The first tip about the attack that took place along the Egyptian border on Sunday night arrived in Israel sometime over the weekend.
It was vague and unclear, without details of time, place, target or type of attack. But with that scanty information in hand, OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Tal Russo needed to prepare his forces for an attack he did not exactly know where or how would happen along a border that runs some 230 km.
As other indicators set off alarms in the Southern Command’s intelligence division, Russo and his troops got ready. For that reason, for example, Russo decided to evacuate soldiers from borderline positions near the Kerem Shalom Crossing – where the terrorists would later breach the border – out of fear that anti-tank missiles would be fired at their positions.
About 20 minutes before the attack, the IDF noticed that something was happening on the Egyptian side of the border.
It was exactly then that around 35 armed men stormed an Egyptian military base some 2 km. from the border, broke into the dining hall as the soldiers were sitting down for the daily iftar meal – at which Muslims break their fast during Ramadan – and shot and killed 16 soldiers.
They then stole an armored vehicle.
Joined by a pickup truck, estimated to have been carrying half-a-ton of explosives, the armored vehicle began heading towards the border, a regular sight for IDF surveillance teams.
But then, the two vehicles stormed through the Egyptian border gate and then through the Israeli gate as well, the same one Gilad Schalit crossed through late last year.
A few months ago the IDF had placed several concrete slabs directly opposite the gate to prevent such infiltrations, but the armored vehicle had no problem maneuvering itself right past it.
The pickup truck though, got stuck in the sand.
In Israel, the armored vehicle started driving south, in the direction of Eilat, directly alongside the border fence with Egypt. After about a kilometer it encountered a group of soldiers from the Bedouin Reconnaissance Battalion which opened fire with its standard-issued machine guns. Despite sustaining only minor damage, the armored vehicle decided to turn around and head back towards the Kerem Shalom Crossing where it again turned right on Road 232, the main highway that runs through the Eshkol Region.
In the meantime back at the border gate, the pickup truck suddenly exploded, shaking windows in nearby IDF bases. Later, soldiers were to find remains of at least one person, although the body was unidentifiable.
Back to the armored vehicle.
After driving for about 100 meters on the highway, it encountered another force from the Bedouin Reconnaissance Battalion which again opened fire, but failed to stop the vehicle’s advance.
Driving at speeds of around 70 kph, the IDF feared that the vehicle was on its way to a nearby Israeli town and decided to send three tanks onto the highway, one from the north, one from behind and one from the west. After the vehicle had crossed some 2 km, an Israeli aircraft, diverted to the scene, fired off a missile, finally causing the necessary damage to stop the vehicle’s advance. The bombing, approved by Russo, was not a simple decision and was unprecedented due to the fact that it took place inside Israeli territory.
After the vehicle stopped, two of the terrorists exited it and headed for cover in nearby fields, opening fire at a farming vehicle. In the meantime, the tank, behind, fired two shells from a short distance, destroying the vehicle and killing at least five other terrorists still inside.
Later, after a short gunfight, IDF soldiers killed the two terrorists outside.
Most of the terrorists were found to be wearing explosive bomb belts which has led the IDF to believe their target was to infiltrate either an IDF base or a nearby town and kill as many people as possible. The identities of the attackers are still unknown, although a majority of them are believed to be Beduin from the Sinai Peninsula.
The attack was also very similar to the cross-border attack that took place last August near the Netafim Crossing during which eight Israelis were killed. Then, the attackers were also Beduin, were also wearing explosive belts and also carried out a sophisticated attack.
While the IDF was successful in averting a major disaster – such as would have occurred had the attack succeeded – it ultimately understands that many more attacks are in the planning and that the key to preventing them will be an increase in cooperation with the Egyptians as well as in defenses along Israel’s southern border.