It was an appalling attack – shocking in more than one sense of the word, both unexpected and brutal. Three IDF soldiers were killed by a rogue Egyptian policeman on Saturday, June 3, along Israel’s mostly peaceful southwestern border.
On Reshet Bet the next morning, two radio show presenters debated whether the incident should be referred to as a “pigua” (a terror attack) or a “takrit yeri” (a shooting incident). Much of the Hebrew press used a combination: “pigua yeri” – a terror shooting attack.
It wasn’t a matter of semantics. The journalists, like the rest of the country, were trying to find a way to process the incident. On the one hand, the soldiers were killed in the line of duty, while on active service; on the other, the perpetrator was an Egyptian policeman-turned-terrorist, tying it to the greater issue of terrorism that affects not only Israel and Egypt but the entire world.
The bodies of two of the soldiers, 19-year-old Sgt. Lia Ben-Nun and 20-year-old St.-Sgt. Ori Itzhak Ilouz of the mixed-gender Bardalas unit, were discovered at their guard post on Saturday morning by a team sent to check on them after they failed to respond to radio communications. A search was immediately launched for the killer. The third soldier, 20-year-old St.-Sgt. Ohad Dahan, was killed in an exchange of fire between Israeli forces and the terrorist, Mohammed Salah Ibrahim, 22, who was killed by the IDF troops.
Egypt was clearly embarrassed by the affair. It should also be ashamed of its initial response. The Egyptian Army issued a statement describing a police officer who was chasing drug smugglers, adding that “during the chase, the security man was involved in an exchange of fire that caused the deaths of three Israeli soldiers.”
The vaguely worded statement did not explain how the police officer ended up shooting the IDF soldiers. Even more jarring was the way the Egyptian Army expressed condolences “to the victims on both sides,” equating the murderous policeman with his victims.
As more details emerged, it became clear that the Egyptian had crossed the border armed with a knife, a rifle, ammunition and food – and had packed a Koran in his bag. This was a planned, deliberate terror attack, not a spontaneous act carried out in the heat of the moment. He was equipped with both weapons and an expression of his religious ideology, which reportedly had become increasingly radicalized.
Egypt’s Defense Minister Mohamed Zaki called his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant, and the two discussed a joint investigation and taking necessary steps to prevent a recurrence of similar incidents. Later in the week, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office reiterated the same message that Netanyahu had conveyed at Sunday’s cabinet meeting: “The two leaders expressed their commitment to continue strengthening the peace and security cooperation that is vital to both countries.” Similarly, Sisi reportedly stressed the importance of coordination in the investigation, as well as the need to maintain bilateral relations.
The incident took place near the Nitzana border crossing between Israel and Egypt, not far from the point where Israel’s border with Egypt and the Gaza Strip converge, and nobody is more aware than Sisi of the threat from Islamist extremists to Egypt itself. That is why there has been significant coordination in the fight against Islamic State and other jihadi elements in Sinai and in combating the terror threat in Hamas-controlled Gaza.
What will Israel and Egypt need to investigate together following the terror attack?
The joint investigation will examine, among other things, whether Ibrahim acted alone or had accomplices on either side of the border and whether there was a connection with a successfully-thwarted smuggling incident earlier that night. The Egyptians will need to examine who is policing its side of the long border. The incident also spotlights the murky ties that often exist between drug smuggling (and other criminal activity) and terrorism, which relies on both arms and funds.
Egypt and Israel must both also investigate how the emergency gate in the security fence could be so easily opened and indications that this weak spot was well known to the Egyptian terrorist must be followed up. Additional questions are whether the Egyptians knew that Ibrahim had broken away from the rest of the Egyptian security personnel and, of course, Israeli forces need to examine how the terrorist not only was able to infiltrate undetected, but was able to remain unnoticed in Israeli territory for several hours.
The IDF’s probe must address other painful questions. You don’t need to have military experience to ask some of them. Even a humble corporal like me (and proud mother of a soldier who recently completed combat service) has some questions for the IDF senior ranks. The first is how the army expects soldiers to do 12-hour guarding shifts, particularly on a very hot night? Commanders who think it is reasonable for two soldiers to stay awake and alert for 12 unrelieved hours in an isolated spot, either haven’t been in that situation for years or have suppressed the memory.
The topic of the 12-hour shifts came up last August after the tragic incident in which St.-Sgt. Nathan Fitoussi, 20, was accidentally shot dead by a comrade toward the end of a night of guard duty along the security fence near Tulkarm.
Another question is why there was a failure to carry out a radio check with the soldiers on an hourly basis, as regulations require. And why did it take so long from the last radio contact, reportedly some three hours, before a team was dispatched to check on the soldiers at their outpost only to find them dead? Terrorists with a more sophisticated plan could have snatched the bodies, or possibly kidnapped live soldiers during that time and whisked them away to Sinai or to the Gaza Strip.
There must surely be a way to use drones and other technological means to prevent the need to place soldiers in such conditions.
The incident, while isolated, has broader ramifications. In March, a Hezbollah-affiliated terrorist infiltrated Israel from Lebanon and made his way undetected some 50 kilometers before detonating a bomb at Megiddo Junction, seriously wounding an Israeli man. The northern border is definitely not a friendly one.
Although Egypt was the first Arab country to establish diplomatic relations with Israel after President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin courageously signed a peace treaty in 1979, the relationship has known ups and downs. Nonetheless, the shared border of some 200 km. is generally considered quiet, despite ongoing drug-smuggling incidents. The security barrier built in 2013 to block the flow of illegal migrants from Africa to Israel via Egypt and prevent Islamic State-affiliated terrorists from infiltrating has contributed to this calm. And security coordination – as both Sisi and Netanyahu took care to stress – is good, to the benefit of both countries.
Saturday’s incident shows the importance of avoiding complacency even on traditionally peaceful borders. The long eastern border with Jordan is also a quiet one, but there, too, drug- and weapons-smugglers are very active. Not all the smuggling takes place in complicated nighttime operations. Last month, Jordanian parliamentarian Imad al-Adwan, using a diplomatic passport, brazenly entered Israel through the Allenby Crossing carrying 12 rifles, nearly 200 pistols and a large stash of gold bars.
The attack by the Egyptian policeman brought to mind the massacre perpetrated by Jordanian soldier Ahmed Daqamseh, who murdered seven Israeli schoolgirls in 1997 at the so-called Island of Peace site near Naharayim. In an unforgettable gesture, Jordan’s King Hussein paid a condolence visit to the homes of the victims, kneeling on the ground in front of the bereaved families. But those were different days, and a different ruler.
Care must be taken that the bullets that took the lives of the three IDF soldiers last week do not wound relations with Egypt. But Israel must maintain vigilance, along with the soldiers who continue to guard the country’s borders. No matter what you call it – terror attack or shooting incident – the fatal bullets must serve as warning shots. Even on seemingly peaceful borders, Israel cannot afford to drop its guard.