Seven Israelis, including four civilians from the same family and three soldiers, were reportedly killed and at least 30 wounded in a series of five near-simultaneous, coordinated terror attacks against Israeli vehicles traveling near the Egyptian border in Israel's southern region on Thursday afternoon.
Four of the dead were reported to be from a family traveling in their private vehicle near the Egyptian border, when an RPG rocket hit their car. Two of those killed were children aged four and six. The IDF Spokesperson's Unit said soldiers were amongst the seven Israelis killed in Thursdays attacks.
Many of the wounded from Thursdays attacks were initially taken to Yoseftal hospital in Eilat, and then transferred to Soroka hospital in Beersheba, which has more advanced surgical facilities.
At least seven terrorists were reported killed in exchanges of fire with Israeli Special Forces following the initial attacks. As the day continued, Israeli forces battled several terror groups, and some three hours after the initial attack, the incident was brought under control. The army declared the area a closed military zone and closed all the roads leading to Eilat, causing massive traffic jams.
IDF Spokesperson Brig.-Gen. Yoav (Poli) Mordechai said the terror cell responsible for the attacks was "large and divided into several units." Mordechai added that the terror cell originated in the Gaza Strip and made use of "terror infrastructure in the Sinai Peninsula."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the incident a "serious terror attack in several locations, which shows the weakening of Egyptian authority in the Sinai Peninsula."
Speaking at a situation assessment with the IDF General Staff at the Kiriya military headquarters in Tel-Aviv on Thursday afternoon, Barak said the source of the attacks, which occurred near Israel's border with Egypt, was in Gaza, and that Israel would act harshly against the source of the attacks. An Israeli response was "obvious," Barak added.
International news media were reporting that Hamas officials had gone underground on Thursday afternoon, and that many of the terror group's facilities were shut down in anticipation of an Israeli retaliation.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's English-language spokesman Mark Regev said, "We have specific and concrete information that these terrorists came from Gaza," CNN reported.Egyptian authorities have denied all connection to the attacks, saying no fire emanated from inside Egyptian territory, Channel 10TV reported. Israeli witnesses said they saw Egyptian soldiers, in camouflage uniforms, firing on their vehicles.
The army declared the area a closed military zone as special police and military units battled the terrorists. One terror cell was reportedly subdued some two hours after the initial attack took place, but reports surfaced that another shooting attack had occurred at a checkpoint not far from the border area. Medical emergency crews could not reach several of the severely wounded from some of the attacks due to the heavy exchanges of fire in the area.
The Israel Police have raised the alert level across the whole country, and hospitals have asked the public to donate blood.
The first attack occurred shortly after noon when a cell of two to three gunmen opened fire on Egged bus No. 392, headed from Beersheba toward the southern Israeli resort town of Eilat along Highway 12, about 30 kilometers north of Eilat near the Netafim Junction. Seven people were wounded in this attack, one seriously. Twenty people suffered from shock. A spokesman for Magen David Adom emergency services said that the seven wounded suffered gunshot wounds to their arms and legs and were taken to Yoseftal Medical Center in Eilat, and later transferred to Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba. Their injuries were listed at light to moderate.
The bus was full of soldiers, some of whom returned fire at the attacking car. The bus driver continued driving, and reported that his bus came under fire not just from the passing car, but from inside the Egyptian border as well. The exchange of fire lasted three to four minutes. The attacking car fled and was reported to be involved in another incident several minutes later, firing at several other Israeli cars and another bus. Israeli special police forces were reported to have caught up with the suspected car and engaged the gunmen.
At 12:30, an Israeli military patrol vehicle that was sent to the area in response to the first attack was hit by a series of bombs detonated on a road near the Egyptian border. No casualties were reported from this incident, and exchanges of fire following the attack.
The third attack occurred at 12:35 when mortar shells were fired at Israeli vehicles, possibly military. No casualties were reported in this attack either.
At 13:10 an RPG rocket was fired at a vehicle, no injuries were caused.
At about 1:11 PM an anti-tank rocket was fired at a private vehicle traveling near the Egyptian border. Five people in the car were reportedly killed, four from the same family.
Passengers from the first bus attacked were evacuated after the first shooting, and large numbers of soldiers and police were deployed in the area in pursuit of the suspects. The Israeli forces soon caught up with the terrorists and a gunbattle ensued.
Roadblocks were set up in some major intersections in southern Israel and the road to Eilat was cordoned off by security forces. Road 90, the Arava road, was also blocked.
There were conflicting reports as to whether the gunmen opened fire on the fist bus from within Israeli territory or from Egyptian territory, although Egypt has officially denied that any fire came from its side of the border. One woman, who identifed herself on Israel's Channel 1 TV only as Sarah, said her car came under fire by an Egyptian soldier manning a small military outpost inside Egyptian territory. "He was lying down in a firing position, aimed his weapon at our car, and fired off several shots. About five bullets hit my car. It is a miracle that my two children, who were sitting in the back seat were not killed," Sarah, the witness, told the television station.
Israel Radio reported that there was a general warning issued recently about terrorists trying to infiltrate into Israel, but there were no specific warnings issued about when or where the attacks might take place. Israel's security establishment has recently warned of the consequences of increased lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula following the revolution that removed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power. Channel 1 reported that al-Qaida elements have increased their presence in the peninsula in an attempt to turn the area into an Islamic emirate.
Egypt on Sunday sent hundreds of soldiers and police officers into the Sinai desert in an attempt to expel al-Qaida terrorist cells and hostile Bedouin gangs operating in the area. The move, code-named "Operation Eagle," utilized some 200 armored personnel carriers.
Egyptian authorities hope to restore order in Sinai, which has become a chaotic staging ground for terrorist activities since the Egyptian revolution earlier this year, including several attacks against the gas pipeline delivering gas to Israel and Jordan.