal authority said the waterway was operating normally.
The number of troops Egypt can deploy in the Sinai is limited under the peace treaty signed with Israel in 1979 after the two countries had fought four wars since 1948.
In 1994 Jordan became the only other Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
Emad Gad, senior researcher at Cairo’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said neither Egypt nor Israel was keen to escalate the issue further. “Withdrawing the Egyptian ambassador is a good step but Egypt still has to insist on a formal apology from Israel,” he said.
The Cairo-based Arab League said it would hold an urgent meeting Sunday to discuss Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip that killed 15 Palestinians after the attacks on Israel.
Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh and Omar Fahmy in Cairo, Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia and Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Alistair Lyon