Three Israeli soldiers were killed by an Egyptian policeman on Saturday, in a rare incident on the border between the two countries.
According to the Israeli military, the Egyptian policeman crossed into Israel in the early morning. He first killed two soldiers and then hours later, was killed in a gun battle with Israeli soldiers who were conducting a manhunt against him. A third Israeli soldier was killed in that battle.
“The incident on the Egyptian border is severe and extraordinary and will be fully investigated. Israel has conveyed a clear message to the Egyptian government: We expect that the joint investigation will be exhaustive and thorough. This is part of the important security cooperation between us, which has benefitted both countries over the years,” said Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday.
A rare thing to happen on one of Israel's quietest borders
Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979. Their shared border is 152 miles long and one of Israel’s quietest, most of the time.
The last deadly incident involving Egypt was in 2011, when attackers from the country infiltrated Israel, killing eight civilians.
In 2014, Israel completed the construction of a massive fence along the border, to stop illegal labor migration from Africa and smuggling of drugs and weapons into Israel. The Israeli military operates daily along the barrier to prevent smuggling, mostly with success, as very few reports of casualties are reported in such activities.
“This is a very rare and negative event with tragic results that happened on a border that has such a massive barrier and various technological surveillance methods employed,” said Brig. Gen. (res.) Amir Avivi, founder of the Israel Defense and Security Forum and a former Israeli military brigade commander on the Israeli Egyptian border. Avivi alluded to certain faults in the Israeli military conduct that ultimately led to the death of the soldiers.
Jihadist fighters on the Egyptian side of the border
Jihadist fighters have been active on the Egyptian side of the border for years, something the Egyptian government has been consistently combatting. Throughout the years, the Egyptian military has suffered losses in its fight against insurgents in the Sinai Peninsula. However, because the Egyptian military is largely successful in preventing spill over into other parts of Egypt or into Israel, yesterday’s incident was likely to be isolated.
“There is very close cooperation between the Israeli and Egyptian military, also against ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula,” Avivi added. “However, it is important to know who was behind this attack in order to prepare for further events if necessary.
What did an expert say?
Dr. Udi Balanga, an expert on Egypt from Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Middle Eastern Studies, describes the Sinai Peninsula that borders Israel as the “Wild West” which is full of terrorist organizations that continuously challenge the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Hours before the deadly incident, the Israeli military thwarted a drug-smuggling attempt. It was unclear whether the two events were connected. Israeli officials said an investigation was already underway, together with Egypt.
“Our cooperation in investigating the severe attack that took place…is of great importance to the ties between our countries,” said Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to his Egyptian counterpart in a conversation held after the incident.
Israel and Egypt share major interests that continue to provide the glue for the historic agreement signed over four decades ago. The relationship is important to both sides and the chances of such an incident rattling it are slim. But despite flourishing ties between the governments on various levels covering many different fields, peace between the populations of the two countries has never transpired.
“The peace is very very cold; there is almost an ocean of ice separating between the peoples,” Balanga said. However, “the relations between the regimes are excellent strategically and there is close security cooperation.”
The attacker’s motivation may have been influenced by public opinion, which does not see Israel favorably. This could also explain Egypt’s attempts to downplay his role and their agreement to conduct a joint inquiry into the circumstances of the incident.
“This cooperation is so successful, due to an earnest will to keep [in control] the region that is full of terrorist organizations and criminal elements,” Balanga added.
According to Avivi, who spent part of his military career commanding Israeli forces on the border with Egypt, there is little tactical coordination between the forces on the ground. The peace agreement with Israel came with an Egyptian obligation that the peninsula became demilitarized. Egyptian forces on the border are police forces that have little contact with the Israeli military there. On the other hand, relations between the two armies are much closer.
The Egyptian response to the incident reflected the complexities of the relationship. A statement released by the Egyptian military spokesperson expressed condolences for victims on both sides. Two of the Israeli soldiers were reportedly shot dead in a watchtower without shooting back, rather than how Egypt described it, amid a battle with drug smugglers.
“The Egyptian people are very hostile to Israel and to the Jewish people,” Avivi said. Such sentiment could be translated by an individual soldier or officer into hostile action against Israelis. Unless the attack was orchestrated by a larger militant organization, it is highly unlikely that copycat events will occur.”
“There is an understanding on both sides that this will not harm the strategic cooperation between the two,” said Dr. Haim Koren, Israel’s former ambassador to Egypt and a lecturer at Reichman University.
Egypt has been regularly involved in attempts to bring a truce between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Just last month, in a violent escalation between the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza and Israel, Egypt was instrumental in securing a ceasefire between the sides.
Trade relations between the countries have flourished throughout the years. According to the Israel Export Institute, the volume of trade was at $200 million in 2020. Egypt exports fruits and vegetables to Israel, while Israel exports a wide range of products, including pharmaceutical and technological products. Israel and Egypt also signed an agreement that allows Israel to export natural gas to its neighbor, further cementing the relationship. Both countries are founding members of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, which serves as another guarantor of stability between the two.
Regional changes that concern both Egypt and Israel will also likely allow for this incident to blow over, despite its difficult outcome. The 2020 Abraham Accords, which paved the way for normalization between Israel and four Arab nations, have also helped strengthen Israel’s ties with Egypt.
Iran, Israel’s archenemy, is also eyed carefully by Egypt. The Iranian-Egyptian relationship has been tumultuous since Egypt made peace with Israel, but not only because of that agreement. The latest rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia has the whole region on edge.
“There is a bilateral strategic need of both Israel and Egypt interest to maintain the relations,” Koren said. “Israel has helped Egypt a lot in fighting terror in Sinai, but also the two see Iran as a major threat. Both are carefully watching regional developments.”
“Egypt will not want to cause an uproar after such an incident and at the same time, they will not ignore it,” he added. “There is no reason to see this event on more than the tactical level that it occurred. Therefore, it is my assessment that the strategic relationship will not be harmed.”
Throughout Egypt and Israel’s relationship, there have been many periods of tension that have exceeded the tensions caused by this latest incident. Throughout these periods, the steady ties between the governments have been successfully maintained, despite the lack of ties between the peoples. This underlying tension sometimes comes to the surface, as possibly shown by the attack.
“Israel recognizes the enormous importance of relations with Egypt and so do the Egyptians,” said Balanga, who expects the event to remain an isolated incident. “There is a mutual interest to contain such events.”