Egypt’s cabinet was due to discuss growing lawlessness along the border with Israel as pressure grew for a tough response to the killing of five Egyptian security personnel that has inflamed tension between the two neighbours.
The Egyptians were killed as Israeli troops repelled gunmen who killed eight people near Israel’s Red Sea resort of Eilat on Thursday. Israel said the gunmen had entered the country by crossing from Gaza and through the Egyptian Sinai.
Egypt blamed the deaths of its security personnel on Israel, said it breached their 1979 peace treaty and announced it would recall its ambassador in protest, Reuters reports.
Israel expressed its regret for the deaths, but pressure was growing in Egypt for sterner sanctions.
A group of politicians including former Arab League head Amr Moussa and other candidates for Egypt’s presidency called on Monday for the immediate return of the Egyptian ambassador, more troops in Sinai and trials in Egypt for Israelis responsible for the killings.
“Egypt after the January revolution is not like Egypt before. The corrupt, oppressive and compliant regime is gone for good,” they said in a statement published in newspapers.
They described the government of former President Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown in February, as “a strategic asset to Israel.”
“It has been replaced by a strong popular will that does not know weakness or complicity and understands well how to achieve retribution for the blood of the martyrs.”
Another presidential candidate called for restraint.
“Any military escalation with Israel at the current moment is stupidity given the current situation in the country,” Mohamed Selim el-Awa, an Islamist, said in al-Masry al-Youm newspaper.
Hundreds protested angrily outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo at the weekend. One man who scaled the tall building to tear down the Israeli flag and replace it with Egypt’s was feted as a hero by politicians and the press.
Newspapers dedicated pages of their coverage to Ahmad al-Shehat on Monday, detailing his background and describing in detail how he scaled the embassy and pulled down the flag, drawing an ecstatic reaction from the crowd.
A protest of any size near the Israeli embassy would have been quickly smothered by state security forces in the Mubarak era.
The spat with Israel has highlighted the dilemma faced by the generals ruling Egypt, caught between pressure to preserve the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and popular hostility to the Jewish state.
The army is trying to keep a lid on social tension as Egypt prepares for elections later in the year as part of a promised transition to democratic civilian rule after Mubarak’s removal.
The top army officers now in charge in Cairo have broken with Mubarak’s softly-softly approach and Egypt’s condemnation of Israel included a demand for a change in relations between the two U.S. allies.
Egypt’s Information Minister Osama Heikal told state TV: “The assurance that Egypt is committed to the peace treaty with Israel … should be reciprocated by an equivalent commitment and an adjustment of Israeli statements and behaviour regarding various issues between both countries.”
But there were signs over the weekend that Egypt and Israel were both trying to ease the gravest crisis in their relations since Mubarak’s overthrow.
On Sunday evening Egypt’s state media reported that Israeli President Shimon Peres had expressed his regrets over the Egyptian deaths in a phone call with the Egyptian ambassador to Tel Aviv, Yasser Reda.
Peres held a Ramadan dinner earlier on Sunday for senior Arab officials at his home in Jerusalem where he told Egyptian diplomat Mustafa al-Kuni, that he has great respect for the Egyptian people, according to Israeli Ynet news website.
Egyptian state news agency MENA said Peres had apologised to the Egyptian ambassador but that was not confirmed by Israel, which is still investigating how the Egyptians died at the border.
It was not clear whether Egypt had followed through on its decision to withdraw its ambassador from Israel.
The Israeli military killed the leadership of the faction it said was responsible for the attack near Eilat in an air strike in Gaza on Thursday, and launched more than a dozen more raids on Friday. Medical officials say at least 15 Palestinians were killed, including five civilians, three of them children.
Israel said it was acting in self-defence and did not rule out further action to prevent the launch of rockets and missiles against Israeli cities, but an official involved in negotiations between Israel and Palestinian factions said Hamas and the Jewish state had agreed a cease-fire and Hamas would ensure smaller militant groups also respected the truce.
U.S. assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman arrived in Cairo on Sunday evening to meet Egyptian officials, according to a source at the American embassy in Cairo.
The UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry also visited Egypt on Sunday and held talks with government officials including foreign minister Mohamed Kamel Amr and Chief of Intelligence Murad Muwafi.
“The special coordinator conveyed to the government of Egypt his deep concern over the death of Egyptian security personnel,” the statement said, adding that Serry was worried about “the continuing tensions, in particular the escalation of violence in Gaza and southern Israel.”