Via NY Times, by Jodi Rudoren
JERUSALEM — One Israeli soldier was killed and another was wounded on Friday morning in a battle with three men who stormed into Israel from the Sinai Peninsula, the second such deadly border attack in less than two months, reviving concern about the ability of Egypt’s new Islamist government to control growing lawlessness in the area.
The Israeli military killed all three of the men, who wore sand-color clothing as camouflage and carried assault weapons as well as an explosive belt, which detonated during a 15-minute gunfight, officials in the Israel Defense Forces said. A military spokeswoman said the group had also placed a cache of weapons in a pit nearby, including another explosive belt, AK-47 assault rifles, a machine gun and three rocket-propelled grenades.
Another military spokesman, Eytan Buchman, said the men entered Israel at Har Harif, about halfway between Eilat and the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, through one of the last parts of the 150-mile fence Israel has been building since 2010. The soldiers they attacked were providing water to African migrants stopped at the border, military officials said, though another nearby unit quickly engaged the men.
Mr. Buchman said it was unclear whether the men originated from Sinai or Gaza.
The border breach came six weeks after a bloody attack close to Rafah in which militants stormed an Egyptian checkpoint, killing 16 soldiers, then drove a stolen truck through the fence, before driving a stolen armored car about one mile into Israel.
No Israeli soldiers or civilians were hurt in that episode, which led to the temporary closing of the Rafah crossing and the destruction of some of the smuggling tunnels beneath it, as well as a brief chill in relations between Egypt and Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip. In its aftermath, Egypt intensified its military presence in Sinai, moving tanks and aircraft, which opened a debate about whether the military guidelines for Sinai outlined in Israel’s 30-year-old peace treaty with Egypt needed revisiting.
Officials of the new administration in Cairo, led by a former Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi, say that the security in Sinai deteriorated long before they took power, and that they have opened Egypt’s most concerted crackdown to restore it, including the destruction of more than 30 of the approximately 225 tunnels from Sinai to Gaza.
Col. Ahmed Mohamed Mohamed Ali, a spokesman for the Egyptian Ministry of Defense, said in a briefing on Sept. 8 that the crackdown had resulted in the killing of 32 criminals and the detention of 38 others in Sinai, a vast territory of 23,000 square miles, much of it desert and mountains that are difficult to control. The Egyptian forces also confiscated “a big number of weapons,” Colonel Ali said, including remotely controlled planes that can be filled with explosives to destruct targets from afar, and 20 vehicles “used by criminal elements in implementing their operations.”
But security forces have struggled to make much of a dent in the pervasive lawlessness in Sinai, where Bedouin residents still speak of Cairo or even Egypt as if they were foreign countries. Last week, the Egyptian state news media reported that gunmen had attacked one police checkpoint on the road to Rafah for the 36th time in the 20 months since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
“The security forces now are chasing the gunmen and sweeping the surrounding areas, as well as searching the passing cars and checking the identity of the passengers,” the state newspaper Al Ahram reported.
After a period in which Israeli leaders were upset that they had not been notified of Egyptian actions that went beyond the treaty guidelines, coordination between Egyptian and Israeli security forces “are now fluid and frequent,” said a senior Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. But the effectiveness of Egypt’s efforts — which combine enforcement with talks with tribal leaders and militants — remains unclear.
“The crackdown is limited to certain areas at certain times, and we cannot measure the efficiency of these measures,” the Israeli official said. “Some here say the cracking down does not look like a determined and sustained operation. Others point to renewed contacts between Hamas and Cairo as a source of relative leniency toward Sinai’s Islamists.”
Officials in the Morsi government say they are coordinating with Hamas to improve security on both sides of the border, and they blame criminals or radical Islamist militants for the problem.
Eli Shaked, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Egypt from 2003 to 2005, noted that controlling the terrorists and smugglers who have been operating freely for years in Sinai would take a serious and sustained commitment.
“It’s a long war; it’s not just one punch and they finish the problem,” Mr. Shaked said. “The Egyptian military will need time and Israeli cooperation — not by Israeli forces, but by the Israeli understanding of the Egyptian necessities to operate in Sinai with forces much beyond those agreed upon in the peace accords.”
The killing on Friday was the first of an Israeli soldier along the southern border in a year. In August 2011, two soldiers were among eight Israelis killed when gunmen ambushed a bus near the resort area of Eilat. In June, an Arab citizen of Israel helping to build the border fence — which is scheduled to be complete by year’s end — was killed when three men crossed into Israel from Egypt and attacked two vehicles with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and explosive devices.
The victim on Friday was Netanel Yahalomi, 20, who was promoted to corporal posthumously. Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, quoted Corporal Yahalomi’s sister as saying that their mother had spoken to him by telephone the day before his death.
“He said he received a package from home that we sent him with cooked food and sweets,” said the sister, Avital. “He was supposed to stay in the base for Yom Kippur. We sent him the package because we wanted him to feel good there.”
David D. Kirkpatrick and Mai Ayyad contributed reporting from Cairo.