JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli soldier died Friday in a shootout that also killed three Islamic militants attempting to infiltrate the country from Egypt with an eye toward carrying out a terror attack in the Jewish state, the Israeli military said.
The attack highlighted the growing threat of violence along Israel's border with the Sinai Peninsula, a stretch of desert which has been demilitarized since Israel returned it to Egypt as part of their 1979 peace deal. While once a popular tourist destination for Israelis, Sinai has become increasingly lawless and dangerous in recent years as al-Qaida-inspired groups have taken hold in the vast desert.
The militants were wearing explosive belts when they opened fire on troops guarding a team of workers building a border fence between Israel and Sinai, according to military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich.
There were different accounts of what happened next.
Leibovich said the Israeli troops returned fire, killing the militants. An Israeli soldier was shot in the head during the gunbattle and later died of his wounds.
But Egyptian intelligence officials said the attackers had crossed the border and that one of the three militants blew himself up inside Israel.
The Israel-Egypt border has become increasingly volatile since the fall of longtime Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising last year. Israel has repeatedly warned Egypt's new authorities of the deteriorating situation and the growing militancy in Sinai.
Militants have staged multiple attacks on a pipeline delivering gas from Egypt to Israel, frequently lobbed rockets into the Jewish state and have snuck across the border and killed Israelis.
One of the most brazen attacks came last year, when Palestinian militants crossed from Gaza into Sinai, made their way along the Israel-Egypt border, then crossed into Israel and attacked Israeli vehicles, killing eight people. Israeli forces chased the attackers down and killed six Egyptian troops in the process — an incident that increased tensions between the two countries.
And in August, Islamist gunmen brazenly killed 16 Egyptian soldiers before smashing through a fence into Israel. Egypt responded by launching an operation in Sinai, using tanks and troops against the militants.
Since Mubarak was toppled, Israel has made some exceptions to the peace deal requiring Sinai remain demilitarized and allowed Egypt to send in more troops to Sinai to deal with the militant threat.
Israel has issued several travel warnings to its citizens against visiting Sinai, based on information alleging that militant groups from the Gaza Strip were operating in the area and planning to attack or kidnap Israeli tourists.