Egyptian soldier Suleiman Khater, who gunned down seven Israelis in an unprovoked attack at the Ras Burqa beach resort in the Sinai Peninsula in 1985, did not commit suicide, but was killed in a military hospital by prison authorities, Egyptian media said Saturday.
An Egyptian newspaper published letters Khater wrote, as well as testimonies by relatives and friends who visited him in prison near the time of his death, showing that he felt the guards might try to make an attempt on his life.
His friends described him as being “in good spirits” before his death, and said that there was nothing to indicate that he planned to commit suicide.
He told his friends that the prison guards had encouraged him to run away — possibly, he suspected, to give them a justification for shooting him if he attempted to escape. Khater said the guards’ suggestion seemed strange to him, as the prison was located in the desert, making escape difficult.
Khater’s mother testified that when she got wind of the guards’ suggestion, she felt her son was in danger.
Then, on January 7, 1986, Khater was found hanging in his room in a military prison hospital “by a strip torn from a sheet of plastic,” according to a New York Times report.
He had been sentenced to a life term at hard labor in military prison two weeks earlier.
Following Khater’s death, many in Egypt — including his close relatives, who described him as a religious man who would not take his own life — speculated that he was killed at the behest of then-president Hosni Mubarak’s government.
Khater was given the life term in December 1985 for gunning down seven Israeli tourists in Ras Burqa, a beach resort area in the Sinai Peninsula where he was stationed.
The unprovoked attack took place on October 5, 1985. He opened fire on a group of Israelis at the beach, killing seven of the eight he targeted — three adults and four young children. Only 5-year-old Tali Griffel, whose mother died shielding her body with her own, survived the massacre.
Khater was disarmed by fellow Egyptian soldiers, who then refused to let rescue forces come to the bleeding tourists’ aid. Subsequently, Egyptian authorities portrayed him as mentally ill, possibly to alleviate tensions with Israel over the incident.
Many in the Arab world hailed Khater as a hero and role model, with the government of Iran under Ayatollah Khomenei issuing a stamp in his honor and naming a Tehran street after him.
In early 1989, Egypt agreed to compensate the victims of the Ras Burqa massacre, also issuing a formal statement of apology to the family of each victim.
Israel and Egypt had signed a peace treaty in March 1979. Israeli tourism to Egypt had thrived in the first few years after the accord, but the Ras Burqa attack — exacerbated by the Egyptian authorities’ failure to quickly organize emergency medical assistance or to let Israeli emergency services provide aid — was a turning point in what became and remains a much colder peace.