Israel Embassy attack in Cairo nearly ended in catastrophe

Sunday, September 11, 2011 |  Ryan Jones

The aftermath of an angry mob storming the Israeli Embassy in Cairo has been surprisingly calm and low-key, but new details reveal that the weekend assault nearly ended in a catastrophe that could have set off a regional wildfire.

The incident began on Friday when 5,000 or so Egyptian demonstrators taking part in ongoing anti-government protests in central Cairo decided to take out their frustration on the nearby Israeli Embassy.

In truth, with Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood more and more at the forefront of the Egyptian revolution, Israel and Egypt's continued relations with Israel have become a focus of the demonstrations.

The rioters were armed with metal bars, hammers, clubs and a variety of other weapons, and made short work of the newly-built wall protecting the embassy (which had started coming under attack on a regular basis earlier this summer).

As the sustained assault continued into the night, Israel decided to evacuate its people. A team of Egyptian commandos spirited the 80 Israeli diplomats and their families away to the airport, where they boarded an Israel Air Force plane to the neighboring Jewish state.

But left behind were six Israeli security guards.

What started out as a presumably symbolic assault when the protesters took down the Israeli flag turned deadly when they began to enter the compound.

A number of Egyptian rioters later boasted to Egyptian media that they had physically assaulted members of the Israeli Embassy staff before being ejected from the building by Egyptian police.

The six guards later recalled speaking to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by telephone during the siege. Fearing that they were going to be lynched, the guards asked Netanyahu to personally pass on their farewells to their families.

At one point, the rioters were just one room away from where the guards were hiding. The guards said they had been authorized to open fire on the mob if it broke into their room. That necessary act of self-defense would have been spun as Egyptian civilians being massacred at the Israeli Embassy, and possibly would have sparked a regional and international crisis.

It required Netanyahu calling and pleading with US President Barack Obama to get the Egyptians to finally move and rescue the trapped guards, who were extracted at the last minute and flown back to Israel.

Israel's reaction to the assault was not to lash out at Egypt, but rather to reassert its commitment to peace with its neighbor and to thank the current Egyptian regime for its commitment to protecting the Israeli mission.

In a televised address, Netanyahu expressed gratitude toward Obama, the Egyptian government and the Egyptian commandos who eventually rescued the trapped Israelis.

It was interesting to contrast that response to the Egyptian government's hostile outburst following the deaths of five Egyptian police officers caught in the cross-fire when Israeli forces were hunting Palestinian terrorists along the Israel-Egypt border last month. Many Israeli commentators noted that had this past weekend's events happened in Israel to the Egyptian Embassy, Israel would have been held directly responsible and the UN would have ordered a commission of inquiry.

Egypt's temporary military regime later condemned the embassy attack and vowed to prosecute those responsible, though by this point finding them is likely to be impossible. At the time of the attack, Egyptian police did not arrest any of the rioters who entered the building and threatened the trapped Israeli guards.

While it is clear that Egypt's current rulers do not want to end their nation's peace with Israel, many of the more powerful forces set to participate in Egypt's upcoming elections do. The embassy assault may just be a precursor of what is in store.

As an indication of how radicalized Cairo may be becoming, Hamas leaders last week announced that they were considering moving their organization's headquarters from Damascus to the Egyptian capital.

The plan was later scrapped when Egypt's military rulers urged Hamas not to make the move, as it would taint Egypt's image as a non-biased broker in Palestinian affairs.

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