CAIRO — Egypt declared a state of emergency Saturday after a mob stormed the Israeli embassy outside Cairo, forcing the evacuation of the ambassador and dealing what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a "severe injury to the fabric of peace" between the two increasingly uneasy allies.
Egyptian officials said 38 people arrested in the violence would face "immediate prosecution" for the attack that began late Friday night, when hundreds of demonstrators broke down a security wall and ransacked files from a storage area in a remarkable breach of security at the normally well-guarded embassy.
Israeli air force planes left Cairo early Saturday carrying the Israeli ambassador, Yitzhak Levanon, and 80 embassy workers and family members out of the country. Israel said that its diplomatic mission in Egypt continued to operate through a consul office, however, and Netanyahu said in nationally televised remarks that Israel would "hold fast" to its 32-year-old peace accord with Egypt, a linchpin of security in the Middle East.
Trying to calm tensions, Netanyahu also thanked Egyptian special forces soldiers for rescuing embassy staff members who were trapped inside the embassy in Giza, a Cairo suburb, when the attacks took place.
In Washington, the White House said in a statement that President Barack Obama had "expressed his great concern" about the embassy situation in his conversation with Netanyahu, the New York Times reported. The statement said Obama called on the government of Egypt "to honor its international obligations to safeguard the security of the Israeli Embassy."
The incident underscored the sharply deteriorating relations between Egypt and Israel since the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February following weeks of historic protests. Many Egyptians are venting long-suppressed anger at Israel over its treatment of Palestinians and, more recently, the killing of five Egyptian police officers in a border incident in August.
After crisis meetings with members of the Cabinet and Egypt's ruling military council, Information Minister Osama Heikal said on state television that the government had implemented a state of emergency "in order to protect the stability of the country and protect embassies and foreign missions."
Heikal said that 38 people who had been arrested in the violence had been referred to the Higher State Security Court and would be swiftly prosecuted.
State television reported that the military council rejected Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's offer to resign in the wake of the incident.
Egyptian political movements and youth groups raced to deny involvement in the attack. The Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful Islamist movement in Egypt, said that it condemned "all acts of violence and the attacks on the Israeli Embassy" but that the military should hand power to a civilian government that would block attempts by "any local or foreign powers attempting to spread chaos … in Egypt."
The group said that the tensions were fueled by "the government's slow reaction to the killing of Egyptian (police) officers by Zionist forces" and added that "building a concrete wall to protect the embassy was among the reasons that inflamed nationalist emotions."
At the Israeli Embassy, no police or security forces were standing guard when the demonstrators broke through metal gates and dashed up the stairs of a high-rise building to the floors housing the embassy. Army troops arrived to confront the demonstrators after about an hour, but there was no explanation for the delay.