Gaza: Israeli aircraft struck militant outposts in Gaza and Palestinians fired more than a dozen rockets into southern Israel on Friday, as violence escalated following deadly gun attacks along Israel's desert border with Egypt.
Tensions between Israel and Egypt also grew, with Cairo issuing a formal protest over the death of three of its security guards, who, it said, where killed when Israeli forces hunted for the gunmen behind Thursday's roadside ambushes.
Eight Israelis perished in the border assault and at least seven of the attackers also died as Israeli forces tracked them down along the largely open frontier with Egypt.
Israel swiftly pinned the blame on a Palestinian group that is independent of the Hamas Islamist movement, which governs Gaza. An airstrike killed the faction's leadership on Thursday, and there were numerous other strikes throughout Friday.
"We have a policy of exacting a very heavy price of anyone who attacks us and this policy is being implemented," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday, while visiting wounded compatriots in hospital.
Palestinians said, at least nine militants had died in the multiple strikes as well as two children, one aged 2, the other 13. Huge crowds gathered for the funerals, chanting anti-Israeli slogans and vowing revenge.
Militants in the tiny coastal enclave fired 14 rockets at southern Israeli cities on Friday, the Israeli military said. Two rockets targeting the city of Ashdod hit a synagogue and a school, injuring two people.
Israel said, Thursday's attackers had slipped out of Gaza and into Egypt's Sinai desert, and then headed south before infiltrating Israel close to the Red Sea resort of Eilat.
Israeli leaders accused Egypt's new military leaders of losing their grip on the Sinai Peninsula. Cairo has rejected the charge, but Israel fears that its once sleepy southern flank is rapidly becoming a major security threat.
"We would hope that yesterday's terrorist attack on the border would serve as an impetus for the Egyptian side to more effectively exercise their sovereignty in Sinai," said a senior Israeli official, who declined to be named.
Egyptians were angered over the death of an army officer and two security officials on their side of the border on Thursday, although it was not clear how they died. Eyewitnesses said the attackers had disguised themselves as Egyptian security forces.
"Egypt has filed an official protest to Israel over the incidents at the border yesterday and demands an urgent investigation over the reasons and circumstances surrounding the death of three of Egypt's forces," an army official said.
The Israeli military said, there was an exchange of fire between its troops and the militants along the border on Thursday night. "The IDF (army) will investigate the matter thoroughly and update the Egyptians," it said in a statement.
Israeli forces had been on high alert for a possible attack in the region this week and it was swift to blame the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) armed faction.
The PRC said its commander, Kamal al-Nairab, his deputy, Immad Hammad, and three other members were killed in Thursday's air strike on a home in Rafah, by the border with Egypt.
The group denied involvement in Thursday's ambushes, but did claim responsibility for some of Friday's rocket fire.
The sparsely populated Sinai forms a huge desert buffer zone between Egypt and Israel, who sealed an historic peace treaty in 1979 after fighting two wars in less than a decade.
Israel enjoyed good relations with US-backed former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but following his downfall in February, Israeli officials, have regularly voiced concern about a security vacuum along their joint border.
In Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the "brutal and cowardly attacks" on the Israelis near Eilat. She said the violence "only underscores our strong concerns about the security situation in the Sinai Peninsula."
First Published: Friday, August 19, 2011, 23:34