An Egyptian policeman accused of killing three Israeli soldiers in an attack on the border on Saturday morning was named Monday as Mohamed Salah Ibrahim, 22, from Cairo.
According to Arabic-language media reports, Ibrahim was drafted into the Egyptian army in June 2022 and stationed on the Israel border as a policeman. He was reportedly set to end his service in the near future.
Egyptian reports cited by Israel’s Kan public broadcaster said Ibrahim had complained several times about his military service, including recently, and had gone absent without leave for 18 days at one point.
The reports said Ibrahim had suffered mental distress following the death of a comrade and felt the issue had not been taken seriously. One of Ibrahim’s friends claimed he was trying to get a medical exemption from his service due to physical problems, according to the reports cited by Kan.
Ibrahim is believed by the Israel Defense Forces to have acted alone in the deadly attack on Saturday. Egypt has sought to distance itself from the policeman, with Egyptian officials saying they had been unaware of his intentions, according to Kan.
The IDF and the Egyptian army were jointly probing the attacker’s motives.
Egyptian defense officials visited the scene of the attack on Saturday afternoon and met with senior IDF officials, the military said.
After his death in a gunfight with IDF soldiers, Ibrahim was found to be carrying two combat knives — which he had used to breach the barrier — as well as food, a Quran, and six magazines for his assault rifle, indicating he had planned a larger attack.
Hebrew-language media claimed the copy of the Quran indicated Ibrahim’s possible religious extremism.
According to the Egyptian reports, one of Ibrahim’s friends raised the possibility that Salah had wanted to avenge the death of his comrade.
During the May 2021 conflict between Israel and the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip, Ibrahim expressed solidarity with the Palestinians on Facebook, writing in a post: “Allah stands with Palestine,” with a hashtag reading: “#GazaUnderAttack.”
Israel handed over Ibrahim’s body to Egypt for burial on Monday, according to Hebrew media.
Staff Sgt. Ori Yitzhak Iluz, 20, Staff Sgt. Ohad Dahan, 20, and Sgt. Lia Ben Nun, 19, killed by Ibrahim on Saturday, were buried Sunday at military cemeteries in their hometowns.
The three were combat soldiers in the mixed-gender light infantry Bardelas and Caracal battalions, tasked with guarding the border.
According to the IDF’s initial probe, the Egyptian policeman infiltrated through the border through an emergency gate early Saturday morning.
The small gate — held shut with just zip ties — is used by the IDF to cross the border when necessary, in coordination with the Egyptian army. The Egyptian army has claimed Ibrahim crossed the border to chase after suspects in a drug smuggling incident.
Ibrahim walked some five kilometers (3 miles) from his guard post in Egypt and climbed up a cliff to reach the emergency gate, which indicated his knowledge of the area and the security barrier. He cut through the zip ties with a combat knife, opened the small entrance to Israel, and walked around 150 meters to the guard post where Iluz and Ben Nun were.
בלי תלתלית, פרוץ, וקשור באזיקונים: כך נראה פתח החירום שדרכו חדר המחבל לשטח ישראל pic.twitter.com/F2FJNeQWXC
— רועי שרון Roy Sharon (@roysharon11) June 4, 2023
Ben Nun and Iluz had begun a 12-hour shift together at 9 p.m. on Friday night at the military post on the Egyptian border. At around 2:30 a.m., troops foiled an attempt to smuggle drugs over the border, around three kilometers (1.8 miles) north of Ben Nun and Iluz’s position, seizing contraband with an estimated value of NIS 1.5 million ($400,000).
At 3 a.m., the smuggling incident was wrapped up; and at 4:15 a.m., troops radioed in to the guard post where Ben Nun and Iluz were located, who responded that everything was okay.
There are frequent attempts to smuggle drugs from Egypt into Israel. Egyptian smugglers generally operate by tossing contraband over the border to Bedouin Israelis, who then sell the drugs in Israel. The smugglers mostly traffic in marijuana from grow houses in the Sinai Peninsula, but sometimes harder drugs like heroin are smuggled in as well.
The Egyptian policeman was believed to have snuck up to the guard post and opened fire sometime between 6 and 7 a.m., killing Ben Nun and Iluz. After the soldiers did not answer calls on the radio on Saturday morning, shortly before their shift was set to end at 9 a.m., an officer went to the scene and discovered the pair dead near the post.
The pair had not fired their weapons, according to the IDF’s investigation, indicating that they were caught completely by surprise by the attacker. The military was looking into the possibility that they had fallen asleep or were otherwise not paying attention to the border.
The IDF was probing why there was no alert following the policeman’s infiltration into Israel and examining the security arrangements surrounding the various small gates in the fence, as well as why Israeli commanders were unaware two soldiers had been killed for at least two hours.
After the officer discovered Ben Nun and Iluz’s bodies at around 9 a.m., military officials declared a terror incident in the area and began searches.
Shortly after 11 a.m., an army drone identified the attacker hiding behind a rock formation some 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) from the border.
The attacker opened fire at a group of soldiers approaching the area — some 200 meters away — fatally hitting Dahan. Several minutes later, another group of soldiers closed in on the Egyptian, killing him. One non-commissioned officer was lightly wounded in the second clash, which occurred before noon.
Top political and military leaders have stressed the shootings were not a reflection of the ties between the countries, which have grown increasingly close on security matters since their 1979 peace treaty formally ended decades of armed enmity between them.
The IDF said the Egyptian army was fully cooperating with the investigation.
IDF chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi on Sunday appointed Maj. Gen. Nimrod Aloni to lead an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the attack, with a focus on the “systemic” failures and the “perception of defense of peaceful borders.”
Meanwhile, the chief of the IDF’s Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano, and the commander of the 80th Division, Brig. Gen. Itzik Cohen, will probe the troops’ conduct during the attack. Toledano and Cohen’s investigation is set to be presented to Halevi within a week, the IDF said.
The Israel-Egypt border has been largely peaceful since the two countries signed a peace agreement in 1979, Israel’s first with an Arab state. In the past decade, Israel built a large barrier along the border, largely aimed at keeping out African migrants and Islamic terrorists who operate in Egypt’s Sinai.
Sinai-based terrorists carried out multiple attacks against Israel in 2011 and 2012. In one multi-stage attack in August 2011, six Israeli civilians, an IDF soldier and a counter-terrorism police officer were killed, as well as five Egyptian soldiers.