CAIRO — The storming of the Israeli embassy by a mob of Egyptian protesters inflicted a "severe injury to the fabric of peace" between the two countries, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Saturday, as both sides' leadership tried to contain the worst crisis in ties since their 1979 peace treaty.
The ambassador and the entire embassy staff except for one deputy ambassador were evacuated from Egypt along with their families in the face of the overnight rampage at the Nile-side embassy in Cairo, when hundreds of protesters tore down a concrete security wall outside the building, set fires in the street and dozens broke into an office of the embassy tossing documents off the balcony to the crowd below.
The rioting — which Egyptian police did little to control for hours — enflamed already growing tensions between the two Mideast neighbors, seven months after the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a close ally of Israel.
Many in Israel fear that this year's uprisings around the Arab world have unleashed anti-Israeli sentiments and that their nation is growing increasingly isolated. Egyptians, in turn, say they want an end to what they saw as a too-cozy relationship under Mubarak's regime that put little pressure on Israel to to end its occupation of the Palestinians.
But in a sign of Israel's need to preserve a crucial connection with Egypt's new ruling military, Netanyahu tempered his remarks and praised Egyptian authorities for rescuing six embassy personnel trapped by the rioting.
The six staffers — apparently a security detail in offices that were otherwise empty on what is a weekend night here — had taken shelter in a room in the embassy and at one point there was only a single wall between them and protesters who were ransacking offices, said a senior Israeli official. Egyptian commandos eventually made their way in and got them out, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the incident.
An aide to Netanyahu said on Saturday that the Israeli leader denounced the attack as a "serious incident" and a "blatant violation of international norms."
"The fact that the Egyptian authorities acted with determination and rescued our people should be noted and we extend them our thanks," Netanyahu said, according to the aide who heard his remarks.
"However, Egypt must not ignore the severe injury to the fabric of peace with Israel and such a blatant violation of international norms," he said, according to the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the press.
In Cairo, Information Minister Osama Haikal read a government statement on state TV vowing that Egypt is committed to international conventions and the protection of diplomatic missions. The statement came out of an emergency meeting between the ruling generals and the civilian government.
The government vowed to crack down on future protests at the embassy, warning that Egypt was experiencing a "real predicament that threatens the very body of the state that requires decisive actions." Relevant clauses of the much hated emergency laws, in force since 1981, would be implemented to "safeguard the state and its prestige," it said.
The rampage prompted urgent communications between the U.S. and its two top Mideast allies. During the rioting, President Barack Obama assured Netanyahu that the U.S. was acting "at all levels" to resolve the situation. Israeli Defense Minster Ehud Barak spoke with his American counterpart, Leon Panetta, and appealed to him to do what he could to protect the embassy.
Mubarak was a close ally of the Israelis, building economic ties and cooperating with them on security, particularly helping in the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Since his Feb. 11 fall, ties between the two countries have steadily worsened as Egypt's new military rulers ease off his pro-Israeli policies in the face of their widespread public unpopularity.
Anger increased last month after Israeli forces responding to a cross-border Palestinian militant attack mistakenly killed five Egyptian police officers near the border. The militants, apparently from Gaza, had trekked across Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and sneaked into Israel, killing eight Israelis.
At the time, Cairo protesters demanded the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and calls grew in Egypt for ending the historic 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Protests at the embassy, located discreetly in the top floors of a residential building overlooking the Nile, have increasingly coincided with rounds of demonstrations by Egyptians criticizing the military for its handling of the post-Mubarak transition. On Friday, activists held their first such protests in a month in Cairo's Tahrir Square and other Egyptian cities.
The overnight rioting is likely to further sour relations between the ruling military generals and the youth groups who engineered the 18-day anti-Mubarak uprising and subsequent anti-military protests. Most of those groups quickly distanced themselves from the storming of the embassy, saying they were not involved.
The unrest began Friday afternoon when hundreds of protesters tore down a concrete security wall that Egyptian authorities had recently erected outside the embassy building in reaction to the repeated protests there. For hours, young men battered the wall with sledgehammers, ripping off chunks with their bare hands. Protesters were able to get to the top of the building and pull down the Israeli flag, which they replaced with the Egyptian flag.
Police did nothing to stop them, nor did they take any visible action when a group of around 30 protesters stormed into the building after nightfall and made their way up toward the Israeli Embassy on the upper floors. They reached a room on one of the embassy's lower floors and began dumping Hebrew-language documents from the windows
The Israeli ambassador, Yitzhak Levanon, his family and nearly all the staff and their dependents — some 80 people — were evacuated out of the country by military aircraft overnight, according to another Israeli official. Only the deputy ambassador was still in Egypt, added the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
When police finally moved, clashes with protesters outside the embassy lasted for hours, until about 6 a.m. Saturday, leaving three people dead, more than 1,000 hurt and 30 arrested. Police and army troops fired tear gas and shot live ammunition in the air trying to disperse the crowd of thousands, as cars, police vehicles and trees on the streets were set ablaze.
Saturday morning, the streets around the embassy were littered with debris, shattered glass and rocks. Dozens of police vehicles lined up the streets leading to the embassy and the nearby police headquarters in Giza. Several charred bodies of private cars sat motionlessly on side streets, with some still smoldering. Black clad, anti-riot police backed by army troops and their armored vehicles were deployed in large numbers in streets surrounding the embassy.
Hadid reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press Writer Aya Batrawy in Cairo contributed to this report.