CAIRO // Relations between Egypt and Israel sunk to their lowest point in more than a decade as a diplomatic row over the killing of five Egyptian security officers on the border of Sinai escalated yesterday.
The incident took place on Friday, as Israeli forces chased alleged militants near the resort town of Eilat into Egyptian territory. The officers were killed by a combination of shrapnel and bullets, in what Israeli officials said may have been unintentional collateral damage in the pursuit of militants involved in an earlier attack on Israeli buses near the border.
Both sides were investigating the deaths, but pressure mounted in Egypt as hundreds of people protested outside the Israeli embassy throughout Friday night and yesterday. Several Israeli flags were burnt and people called on the Egyptian government to expel the Israeli ambassador.
An official announcement in Egypt initially said the cabinet had called on its ambassador to return from Tel Aviv until an official apology was made, but that announcement was removed from a government website in the afternoon.
Late yesterday, Israel's defence minister says Israel was sorry for the deaths of Egyptian troops. Ehud Barak said he has ordered a military investigation and a joint inquiry with the Egyptian army to clarify what happened.
The reaction of the Egyptian government, which has been controlled by the military since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak on February 11, showed for the first time the changing relations between Egypt and Israel.
"For the first time, we are seeing that the new Egyptian government can no longer ignore the public pressure for strong reactions to Israeli policies" as it had done under Mr Mubarak, said Gamal Soltan, the head of Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
If the Egyptian ambassador is called back to Cairo, it would have severe consequences on relations with Israel that would be difficult to reverse, Dr Soltan said. The last time Egypt recalled its ambassador was in 2000, when Israeli forces retaliated against Palestinians during the second intifada.
"It's a difficult decision at a bad time in the region," he said. "There are pressures coming from different directions and there is a lot of hesitation from the current government about escalation."
Egypt's interim government had already taken strides to draw a line between the Mubarak-era policies toward Israel that were geared toward stability in the region and a new agenda after the revolution. Authorities opened the Rafah border crossing to Gaza and officials began striking a more defiant tone toward Israel.
But it was the security vacuum in Sinai - a major concern for Israel's self-defence - that pushed these simmering tensions into a diplomatic crisis.
On Thursday, militants launched a surprise attack from Sinai on Israeli buses travelling to the resort town of Eilat, killing eight people. Israelis mounted a counter-attack, which officials said yesterday may have led to inadvertent deaths of five Egyptian police and military officers.
The incident came after a push by the Egyptian military to root out militant groups that had gained a stronghold in Sinai after police abandoned their posts during the uprising against Mr Mubarak in late January. Since Mr Mubarak's resignation, groups have attacked a pipeline carrying gas to Israel and Jordan five times and distributed a leaflet calling for the establishment of the Islamic emirate of Sinai.
A senior Israeli defence official, Amos Gilad, told Israel Radio that "No [Israeli] soldier intentionally aims any weapons at Egyptian police or soldiers". He added that its treaty with Egypt is a "fundamental element of existence in the Middle East".
A western diplomat, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation, called the tensions a "really serious and very dangerous crisis".
"There is a lot of international pressure on both sides to tone it down," the diplomat said. "With everything going on in the region, this is the last thing that anybody needs."
The Arab League was also planning an emergency meeting today to discuss an Israeli attack on Gaza on Friday that left 15 people dead. The meeting was called after the league "received a request from the Palestinian state", a spokesman said.
The historic Camp David Accords that established peace between Egypt and Israel in 1979 could come under threat if Egypt and Israel don't reconcile the situation, said Talal Okal, a Palestinian political analyst who lives in Gaza.
"The changes in Egypt and the Arab world are deepening the conflict with Israel," he said.
"Egypt is trying to return to its role as a regional power and it will no longer sit back and simply watch Israel's policies" toward the Palestinians, Mr Okal said. "Mubarak was the protector of Israel's security, but now, the future is bringing significant changes that don't bode well for Israel."
* With Reuters and reporting by Hugh Naylor in Jerusalem