CAIRO — Eager to head off a diplomatic crisis with its most important peace partner, Israel apologized to Egypt on Saturday over the deaths of three Egyptian soldiers who were accidentally killed last week during an Israeli military incursion into the Sinai peninsula.
But even if a deeper fracture was averted by the rare expression of regret, a spat that saw Egypt threaten to recall its ambassador is another sign of the rising ill will between the two key U.S. allies. The episode also reflects how pro-democracy rebellions spreading across the Arab world are creating new realities in the decades-old Mideast conflict.
In Egypt, public opinion has sharpened Cairo's criticism of Israel since the revolution that swept President Hosni Mubarak from power in February. That is forcing Israel to recalibrate long-held policies and assumptions about its security, with some critics complaining that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government has been slow to comprehend the changes sweeping the region.
Mubarak had kept a cool peace with Israel, muting anti-Israeli sentiment for strategic goals that included combating Islamic extremism and keeping close ties with the United States.
But the latest test of the landmark 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace accord came Thursday, when gunmen killed six civilians and two Israeli soldiers in southern Israel. Israeli forces chased the militants across the border into Egypt, where the Egyptian soldiers were killed, apparently in assaults by Israeli helicopters. Israel says the attackers originally came from the Gaza Strip and infiltrated Israel through the Sinai desert.
Egypt's abrupt threat Saturday to recall its ambassador to Israel unless it received an apology startled Israeli officials, who noted that a formal investigation had not yet even confirmed that Israel's military was responsible for the Egyptian deaths.
Israel, Gaza trade fire: Palestinian militants from Gaza fired rockets at cities deep inside Israeli territory on Saturday, killing one person. And Israel struck a squad that was firing mortar shells from northern Gaza as violence continued in the wake of an attack Thursday that killed eight Israelis, officials in Israel said. A militant group in Gaza, the Popular Resistance Committees, claimed responsibility for rocket fire on Beersheba that killed the Israeli civilian and wounded six others. But in a new development late Saturday, the military wing of Hamas, the group that rules Gaza, took credit for firing four rockets at the Israeli town of Ofakim, its first claim of participation in this round of violence, the New York Times reported.