JERUSALEM — Squads of gunmen armed with heavy weapons and explosives crossed into southern Israel on Thursday, killing seven in an attack on buses, cars and an army patrol in one of the boldest attacks on the Jewish state in years, officials said. Israel said the Palestinian assailants came from Hamas-ruled Gaza and crossed through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Exchanges of gunfire across the Israel-Egypt border continued late into the evening, but it was not clear whether assailants were still at large within Israeli territory, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said. Gaza militants fired a rocket at the southern city of Ashkelon Thursday night, but Israel’s new missile defense system knocked it down, said Israel’s chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai.
The series of attacks were the boldest against the Jewish state in years and stoked concerns that Palestinian militants might be exploiting instability in Egypt. Within hours, Israeli aircraft bombed southern Gaza in retaliation, and Gaza medical official Adham Salmia said five militants and one child were killed in a strike on a private home.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would not put up with stepped up attacks from Sinai.
“If the terror organizations think they can strike at our civilians without eliciting a response, then they will find that Israel will exact a price — a very heavy price,” Netanyahu said in a brief broadcast statement Thursday night.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the attack. “This violence only underscores our strong concerns about the security situation in the Sinai Peninsula,” she said in a statement, praising “commitments by the Egyptian government to address the security situation.”
Egypt and Hamas denied involvement.
The onslaught on southern Israel began at midday. The attacks came close together in time and location and appeared coordinated. Mordechai said security forces killed five assailants in all — three on the Israeli side of the border and two others who had been shooting at Israeli forces from Egypt. Earlier military reports said seven assailants were killed.
The attackers were booby-trapped, Mordechai said. There was no word on whether any of the attackers were captured alive or exactly how many in all were involved.
Israel said the gunmen started out from Gaza and made their way through Sinai, which borders both Israel and Gaza. Eilat and Gaza are about 130 miles (200 kilometers) apart along the border.
“The incident underscores the weak Egyptian hold on Sinai and the broadening of the activities of terrorists,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement. “The real source of the terror is in Gaza, and we will act against them with full force and determination.”
Mordechai said Israel coordinated its operation against the assailants with Egyptian security sources, who helped to battle gunmen operating against Israel from its side of the border.
It was the deadliest assault in Israel since a Palestinian gunman entered a religious seminary in Jerusalem in March 2008 and killed eight people.
Security in Sinai has deteriorated sharply since February, when longtime leader Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising. Many Israelis saw Mubarak as a source of stability with shared interests in containing Iran and its radical Islamic proxies in the region, such as Hamas. Mubarak also upheld the decades-old peace treaty with Israel.
Last week, Egypt moved thousands of troops into the Sinai peninsula as part of an operation against al-Qaida inspired militants who have been increasingly active in Sinai since Mubarak’s ouster in February. The militants have taken advantage of the security vacuum caused by the abrupt withdrawal of police forces. Authorities have blamed the militants for brazen attacks on police patrols as well as a string of bombings on a key pipeline carrying natural gas to Israel and Jordan.