Can Israel-Egypt relations be repaired after border attack? - opinion

Tensions between Israel and Egypt are high following the killing of three IDF soldiers by Egyptian border police earlier this month.

 An IDF medical vehicle drives near the Israeli-Egyptian border after three IDF soldiers were killed in the area earlier this month. (photo credit: FLASH90)
An IDF medical vehicle drives near the Israeli-Egyptian border after three IDF soldiers were killed in the area earlier this month.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

This month’s disastrous killing of three IDF soldiers near the Egyptian border by an Egyptian border police officer was a systemic failure by the IDF that warrants the kind of soul-searching reserved for formative events.

Sadly, it is not the first time Egyptian border police crossed the border and assaulted Israeli soldiers, and there are tactical as well as strategic lessons to learn.

In 2009 I served as the brigade commander in charge of that specific area of the border – which stretches from the southern Gaza Strip all the way south to Eilat – and investigated a similar assault which fortunately ended without Israeli casualties.

The situation on the ground was different then, as Israel had yet to build the border obstacle that exists today, and most of the border was marked only by a crude barbed wire fence, which was occasionally buried in the shifting sands of the Sinai desert.

On a random summer night, three Egyptian police officers crossed the border and opened fire at a group of IDF soldiers who were on a mission to spot and avert smuggling attempts. The Egyptians alleged that they thought the Israeli soldiers were smugglers, a claim that even at that time was highly improbable.

 SOLDIERS FROM the coed Bardelas infantry battalion train near the Israeli-Egyptian border.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
SOLDIERS FROM the coed Bardelas infantry battalion train near the Israeli-Egyptian border. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Conflict along the border

The Israeli soldiers, from the same co-ed battalion that is deployed along the border today, responded poorly and failed to return fire against the Egyptian attackers. However, they were saved by a more experienced officer who eventually killed one of the attackers and caused the other two to flee.

Like today, the event was later investigated together with the Egyptian authorities, and operating procedures were adjusted to prevent future attacks.

The main takeaways from that event reshaped the training and structure of the light infantry co-ed border battalions deployed along our southern borders with Egypt and Jordan (usually referred to as “borders of peace”) since they were found to be fundamentally lacking in the core competencies needed to be deployed in combat zones.

Sadly, many attacks from Egyptian soil didn’t end as benevolently. In August 2012, in what was arguably the most daring assault by Jihadi terrorists in the region to date, a group of radical Palestinians massacred 16 Egyptian soldiers at a remote outpost near Egyptian Rafah and used an Egyptian Fahed armored vehicle to breach the border and cross into Israel, aiming for the nearest Israeli community along the border. The charging APC was eventually stopped by IAF helicopters and UAVs before the terrorists could strike.

In the most lethal terror attack on Israel from Egypt to date, six Israeli civilians and two Israeli soldiers were killed in an ambush along the border by a squad of Egyptian and Palestinian terrorists in August 2011. As these and many other examples prove, our border with Egypt is anything but a peaceful border, and the time has come for Israel to address it as such.

To be able to understand the fickle nature of today’s Israeli-Egyptian border, one must investigate its historic roots which – like many things in the Middle East – were imposed by foreign powers.

Years before the First World War, the Brits and the Ottomans agreed upon the border between the Ottoman-controlled Levant and British-controlled Egypt and drew a line in the desert in 1906. Unfortunately, that line in the sand had a little mooring in demographic logic, artificially splitting various Bedouin tribes that had roamed the Sinai and Negev deserts for centuries, trafficking whatever goods were in demand.

More than 100 years later and with two sovereign countries instead of the foreign empires, the same Bedouin tribes continue the same practice of smuggling, today carrying drugs instead of the cattle or slaves of ancient times. This brings us to the situation of Bedouins in the Egyptian Sinai and the Israeli Negev.

Both the Sinai and the Negev suffer from weak sovereign governance and lawlessness, providing fertile ground for the narratives of various extremist groups aiming to recruit and deepen regional instability.

The situation is arguably worse on the Egyptian side, where ISIS and Al-Qaeda both challenge the overstretched Egyptian military with terror attacks on civilian and government targets, including tourist locations that are crucial to the local Egyptian economy.

Israel assists Egypt with daily essential combat support against these Islamist organizations, notably by providing intelligence as well as reportedly striking terrorist targets in Sinai – which has become common knowledge lately. However, the situation on the Israeli side is what really warrants our attention.

During my tenure as brigade commander along the Egyptian border in 2009-2011, Israeli authorities were becoming aware of the worrying ties between Palestinian Arabs from the southern Hebron Mountain area and the Israeli Bedouin tribes of the Negev, largely facilitated through intermarriage of Palestinian men with Bedouin women, who exploit a loophole in Israeli laws.

Over the years, we have witnessed a sharp increase in the radicalization of southern Bedouin tribes along Islamist and Palestinian nationalist narratives. Since the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005 we have thwarted multiple attempts by terrorists from Gaza to infiltrate into Israel through Sinai to carry out attacks, using the “u” shaped pattern of movement and local Bedouin guides in Sinai.

Understanding the other side

To reassess and adapt the Israeli posture along the border with Egypt, we must acknowledge the reality on the other side.

Over half of the Egyptian population openly identifies with the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian society remains extremely hostile towards Israel, even after more than 40 years of peace between the countries. Egyptian culture and media are rife with antisemitic tropes and hatred towards Israel, a hatred that inevitably permeates the ranks of Egyptian armed forces deployed along the border as well.

The IDF will investigate this tragic failure and improve its tactical deployment along the border but in my mind, this attack demands a shift in the Israeli strategic approach to the Egyptian border. We cannot afford to lose additional civilians or soldiers due to underestimating the severity of the threats on the other side.

Time has also come to acknowledge that despite our best efforts and tremendous assistance to the Egyptian military in its counter-terrorism efforts in Sinai, Egypt still isn’t behaving like the partner in peace we are worthy of. Not along the border, not in educating its population, and not in the way it allows the uninterrupted flow of weapons from Sinai to terrorists in the Gaza Strip through the tunnel highways under Rafah.

The Israeli government should demand action from Egypt and a solution must be implemented before the next attack along the border, be it by an Egyptian policeman or a Jihadi terrorist.