Another concern is the potential for a sharp spike in violence as Palestinians prepare to ask the United Nations to recognize them as an independent state next month in response to stalled Mideast peace talks.
The West Bank-based Palestinian Authority is eager to avoid a resumption of hostilities. But Israel is on alert for a variety of scenarios, including attempted attacks from Gaza. The Islamic militant leadership of Gaza does not coordinate with the Palestinian Authority and seems ambivalent about its U.N. bid.
The attacks began when assailants spaced at intervals of about 200 yards targeted a packed passenger bus driving along a highway about 10 miles north of the Red Sea resort of Eilat, close to the border crossing into Sinai. Within an hour, a suicide bomber blew himself up next to another bus and gunmen opened fire on two passenger vehicles, military officials said. An army vehicle rushing to the area drove over a roadside bomb, they said.
In all, six civilians and one soldier were killed, said Israel’s southern military commander, Maj. Gen. Tal Russo.
Around the same time, an undisclosed number of mortar shells were fired from the Gaza Strip at Israeli soldiers conducting routine maintenance work on the security fence along the Israel-Egypt border, the statement said. Mordechai said militants also fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli helicopter operating in the area.
Israel Radio said a vehicle had followed the first bus, and two to three gunmen got out and opened fire with automatic weapons.
The vehicle carrying the assailants fled the scene, and Israeli security forces took off in pursuit, Israel Radio said. Channel 2 reported that two helicopters had been deployed to join the chase.
TV footage showed the bus pulled over by a red, rocky cliff. Windows and a door of the bus were shattered, and soldiers were patrolling the area on foot. Inside the bus, seats were stained with blood and luggage littered the aisle.
“We heard a shot and saw a window explode. I didn’t really understand what was happening at first. After another shot there was chaos in the bus and everyone jumped on everyone else,” passenger Idan Kaner told Channel 2 TV. He said the attack lasted three or four minutes until the bus was able to drive away.
Roadblocks were thrown up in the area and entrances and exits to Eilat were sealed. Senior Israeli security officials convened in an emergency session at the defense ministry in Tel Aviv.
The Israeli military identified three of the gunmen targeted in the airstrike as senior members of the Hamas-linked Popular Resistance Committees who were behind the attacks. Their primary objective was to kidnap Israeli civilians or soldiers, the military said.
Militants use captives as bargaining chips, and the PRC was involved in the capture of an Israeli soldier, Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who has been held captive in Gaza for more than five years.
The driver of the bus said he had seen Egyptian soldiers open fire, but Mordechai said he was not aware of any Egyptian military involvement.
“The border is heavily guarded,” said a Sinai-based official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.