CAIRO/JERUSALEM: Egypt denied in an official statement Thursday that the rocket that slammed into the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat was fired from the Sinai Peninsula.
Egyptian officials said publicly that the attack was not staged from Sinai.
Mahmud al-Hifnawy, south Sinai’s security chief told AFP there had been no attack from Egyptian territory, adding “the situation is completely secured.”
And South Sinai governor Khaled Fouda said, “Israel has become accustomed to spreading such rumours, to harm tourism.”
But privately, security officials said they were investigating and combing the border area.
Egyptian security forces and military aircraft were searching southeastern Sinai for militants believed to be behind the launch, Egyptian security officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
The attack, which prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to warn that Israel would “hit those who hit us”, caused no injuries in the town packed with tourists ahead of a Jewish holiday.
“We are seeing now with Eilat that the Sinai Peninsula is turning into a terror zone,” Netanyahu said. “We cannot grant immunity to terror, we must fight against it.”
Last year, gunmen from the Sinai infiltrated into Israel and ambushed vehicles on a desert highway, killing eight Israelis in a brazen, coordinated attack.
In the ensuing search for the gunmen, Israeli troops shot dead six Egyptian police officers along the border, sparking a diplomatic crisis between the two countries.
Israel accused Palestinian militants from Gaza of crossing westward into Sinai, making their way along the Israel-Egypt border and crossing back eastward into Israel to carry out the attack.
That incident suggested that Egypt’s political upheaval and the resulting power vacuum allowed Gaza militants with allies in Sinai to open a new front against Israel on its long-quiet frontier with Egypt.
In 2010, several rockets fired from the Sinai, which were apparently aimed at Eilat, slammed into the nearby Jordanian port of Aqaba, killing one person and wounding five others.
A similar attack occurred in April 2011 when two military-grade rockets struck Aqaba, one hitting an empty warehouse and the other landing in the Red Sea near the Israeli border.
And in August 2005, three Katyusha rockets were fired at Aqaba in an attack claimed by a group linked to Al-Qaeda.
The two Red Sea ports lie on the northernmost point of the Gulf of Aqaba, a narrow stretch of water bordered on one side by the Sinai and the other by Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Rockets are regularly fired into Israel by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
In a bid to halt the entry of both militants and illegal migrants, Israel has stepped up surveillance on the Egyptian border and is building an electronic barrier along the 230-kilometer (150-mile) frontier. It is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
Netanyahu acknowledged the fence “does not stop rockets,” but that “a solution will be found” to rockets from Egypt.
Israel has been battling rocket fire from Gaza with a short-range rocket interceptor, the Iron Dome. It was not immediately clear if there were plans to position a mechanism near the Egyptian border.
Most attacks in Sinai are directed against Egyptian government targets, including police facilities and a natural gas pipeline that supplies Israel and Jordan. Islamic radicals who fled Egyptian prisons during the chaos surrounding last year’s revolution sought asylum in Sinai, hooking up with disgruntled tribes and militant groups that already had built strongholds there.
On Thursday, Eilat police were put on the highest state of alert following the blast, which occurred shortly after midnight, officials said.
“This rocket, which was fired from Egypt, exploded in the town but did not cause any injuries or damage,” Eilat district police chief Ron Gertner told Israel’s army radio.
Gertner said a Grad rocket slammed into a construction site in the city, about 300 meters (yards) from a residential area, shortly after midnight (2100 GMT on Wednesday).
In all, three loud blasts rocked the city, prompting hundreds of worried people to ring the emergency police number.
“Eilat residents heard three explosions in the night, but for the moment we have only found one rocket,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP. Police were conducting searches to see if anything else had hit the town.
The Israeli army confirmed details of the incident.
“This rocket exploded in the town but there were no victims or damage,” a military spokeswoman said.
The blast occurred as thousands of Israeli and foreign tourists descended on the resort town to celebrate the week-long Jewish holiday of Passover, which begins at sundown on Friday.
Yitzhak Halevy, mayor of Eilat, told army radio there had been no indication that people were leaving the resort town in the wake of the incident, and police confirmed they had not issued any special instructions or alerts to residents or tourists.
Egypt became the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, but with the rise of Islamist parties who traditionally view Israel with hostility, Israel has become concerned that the accord may be under threat.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest party in Egypt’s parliament, does not openly oppose the peace deal with Israel, but has said it would consider amending the pact to allow more Egyptian troops along the border with Israel. The deployment of Egyptian forces in the Sinai is limited under the 1979 deal.