Lt. Col. Avital Leibowitz, a spokeswoman for the Israeli military, told reporters the attack occurred when militants crossed from Egypt about 18 miles from the Gaza Strip. They reportedly set off explosives and fired a rocket-propelled grenade at two vehicles carrying civilian contractors working on the fence Israel is erecting to seal its border with Egypt.
Israeli ground forces arriving a few minutes later engaged the gunmen, two of whom were killed when the gunfire set off a large amount of explosives one of them was carrying, said Leibowitz. Two bodies were found on the Israeli side and a third gunman is thought to have remained on the Egyptian side, she said.
The affiliation and identities of the shooters are not yet known; the army said it is checking possible links to Gaza.
The incident underscores Israeli officials' concerns about their nation's 150-mile border with Egypt. Workers have constructed 112 miles of fencing over the last 18 months since the project began. About 1,500 people are working on the fence, in some areas around the clock to expedite the project.
"We see a disturbing deterioration in Egyptian control of the Sinai," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said during a meeting with Tomasz Siemoniak, his Polish counterpart. The problem has become more acute since former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who maintained fairly good relations with Israel, was overthrown in February 2011.
Israel expects the winner of Egypt's presidential elections held over the weekend to "take responsibility for all of Egypt's international commitments, including the peace treaty with Israel and the security arrangements in the Sinai, swiftly putting an end to these attacks," Barak said.
Sinai is on the smuggling route of weapons into Gaza from Iran and recently Libya, Amos Gilad told Israeli media Monday. Gilad, a senior official at Israel's Defense Ministry, said a wide range of militants "are trying to establish themselves in Sinai, undermine the Egyptian government and Israeli-Egyptian relations, and of course launch attacks against Israel."
Gilad reiterated Israel's confidence in Egypt's interest and ability to prevent terrorism emanating from its territory. Regarding the elections, he said Israel must "resist temptation to interfere in Egypt's internal affairs" and wait for official results.
In a fatal cross-border attack last year, gunmen from Egypt killed Israeli civilians and a soldier on a road from the resort town of Eilat that snakes along the border.The road was fully reopened only two weeks ago.
Separately, two Palestinian militants were killed midday Monday in an Israeli airstrike on Gaza, the third in the last 24 hours. The overnight strikes came in response to repeated rocket fire from Gaza but Monday's attack targeted Palestinian snipers, according to an army statement.
Photo: Israeli security forces secure the area after an attack along the border with Egypt near the southern Israeli city of Beersheba on Monday. Credit: Tsafrir Abayov / Associated Press.