JERUSALEM -- The Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, said on Monday that a terrorist attack that killed 15 Egyptian soldiers on Sunday night should serve as "a wake-up call" to the new Egyptian president about the growing danger in the Sinai Peninsula and the border between the two nations.
Masked gunmen attacked an Egyptian Army checkpoint around sundown on Sunday, as the soldiers were preparing to break their Ramadan fast. Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said on Monday that the gunmen then seized an armored vehicle and a truck, and stormed the fence at the Kerem Shalom crossing into Israel with the apparent goal of kidnapping an Israeli soldier or civilians.
The men loaded the truck with explosives and blew it up, killing the driver, Colonel Leibovich said; Israeli airstrikes killed six or seven more of the attackers, in the armored vehicle and as they fled. Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said Monday that the operation lasted about 15 minutes.
"I think that the risk of a very large terrorist attack was averted," Mr. Barak told Parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday morning, "and this was a very important operational success in the battle that is raging there and maybe a proper wake-up call for the Egyptians to take matters into their own hands on their side in a stronger manner."
It was the deadliest assault on Egyptian soldiers in recent memory. There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attack, in which seven soldiers were wounded, three of them in critical condition, the Egyptian Health Ministry said. An Egyptian security official, speaking on state television, blamed Islamist militants operating in Sinai, along with militants who had crossed into Egypt from the nearby Gaza Strip.
Egyptian state media later reported that one of the gunmen had been killed and that another had been arrested. Officials said the Rafah border crossing with Gaza was closed after the attack. Clashes continued late Sunday near the border.
A former deputy chief of staff of the Israeli military, Retired Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, said Egypt either did not want to or could not control the situation. "There is approval to place more forces than there are today in Sinai," he said in a radio interview, "and the Egyptians just aren't doing this because they are not determined enough to defeat the terror."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel toured the border area with Mr. Barak, praising the military forces and expressing regret over the deaths of the Egyptians. "It is clear that Israel and Egypt have a common interest in maintaining a quiet border," he said, according to a statement released by his office. "However, as has been made clear on numerous occasions, when it comes to the security of the citizens of Israel, the state of Israel must and can rely only on itself."
The attack was part of an escalation in violence for Sinai, long neglected by the Egyptian government and slipping from its control. Armed groups there have frequently targeted the security forces. The problems in the region deepened after the Egyptian uprising in 2011, as police and security officers fled their posts and militants, including foreign fighters, established a presence.
The killing of the soldiers represented the first security crisis for Egypt's new president, Mohamed Morsi, who appeared on television to offer condolences to the victims' families after meeting with senior generals and security officials.
"There's no room to appease this treachery, this aggression and this criminality," Mr. Morsi said. Security forces would extend "full control" over the area, he said, adding, "Sinai is safe."
The attack was also likely to add further tension to Egypt's troubled relationship with Israel. Israeli officials have become increasingly vocal about security lapses in the border region after periodic infiltrations, including a deadly attack by gunmen who crossed the border in June.
A year ago, an attack on an Israeli bus driving on Route 12 killed seven civilians and one soldier, said Colonel Leibovich, the Army spokeswoman. In 2008, she added, two Jeeps from Gaza stormed the fence and their occupants tried to kidnap a soldier.
Nitzan Nuriel, a former chief of staff of Israel's Counter-Terrorism Bureau, said the attack was a clear escalation.
"There is no doubt that the terrorists took upon themselves a very big risk when they involved the Egyptian security forces in the process," he said on Israel Radio on Monday morning. "Global jihad agents are joining the terror equation, in both the Gaza Strip and in Sinai, and there is no doubt that this combination is very, very problematic."
Officials with Hamas, the Islamist group that governs the Gaza Strip, condemned the attack, calling it "terror." Hamas officials said that tunnels that are used for smuggling between Egypt and Gaza had been closed in response to the attack.
A statement attributed to the Hamas Interior Ministry said, "Palestinian resistance factions are committed to fighting only against the Israeli occupation, and they launch their operations only from the Palestinian territories."
The attack on the checkpoint began at sundown on Sunday, according to witnesses who said three Toyota Land Cruisers carried gunmen who fired at a group of about 25 soldiers and officers who were preparing to break their fast. An unknown number of them then seized the two army vehicles and headed toward the Kerem Shalom crossing.
In a video released by the Israel Defense Force on Monday morning, a soldier who participated in the action said his crew spotted the two vehicles and "caught it before it could get to the communities and harm innocent people."
Gen. Tal Russo, head of Israel's southern command, said in the video that the Air Force, the Armored Corps and infantry all participated in the operation. "The force acted in every place where the vehicle tried to enter," he said. "There was a lot of contact until it was destroyed.
"They simply closed in on it, on the main road, and in the end it was destroyed from the air and also from the ground," General Russo added. "Those that fled and shot at us afterward were also destroyed."
General Gantz, the military chief, said after touring the area on Monday that "a very great tragedy was prevented, a very complex terror attack."
"There is a continuing activity, of course, combing of the area and everything connected to it," he said in the video. "In summing up I can express very great appreciation to the alertness of the force, the alertness of intelligence, the determinations of the force that acted on the ground."
Colonel Leibovich, the military spokeswoman, said intelligence reports had led the military to issue a warning several days ago for Israelis to avoid the Sinai Peninsula, where many go for low-cost vacations. On Sunday night, the 10,000 Israelis who live in villages near the Gaza Strip were ordered to stay in their homes, and Route 232 was closed; by Monday morning, the road had reopened and the curfew was lifted.
Colonel Leibovich said the Egyptians and Israelis worked together to thwart Sunday's attack. "There is ongoing cooperation with the Egyptians," she said. "Yesterday during the operation there was cooperation and updates, on a tactical basis. There were mutual updates with the Egyptians."
Jodi Rudoren reported from Jerusalem, and Kareem Fahim from Cairo. Myra Noveck contributed reporting from Jerusalem, Fares Akram from Gaza City, and Mayy El Sheikh from Cairo.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.