CAIRO — Egypt said Saturday it will withdraw its ambassador from Israel to protest the deaths of Egyptian security forces in what it called a breach of the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries, sharply escalating tensions after a cross-border ambush that killed eight Israelis.
Israel has blamed the ambush on Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip who crossed the border from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. The diplomatic spat erupted after the Egyptians claimed the security forces were killed as the Israelis pursued the assailants.
The fallout also has threatened to stoke the Mideast conflict as retaliatory violence between Israel and the Islamic militant group Hamas spiked in the aftermath of Thursday's attack. Israeli airstrikes killed at least 12 Palestinians, most of them militants, in the Gaza Strip, and nine Israelis have been wounded by Palestinian rockets fired into southern Israel.
There were conflicting statements about how the Egyptians were killed, but an Egyptian Cabinet statement said it held Israel "politically and legally responsible for this incident," which it deemed a breach of the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries. It demanded an immediate investigation.
In strong language, it said Egypt will take all measures and send reinforcements to protect its borders and "to respond to any Israeli military activity at the Egyptian borders."
It also said that Israel was to blame because lax security from its side allowed the ambush to take place.
"The Egyptian ambassador to Israel will be withdrawn until we are notified about the results of an investigation by the Israeli authorities, and receive an apology from its leadership over the sad and hasty remarks about Egypt," the Cabinet statement said.
It was the first time in nearly 11 years that Egypt decided to withdraw its ambassador from Israel. The last time was in November 2000 when the Egyptians protested what they called excessive use of violence during the second Palestinian uprising.
The decision to withdraw Egyptian Ambassador Yasser Reda came as hundreds of protesters staged demonstrations in front of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, unfurling a Palestinian flag, throwing fire crackers toward the top floor and calling for expulsion of the Israeli ambassador in response to the killings.
Egypt's official news agency blamed the Israelis for shooting and killing the Egyptian forces while chasing militants who killed eight Israelis in Thursday's ambush across the border in southern Israel.
The Cabinet statement said that Israel had "carried out a random raid that led to the death of three Egyptian soldiers and injury of four others." Egyptian officials have said another Egyptian soldier and a policeman died Friday of wounds from the attack. It was not clear why the Cabinet statement only mentioned three.
The Cabinet accused Israel of trying to "shirk responsibility for the recklessness of Israeli security forces in protecting the borders."
Israeli officials did not immediately comment on Egypt's decision, although the military promised on Friday to investigate the shootings.
An Israeli military officer, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations, initially said a suicide bomber, not Israeli soldiers, killed the Egyptian security forces. He said the attacker had fled back across the border into Egypt and detonated his explosives among the Egyptian troops.
Israeli media also reported that some of the sniper fire directed at the Israeli motorists Thursday came from near Egyptian army posts and speculated that the Egyptian troops were killed in the cross fire.
It was not possible to reconcile the different versions.
Thursday's attack signaled a new danger for Israel from its border with the Sinai Peninsula, an area that has always been restive but was kept largely under control by former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. The desert area has become increasingly lawless since Mubarak was ousted on Feb. 11 following a popular uprising.
Relations between the two countries have been chilly since they made peace in 1979, but Israel valued Mubarak as a source of stability with shared interests in containing Iran and its radical Islamic proxies in the region.
The violence could further damage ties if Egypt's political upheaval and a resulting power vacuum in Sinai allows Gaza militants, who had been pummeled by a punishing Israeli three-week war 2 1/2 years ago, to open a new front against Israel in the frontier area.
Anger rose after Egyptian officials said Thursday's gunbattles killed five Egyptian security personnel. An Egyptian security official said three died Thursday and two others died of wounds on Friday.
"Israel and any other (country) must understand that the day our sons get killed without a strong and an appropriate response, is gone and will not come back," wrote Amr Moussa, former Arab League chief and now a presidential hopeful. He tweeted his statement along with, "the blood of our martyrs which was spilled while carrying out their duties, will not be shed in vain."
Gunmen crossed the border from Egypt on Thursday and set up an ambush along a 300-yard (meter) strip, armed with automatic weapons, grenades and suicide bomb belts, the Israeli military said.
They opened fire on a civilian bus heading toward the Red Sea resort city of Eilat, hitting a number of passengers, then riddled another passing bus and two cars with bullets and rigged a roadside bomb that detonated under an army jeep rushing to the scene. At the same time, Palestinian mortar gunners in Gaza opened fire at soldiers along the Gaza-Israel border fence.
The assailants killed eight people, six civilians and two Israeli troops responding to the incursion. Israel said it killed seven assailants.
Hamas, which controls Gaza, praised the attacks but denied any involvement. Israel holds Hamas responsible for all violence coming from the Palestinian territory and retaliated by striking the group.
"This is a response to the terror attacks executed against Israel in the last 24 hours," the military said.
Israeli aircraft struck several targets in Gaza, killing five Palestinian militants late Thursday and five more on Friday, including a senior member of the Islamic Jihad, according to Palestinian hospital officials. Two civilians were also reported dead.
One of the rockets launched from Gaza Friday smashed through a roof of a Jewish seminary, damaging a synagogue in the port city of Ashdod and wounding six Israelis who were standing outside, Israeli emergency services said. Another hit an empty school while a third, aimed at the city of Ashkelon, was intercepted by the new Israeli anti-missile system known as Iron Dome.
On Saturday, one of those rockets seriously injured two people in the port city of Ashdod, police said.
A senior Israeli military officer who briefed reporters by phone said at least 15 Palestinians from Gaza took part in the assault. He also spoke on condition of anonymity according to military regulations.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited some of the wounded in the hospital Friday. "We killed the head of the group that sent the terrorists, but this is just an initial response," he said. "We have a policy to extract a very heavy price from those that attack us and that policy is being implemented in the field."
Israel said the attackers had come from Gaza and made their way into neighboring Sinai and from there into Israel. The attack was the deadliest for Israel since a Palestinian gunman killed eight people in a Jerusalem religious seminary in 2008.
Israeli aircraft hit multiple targets in Gaza, the military said. Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Adham Abu Salmia said at least four militants were killed and a dozen injured Friday.
One strike hit a motorcycle carrying senior militants from the Palestinian group Israel says is behind Thursday's violence. Another five militants including the group's leader were killed Thursday night.
At the United Nations, diplomats said that Lebanon blocked the Security Council during a closed meeting on Friday from condemning the terrorist attacks in southern Israel. The United States had circulated a draft press statement to the council, which requires the support of all 15 council nations.
"We think the council needs to speak out on this issue," said the U.S. deputy ambassador, Rosemary DiCarlo. "We find it regrettable that because of one delegation we couldn't issue that in a timely way."
Deitch reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Amy Teibel in Jerusalem contributed to this report.