The Israeli military on Saturday evening said it believed an Egyptian policeman who killed three soldiers in southern Israel earlier in the day infiltrated through the border using an emergency gate, and that two soldiers killed in an initial attack did not fire back.
The three Israeli soldiers killed by the Egyptian policeman were named by the Israel Defense Forces as Staff Sgt. Ori Yitzhak Iluz, Staff Sgt. Ohad Dahan and Sgt. Lia Ben Nun.
Iluz, 20, from the northern city of Safed, and Ben Nun, 19, from Rishon Lezion served as combat soldiers in the Bardelas Battalion. Dahan, 20, from the southern city of Ofakim, served in the Caracal Battalion, which is also tasked with guarding the Egyptian border.
IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari told reporters that the attacker likely entered alone through the gate in the early hours of Saturday morning, following drug smuggling nearby.
The small gate is used by the IDF to cross the border when necessary, in coordination with the Egyptian army. The Egyptian army has claimed the officer crossed the border to chase after suspects involved in the drug smuggling incident.
Hagari said the IDF was 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.
Military officials said IDF troops foiled the attempt to smuggle drugs over the border at around 2:30 a.m., seizing contraband with an estimated value of NIS 1.5 million ($400,000).
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.
At 3 a.m., the smuggling incident — some 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) from the attack location — was wrapped up; and at 4:15 a.m., troops radioed in to the guard post where Ben Nun and Iluz were located, “and everything was fine,” Hagari said.
Ben Nun and Iluz began a 12-hour shift together at 9 p.m. on Friday night at the military post on the Egyptian border. 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 reached the scene and discovered the pair dead in separate areas of the post.
Hagari said the IDF believed they were killed at around 6 or 7 a.m.
“Between 6 and 7 in the morning, there were a number of shots in the area. We estimate that the incident happened somewhere at that time. The soldiers were together near the post, not dozens of meters away from each other,” he said.
He said that the pair did not fire their weapons at all.
Only after the bodies were discovered at around 9 a.m., military officials declared a terror incident in the area and began searches. Shortly before noon, an army drone identified the attacker some 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) from the border, which led to a deadly clash, Hagari said.
During the clash, Dahan was killed and a non-commissioned officer was lightly wounded. The Egyptian gunman was killed several minutes later by another group of soldiers, according to the IDF’s investigation.
The Egyptian army said in a statement that an officer in charge of border security chased after suspects involved in alleged drug smuggling. “During the pursuit, he crossed the security barrier and an exchange of fire began, in which three Israeli security personnel were killed,” it said, adding that it wished to convey “sincere condolences” to the families of the victims.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant spoke with his Egyptian counterpart Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Zaki, following the attack.
“The cooperation in the investigation of the serious attack is of great importance for the relationship between the countries,” Gallant was quoted as saying in a readout.
Gallant’s office said he “expressed his appreciation for the Egyptian defense minister’s commitment to a joint investigation of the details of the serious incident, and emphasized the importance of cooperation in the investigation of the attack to prevent further incidents in the future.”
The Israeli defense minister told his Egyptian counterpart that “the relationship between Israel and Egypt is very important to both countries, and that both sides must make sure that the difficult incident does not harm the good security relationship between the countries.”
“At the end of the conversation, the two agreed to continue the direct relationship between them, to prevent terrorist incidents in the future and to strengthen the relationship between the countries,” Gallant’s office added.
Earlier, the chief of the military’s Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano, said the IDF would not leave any question unanswered “We are in a joint investigation with the Egyptians, and it will be sharp, clear, and we will not leave any question unsolved,” he told reporters at the Egyptian border.
Military chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said the IDF would “thoroughly” investigate the circumstances with Egypt and “draw the necessary lessons.”
“This is a difficult incident, during which three IDF soldiers, from our best sons and daughters, fell in an operational activity to maintain security on the Egyptian border. At the end of an exchange of fire, in which IDF fighters engaged [the suspect], the terrorist was killed,” Halevi said in remarks provided by the IDF.
“The incident takes place at the border where operational activities are carried out every night,” Halevi said following a briefing at the scene of the attack.
“We are investigating the incident in a thorough and in-depth manner, together with the Egyptian army, and will draw the necessary lessons,” he said. “The male and female fighters fulfilled their role and prevented further harm to Israeli forces and the home front. I am asking here to strengthen the families for the loss.”
The IDF said the Egyptian army was fully cooperating with the investigation. “The investigation is still ongoing and is being handled in full cooperation with the Egyptian army. A very unusual incident that does not represent the relationship and joint action [between the militaries],” Hagari said earlier.
The shooting and clashes appeared to be one of the most serious incidents on the border since the signing of a 1979 peace deal between the two countries.
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.
However, there are frequent attempts to smuggle drugs over Israel’s tall fence. In recent years, there have been several incidents of gunfire between smugglers and IDF soldiers. The Egyptian army also frequently shoots at drug smugglers, as well as jihadist groups in the northern Sinai desert, sometimes resulting in accidental cross-border fire.
Sinai-based terrorists carried out multiple attacks against Israel in 2011 and 2012. In one multi-staged attack in August 2011, six Israeli civilians, an IDF soldier, and a counter-terrorism police officer were killed, as well as five Egyptian soldiers.