Israel Defense Forces chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi on Sunday appointed a general to lead an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the killing of three soldiers by an Egyptian policeman in an attack on the border a day earlier.
Maj. Gen. Nimrod Aloni, who is set to enter the position of head of the IDF’s Depth Corps and Military Colleges in the coming months, will head a team that will investigate the “systemic” failures that contributed to the deadly attack, the IDF said.
Aloni’s team will “examine the operational and systemic perception of defense of peaceful borders,” the IDF added.
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 three soldiers killed by the Egyptian policeman who infiltrated into Israel under murky circumstances were named as Staff Sgt. Ori Yitzhak Iluz, Staff Sgt. Ohad Dahan and Sgt. Lia Ben Nun. The three, combat soldiers in the mixed-gender light infantry Bardelas and Caracal battalions tasked with guarding the border, are to be buried in their hometowns on Sunday.
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 that the officer crossed the border to chase after suspects in a drug smuggling incident.
The gunman 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 3 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 OK.
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 did not fire 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.
Troops who spoke with The Times of Israel criticized the difficulty in carrying out 12-hour shifts in what is considered to be a peaceful border. “Believing in a potential threat is very difficult in some areas. It’s hard to take it seriously,” one soldier said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The IDF was also probing why there was no alert following the policeman’s infiltration into Israel, and was examining the security arrangements surrounding the various small gates in the fence.
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 before noon.
The Egyptian was found to be carrying two combat knives — which he used to breach the barrier — food, a copy of the Quran, and six magazines for his assault rifle, indicating he had planned a larger attack.
The IDF and the Egyptian army were jointly probing the attacker’s motives.
A senior Egyptian officer visited the scene of the attack on Saturday afternoon and spoke with Toledano and Cohen, the Kan public broadcaster reported.
Egypt has claimed the officer was pursuing suspects in the wake of drug smuggling nearby. It has sought to distance itself from the police officer, with Egyptian officials saying they had been unaware of his intentions, Kan reported Saturday, citing an Israeli source.
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.
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.