Israeli envoy flees after embassy in Cairo is attacked

CAIRO— Israel flew its ambassador home on Saturday after protesters stormed the building housing its embassy in Cairo, plunging Egypt’s ruling army deeper into its worst diplomatic crisis since it took over from Hosni Mubarak.

The United States, which has poured billions of dollars of military aid into Egypt since Cairo made peace with Israel in 1979, urged Egypt to protect the embassy after protesters hurled embassy documents and the Israeli flag from windows.

„Our dignity has been restored,” said Mohi Alaa, 24, who protested overnight and was speaking near the site of the clashes, where bits of concrete and bullet casings were strewn over the street.

„We don’t want the Americans’ money,” he said, reflecting a growing readiness among many Egyptians to express anger and frustration with Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians after decades of pragmatic official relations.

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Egyptian press muted by restrictions, uncertainty

Police had fired shots in the air and teargas to disperse the crowd. Protesters had lit tires in the street and at least two vehicles were set alight near the embassy, located on the upper floors of a residential block overlooking the Nile.

Medical sources said two protesters had been killed. A Reuters reporter saw a corpse in a hospital and a medical report saying his chest had been punctured.

The Health Ministry said 837 had been injured in protests at the embassy and security building in the area, with more than 200 transferred to hospital, the state news agency said. It said one had died from a heart attack.

Israel at odds with neighbors
As dawn broke, about 500 demonstrators remained and a few threw stones at police and army vehicles and personnel. But police gradually pushed them further away and secured the area.

It was the second big eruption of violence at the embassy since five Egyptian border guards were killed last month during an Israeli operation against cross-border raiders who Israel said were Palestinians. That incident prompted Egypt briefly to threaten to withdraw its envoy.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the overnight attack.

An aide to the prime minister said Netanyahu on Saturday denounced it as a „serious incident” and a „blatant violation of international norms.”

He said Netanyahu thanked Egyptian authorities for helping rescue six Israeli employees trapped inside the embassy during the attack but said the incident itself was a „severe injury to the fabric of peace with Israel.”

The aide, who said he heard Netanyahu’s remarks, spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press.

Israeli ambassador Yitzhak Levanon, staff and family members arrived home on Saturday but one diplomat stayed in Egypt to maintain the embassy, an Israeli official said.

Israel is finding itself increasingly at odds with formerly sympathetic states in the region. It is already embroiled in a feud with Turkey, formerly the closest of its few Muslim allies, over its treatment of the Palestinians.

Meanwhile Egypt’s generals, already under pressure to hand power to civilians more swiftly, must balance public calls for a more assertive foreign policy toward Israel with maintaining ties that bring cash and top-notch U.S. military equipment.

Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf called a cabinet crisis meeting for early on Saturday.

Image: Egyptian activists demolish a concrete wall built around a building housing the Israeli embassy

Amr Nabil / AP

Hundreds of Egyptian activists demolish a concrete wall built around a building housing the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

„This action shows the state of anger and frustration the young Egyptian revolutionaries feel against Israel, especially after the recent Israeli attacks on the Egyptian borders that led to the killing of Egyptian soldiers,” Egyptian political analyst Nabil Abdel Fattah told Reuters.

Some politicians and activists criticized the violence, even if they backed the anti-Israel demonstration.

Presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahy called for the army to take a „serious stance matching the public anger” toward Israel, but said violence sullied the image of Egypt’s uprising.

Last month, a man climbed up a flagpole on the building, took down Israel’s flag and replaced it with Egypt’s. Protests continued daily but did not turn violent until the latest flare-up.

In response to the protests, the authorities erected a wall around the building, which was quickly defaced with anti-Israel slogans and then painted in Egypt’s national colors.

On Friday, the wall was torn down after a demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square calling for speedier reforms and a deeper purge of officials who worked for Mubarak, the former president on trial on charges including conspiring to kill protesters.

In Tahrir Square, US not as hated anymore

Under Mubarak, Egyptians could never show such hostility to Israel without facing a crushing security response. Egypt’s ties with Israel, though never very warm, remained a pillar of Mubarak’s foreign policy and buttressed his claim to be a regional mediator. Mubarak regularly met Israeli officials.

Although the treaty has sat uneasily with many Egyptians, it has ensured close ties with the United States, and a steady flow of financial and military aid.

‘Honor obligations’
U.S. President Barack Obama called on Egypt to „honor its international obligations” and protect the Israeli mission. He told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Washington was taking steps to resolve the situation.

An Israeli official said the ambassador, staff and family members had left in one plane and a second one had brought home six Israeli security personnel who had been left guarding the embassy, protected by a reinforced door as protesters massed outside. Egyptian troops were sent in to extract them.

„The fact that Egyptian authorities ultimately acted with determination is laudable. With that said, Egypt cannot let slide this harsh blow to the fabric of relations with Israel and the gross violation of international norms,” Netanyahu said in a statement. He also thanked Washington for its role.

Demonstrators had last staged a major march on the embassy after protests over the killing of the five Egyptian border guards in Sinai. Smaller protests had persisted until the latest eruption of violence.

The five died during an Israeli operation against gunmen who had killed eight Israelis. Egypt threatened to withdraw its ambassador from Tel Aviv. Israel has stopped short of apologizing, saying it is still investigating the deaths.

Before moving on the embassy, demonstrators tried to storm a local police compound, hurled stones at the police and torched at least four vehicles. They also set alight a nearby public building.

The April 6 movement, which helped to lead the anti-Mubarak uprising, said violence against the police vehicles and other property was perpetrated by those trying to „distort the image of the revolution.” It blamed supporters of Mubarak.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.