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From Friday evening to early Saturday morning the equivalent of a high-jinks, nail-biting rescue movie occurred at the Israeli embassy in Cairo. As far as the endangered individuals were concerned, it even had a happy ending. Nothing else about it inspires much cheer, though.
It started (timeline here) at about 5 p.m. on Friday when about five thousand Egyptian protesters who had been at legendary Tahrir Square—from which not long ago Thomas Friedman was extolling the “democracy youth” and saying “Israel was not part of this story at all”—made their way to the nearby Israeli embassy “armed with clubs, hammers, axes and explosives.” The “youth” started cursing Israel and demanding that its ambassador and other diplomatic staff be expelled.
Over the next few hours they hammered down a concrete wall surrounding the embassy, overran the building (the Israeli offices were on the 16th-19th stories), smashed windows, set fires, spray-painted anti-Israeli graffiti, looted the embassy’s archive, and—in a reprise of an earlier such exploit on August 20—tore down and burned the Israeli flag. (You can see some of it here, including Egyptian security forces standing around doing nothing.)
By that time Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and security chiefs were watching these proceedings live in Jerusalem on the embassy’s security cameras. They gave an evacuation order, and by 9:30 almost the entire staff of the embassy were taken to the airport in Cairo—all except six Israeli security guards who remained in one room of the building, locked behind reinforced doors.
As their lives appeared increasingly in danger while the mob kept roiling inside and outside the building, by 11 p.m. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak contacted President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials about the crisis, as well as Egyptian officials.
Somewhat later, “according to “Arabic-language media,” says Israel Hayom’s timeline,
officials in Jerusalem begin frenzied attempts to establish contact with senior military leaders in Cairo, explaining to them that embassy workers are inside the building and that their lives are in danger. According to Al-Jazeera [confirmed by Israeli sources as well], Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, who heads Egypt’s Supreme Military Council, refuses to accept Netanyahu and Barak’s calls. (emphasis added)
By 1 a.m.,
Egypt sends soldiers to secure the embassy compound…. The six security guards still await their rescue [firing shots in the air, according to other reports], while dozens of protesters are just outside the room where they were hiding.
It was only at about 4 a.m., under direct U.S. pressure, that Tantawi agreed to send an Egyptian commando force to rescue the Israelis. One of the latter was meanwhile in direct phone contact with Netanyahu and told him, “If something happens, I ask that you let my parents know in person, and not over the telephone.”
Not long after,
The rescue operation takes place under a hail of Molotov cocktails. The mob attempts to block the exit route of the armed vehicles taking the six Israelis, disguised in Arab dress and with their faces covered, to the airport. Meanwhile, hundreds of troops and police, using live fire, manage to disperse the thousands of protesters. According to the Egyptian Health Ministry, casualties among the mob include three dead and around a thousand injured.
In the aftermath, Netanyahu addressed the nation on Saturday night. He said Israel was “acting along with the Egyptian government to quickly return our ambassador to Cairo” and “intends to adhere to the peace treaty with Egypt.” As for the rescue of the security guards, he said his conversation with Obama was “a decisive moment, I would say even fateful. He told me: ‘I will do whatever I can,’ and he employed all means in his power. I think we owe him special thanks.”
On Sunday Netanyahu told the Israeli cabinet “that a plan for the six guards to escape through a window and onto the roof of the embassy building was scotched after it became clear that 50 angry protesters, with ‘blood in their eyes,’ already had reached the spot.”
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