By Yasmine Saleh and Edmund Blair
Israel flew its ambassador home on Saturday after Egyptians stormed the building housing the Israeli mission in Cairo, plunging Egypt’s ruling army deeper into its toughest diplomatic crisis since taking over from Hosni Mubarak.
On Saturday, the Jewish state’s radio confirmed that the ambassador and his senior staff are now in Tel Aviv.
The United States, which has poured billions of dollars of military aid into Egypt since it made peace with Israel in 1979, voiced concern about the violence after protesters hurled embassy documents and the Israeli flag from windows.
Police fired shots in the air and teargas to disperse the crowd. Protesters lit tyres in the street and at least two vehicles were set alight near the embassy, located on the upper floors of a residential apartment block overlooking the Nile.
As dawn broke, about 500 demonstrators remained. Some hurled stones at police and army vehicles and personnel.
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 gunmen. That incident prompted Egypt briefly to threaten to withdraw its envoy.
Israel’s ambassador Yitzhak Levanon left Cairo for Tel Aviv with staff and their families in the early hours of Saturday, an airport source said. Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf called a cabinet crisis meeting for early on Saturday.
Pulling Israeli diplomats even temporarily out of Egypt, the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state, would shake Israel’s confidence. It is already embroiled in a bitter feud with Turkey, formerly the closest of its few Muslim allies, over treatment of Palestinians.
“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” towards 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. Regular protests with such violence followed until the latest flare-up.
In response to daily 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.
Hostility to Israel
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, who is now on trial on charges including conspiring to kill protesters.
The Interior Ministry said at least 450 protesters were injured during overnight confrontations. State television said 46 police were injured.
During Mubarak’s rule, Egyptians could never show such hostility to Israel without facing a crushing security response. Egypt’s ties with Israel were a pillar of his foreign policy and buttressed his claim to be a regional mediator.
The treaty has sat uneasily with many Egyptians angered at what they see as Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians but it secures billions of dollars in US military aid and access to top-notch warplanes, tanks and other equipment.
The army now in charge faces the dilemma of pursuing a more assertive policy towards Israel and protecting the treaty.
US 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.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr to urge Egypt to meet its Vienna Convention obligations to protect diplomatic property, a senior State Department official said.
Demonstrators had used hammers, large iron bars and police barricades to tear down the wall outside the embassy building, erected this month by Egyptian authorities after protests over the killing of the five Egyptian border guards in Sinai.
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. Security sources said 28 people were arrested.
The April 6 movement, which took a leading role in the 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.