IDF brass meet Egyptian counterparts in Cairo to probe deadly border attack

Delegation including chief of Southern Command, head of international relations and top intel officer continue joint investigation of killing of 3 soldiers by Egyptian policeman

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

This image taken from video shows an IDF post that was attacked by an Egyptian policeman on the border, June 3, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)
This image taken from video shows an IDF post that was attacked by an Egyptian policeman on the border, June 3, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Three senior Israel Defense Forces officers traveled to Cairo on Sunday morning to meet with Egyptian army officials as part of an investigation into a deadly attack on the border earlier this month.

On June 3, an Egyptian border policeman infiltrated into Israel and killed three Israeli soldiers — two at a guard post and one in an armed clash several hours later. The attacker was then shot dead.

The IDF said the chief of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano; the head of the military’s international cooperation unit, Brig. Gen. Effie Defrin; and the head of Military Intelligence operations, Brig. Gen. “Gimmel” — who can only be identified by his first initial in Hebrew — met with the Egyptian army officers to continue the investigation.

The joint investigation between the IDF and the Egyptian army began several hours after the attack, with Egyptian defense officials touring the scene and meeting with Israeli officers.

“Both sides expressed their commitment to an in-depth investigation and uncovering the truth,” the IDF said in a statement on Sunday.

Top political and military leaders have stressed that the shootings were not a reflection of the ties between the countries, which have grown increasingly close on security matters since a 1979 peace treaty formally ended decades of armed enmity between them.

Egyptian defense officials meet with IDF officers at the scene of a deadly attack on the border, June 3, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF and the Egyptian army were jointly probing the attacker’s motives.

The attacker, Mohamed Salah Ibrahim, 22, was believed by the IDF to have acted alone. Egypt has sought to distance itself from the policeman, with Egyptian officials saying they had been unaware of his intentions.

According to Arabic-language media reports, Ibrahim had frequently complained about his military service, after being stationed on the Israel border as a policeman.

Israel handed over Ibrahim’s body to Egypt for burial last Monday.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on the phone with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in the aftermath of the slaying of the three soldiers.

Staff Sgt. Ori Yitzhak Iluz, 20, Staff Sgt. Ohad Dahan, 20, and Sgt. Lia Ben Nun, 19, who killed by Ibrahim were buried last Sunday at military cemeteries in their hometowns.

The three served in the mixed-gender light infantry Bardelas and Caracal combat battalions, tasked with guarding the border.

Staff Sgt. Ohad Dahan, 20 (left), Sgt. Lia Ben Nun, 19 (center) and Staff Sgt. Ori Yitzhak Iluz, 20, combat soldiers in the IDF’s Bardelas and Caracal battalions who were shot dead on the Egyptian border on June 3, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

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 (three 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.

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.

An Israeli soldier walks up to a military vehicle near the Mount Harif base, close to the border with Egypt, on June 3, 2023. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

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.

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.”

In this handout photo, IDF chief Herzi Halevi speaks with officers at the scene of a deadly shooting and clashes on the border with Egypt, June 3, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Meanwhile, 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 by Tuesday.

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.

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