Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to fully investigate the killing of three soldiers in southern Israel by an Egyptian police officer on Saturday, as the nation’s leaders offered condolences to the families and questions lingered over the highly unusual shootings on the border.
The three soldiers were named as Staff Sgt. Ori Yitzhak Iluz, Staff Sgt. Ohad Dahan and Sgt. Lia Ben Nun, all combat soldiers in the Bardelas and Caracal battalions tasked with guarding the border.
“The deadly incident on the Egyptian border during Shabbat is severe and abnormal and will be investigated to the end,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “Together with all the people of Israel, I share in the sorrow of the families.”
“I want to praise our forces who strove for contact and killed the terrorist,” Netanyahu said.
President Isaac Herzog said, “There are no words to describe the pain and loss.”
“We will preserve their memories and continue to determinedly defend our borders,” he said.
“The heart breaks. Lia Ben Nun, Ohad Dahan, Ori Yitzhak Iluz. May their memories be a blessing,” said Opposition Leader Yair Lapid.
The three soldiers will be laid to rest in military cemeteries in their hometowns on Sunday.
The funeral for Ben Nun, 19, will take place in Rishon Lezion at 4:30 p.m.
Iluz, who was 20, will be buried in Safed at 5 p.m.
Dahan, 20, will be buried in Ofakim at 5 p.m., the IDF said.
There are five mixed-gender infantry units within the IDF’s Border Defense Corps, which is responsible for defending Israel’s borders with Jordan, Egypt, as well as the West Bank security barrier.
The circumstances of the killings, which occurred between Mount Sagi and Mount Harif in the Negev desert, remained murky as the military investigated. Deadly incidents on the Israel-Egypt border are rare.
According to IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, Ben Nun and Iluz began a 12-hour shift together at 9 p.m. on Friday night at a military post on the Egyptian border. After the soldiers did not answer calls on the radio on Saturday morning, an officer arrived on 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.
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.
The Egyptian police officer attacked troops who were scanning the area. During the clash, Dahan was killed and a non-commissioned officer was lightly wounded. The gunman was shot dead several minutes later by another group of soldiers, according to the military.
The IDF was investigating how and when the Egyptian attacker infiltrated Israel, how he was not detected for several hours, and what the military could have done to prevent the deaths of the three soldiers.
Egypt has sought to distance itself from the policeman, with Egyptian officials saying they had been unaware of his intentions, the Kan public broadcaster reported, citing an Israeli source.
Netanyahu’s office briefed ministers to say how irregular the incident was and stress that it did not reflect Israeli-Egyptian ties, the report said.
The Israeli military said it believed the shooter infiltrated the border using an emergency gate, and that the two soldiers killed in the initial attack did not fire back.
Hagari said 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 military. The Egyptian army has claimed the officer crossed the border to chase after suspects involved in the drug smuggling incident.
Military officials said IDF troops foiled the smuggling attempt 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 (1.5 miles) from the attack location — was wrapped up. At 4:15 a.m., troops radioed in to the guard post where Ben Nun and Iluzi were located, “and everything was fine,” Hagari said.
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.
“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 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.
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.