JERUSALEM — Egypt recalled its ambassador to Tel Aviv yesterday to protest against the "severity and aggression" of Israeli attacks on Palestinians, a dramatic move that increases the prospect of a full-scale regional crisis in the Middle East.
"This step expresses the extreme displeasure of Egypt for what is going on in the occupied territories against the Palestinians," Foreign Minister Amr Moussa said in Cairo, announcing the recall of Ambassador Mohammed Bassiouny for "consultations" with President Hosni Mubarak. "We deplore the severity and the aggression, the use of force . . . against a civilian population, against Palestinians in their territories."
The move took both Israelis and Palestinians by surprise, and increased diplomatic tensions after two months of clashes in which more than 280 people, most of them Palestinians, have been killed.
Israelis fear that the move is the first step toward a complete severing of ties and even, possibly, war. Palestinians welcomed the display of support.
"This is a fateful message to the Arab people, the United States and the international community that Israel must pay a price for its violence," said Palestinian cabinet minister Hassan Asfour.
Apparently stunned by the announcement, Israeli leaders did not respond for several hours. Foreign Ministry director-general Alon Liel said officials were attempting to persuade Mr. Mubarak to change his mind.
"I would not exaggerate the immediate consequences of such a step, but of course we regret it," said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. "Egypt plays an important role in the peace process and this move will not help her to fulfill that role."
The move followed Israel's fiercest attack yet on Palestinian security and communications facilities, which left one person dead and more than 130 injured in Gaza on Monday night.
The missile attacks were launched after the bombing of a school bus carrying Israelis. Israel said the bombing was the work of Palestinian security forces, an assertion the Palestinians denied.
Yesterday, violence raged unabated in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Four Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops and a fifth Palestinian died of wounds suffered in earlier fighting. An Israeli civilian died after he was shot by a Palestinian sniper near the scene of the bomb blast that killed two adults and wounded several children.
Egypt's recall of Mr. Bassiouny, the doyen of the diplomatic corps in Israel, is a low point in more than 20 years of often-tense diplomatic relations between Israel and its most populous Arab neighbour.
Egypt, the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, has played a complex and important role as a mediator in the current crisis, and throughout the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
In recent weeks, Mr. Mubarak's refusal to break off relations with Israel or back an economic boycott of the Jewish state had sparked praise in Jerusalem and protests in the West Bank and Gaza.
"The Egyptian leadership has come under heavy pressure as a result of the expectations in the Arab world and in Egypt, as the leading Arab country, to cut off its ties with Israel," said Egyptian political analyst Nasser Abdel Rahman. "Monday's air attacks on Gaza were the straw which broke the camel's back and enabled Egypt to ignore U.S. pressure not to sever ties with Israel or recall its ambassador."
The last time Egypt recalled its envoy to Israel was in 1982, after the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut by Lebanese Christian militia allied with Israel.
Then-ambassador Sa'ad Mortada was also called home "for consultations," but never returned. Four years later, after the two countries reached agreement on a border dispute, Mr. Bassiouny became ambassador.
He has played a key role in Israeli-Arab mediation ever since, and is a popular figure with Israeli leaders and the foreign diplomatic corps. Three years ago, he became embroiled in scandal when an Israeli belly dancer accused him of attempting to rape her, but Israel's top court ruled that his diplomatic immunity protected him from prosecution.
The only other Arab country with full diplomatic ties with Israel is Jordan. The Jordanian envoy to Tel Aviv ended his posting in the summer; King Abdullah has postponed naming a replacement while the violence continues.
At a meeting with U.S. Defence Secretary William Cohen yesterday, King Abdullah asked Washington to help defend the Palestinian people against "Israeli aggression."
There have been pro-Palestinian demonstrations in both Egypt and Jordan; authorities are concerned that such displays could turn into antigovernment protests. The situation in Jordan, home to more than 1.5 million Palestinians, is particularly volatile.
Israel's diplomatic isolation from the Arab world is the worst it has been for years.
Israeli representative offices in Morocco, Qatar and Tunisia have also been closed in recent weeks because of the violence in the West Bank and Gaza.