General: 'This passage is a systemic failure'

Officer dismissed as IDF blames deadly Egypt border attack on easily opened gate

Military probe says emergency gate used by gunman was unknown to soldiers stationed in area; officers to shorten 12-hour guard shifts, prioritize preparing for potential attacks

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

IDF chief Herzi Halevi walks with other military and police officials near the site where an Egyptian policeman infiltrated into Israel, June 3, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF chief Herzi Halevi walks with other military and police officials near the site where an Egyptian policeman infiltrated into Israel, June 3, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

A senior officer will be removed from his position and several others will be formally censured for their part in the circumstances that enabled a deadly border attack by an Egyptian gunman earlier this month that claimed the lives of three soldiers.

The Israel Defense Forces said Tuesday that an investigation had found a number of contributing factors to the attack: an easily opened small emergency gate on the border barrier was unknown to troops stationed in the area; an over-prioritization of drug smuggling incidents; and excessively lengthy guard shifts.

The investigation, carried out by Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano and the commander of the 80th Division, Brig. Gen. Itzik Cohen, was presented to IDF chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi on Tuesday.

The investigation was also presented to the families of Staff Sgt. Ori Yitzhak Iluz, 20, Staff Sgt. Ohad Dahan, 20, and Sgt. Lia Ben Nun, 19, troops of the Bardelas and Caracal battalions who were killed by the renegade Egyptian policeman in the attack and subsequent clashes on June 3 in which the assailant was killed.

The Bardelas and Caracal mixed-gender light infantry battalions are part of the IDF’s Border Defense Corps, and geographically subordinate to the Paran Territorial Brigade, which is part of the 80th “Edom” Territorial Division in the Southern Command.

The IDF said that Cohen, the commander of the 80th Division, will be formally reprimanded for his “overall responsibility for the event, including the lack of control over the implementation of the procedures.”

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)

Col. Ido Sa’ad, the commander of the Paran Brigade, will be dismissed from his role and moved to another position in the IDF, for his “overall responsibility for the event and the manner by which operations are carried out in his area.”

The IDF noted that Sa’ad did act correctly when it came to engaging with and killing the Egyptian attacker.

Lt. Col. Ivan Kon, the commander of the Bardelas Battalion, will be formally reprimanded for his “responsibility for the implementation of the operating concept in his forces.” He will additionally be denied a promotion for five years, the IDF said.

In order to deliver the report quickly, Toledano and Cohen’s investigation had a particularly narrow scope, focusing mostly on troops’ conduct during the attack and subsequent clashes with the gunman.

Halevi has meanwhile appointed 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 — 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.”

“We conducted an exhaustive and in-depth investigation,” Halevi said at an event in the Knesset on Tuesday. “Along with quality work, initiative and successes, we also found operational and command faults and gaps. We will study them, fix and improve them. This is a difficult incident, which could and should have been prevented, and it is our responsibility as commanders — and mine as commander of the army first and foremost — to learn lessons and be better.”

The probes’ findings

According to the IDF’s investigation, the Egyptian policeman, Mohamed Salah Ibrahim, 22, infiltrated the border through an emergency gate early on June 3. The small gate, held shut with only zip ties, is used by the IDF to cross the border when necessary, in coordination with the Egyptian army.

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 Bardelas troops Iluz and Ben Nun were situated.

Ben Nun and Iluz had begun a 12-hour shift together at 9 p.m. the night prior at the military post. At around 1:40 a.m., troops had 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 1.3 million ($365,000).

At 3 a.m., the smuggling incident was wrapped up, and at 4:10 a.m., troops radioed in to the guard post where Ben Nun and Iluz were located, with the pair responding that everything was in order.

There are frequent attempts to smuggle drugs from Egypt into Israel, and these many times include gunfire by smugglers. 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 is thought to have snuck up to the guard post and opened fire around 7 a.m., killing Ben Nun and Iluz.

Scans were carried out by soldiers monitoring surveillance cameras at 6:50 a.m., after an electronic monitoring indication at 6:34 a.m., though nothing unusual was found. Soldiers at a nearby post later reported hearing gunfire at 7:13 a.m., although they did not report this in real time as gunfire is fairly frequent in the area.

Shortly after Ben Nun and Iluz’s shift ended at 9 a.m., an officer went to the scene and discovered the pair dead near the post. Large forces were called up and searches began in the area.

The pair had not fired their weapons, according to the IDF’s investigation, indicating that they were caught by surprise by the attacker. The investigation found that Ben Nun and Iluz were not asleep when the gunman opened fire.

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)

At 9:34 a.m., an army tracker spotted footprints in the area, but wrongly reported that the attacker had likely returned to Egypt. Still, the incident was not wrapped up by the forces, and they continued to search for the gunman.

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. At 11:35 a.m., the attacker opened fire at a group of soldiers approaching the area — some 200 meters away — fatally hitting Dahan and lightly wounding the tracker. At 12:22 p.m., another group of soldiers closed in on the assailant, killing him.

Speaking to reporters, Toledano said there were two main “large” failures that led to the deadly attack: the emergency gate and the over-prioritization of drug smuggling incidents.

“The special security passage was viewed by us as a hidden passage… not updating the soldiers on this passage was a systemic failure. This was a point we did not notice, we were unaware of. This is a failure that lasted for several years, which unfortunately this incident brought to the fore. We should have understood this, but unfortunately, we didn’t,” Toledano said.

Toledano said forces were well prepared for incidents of drug smuggling but less prepared for an intentional attack on the troops themselves.

Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano, chief of the IDF Southern Command speaks to reporters, June 13, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF in a statement said the military would “refine the order of priorities established for the readiness for terror incidents and the readiness to deal with the frequent threat of smuggling in this area.”

The IDF said “no faults” were found in the actions of the slain troops.

“These soldiers stood out positively in their actions as soldiers in the IDF,” the military added.

Additionally, the probe found that the deployment of troops close to the border was indeed necessary to prevent violent smuggling incidents, noting the area is also popular with Israeli hikers. But the duration of the shifts and their makeup “should have been considered and carried out differently,” the IDF said.

Additionally, the probe found that forces did not check in with troops at the guard posts frequently enough throughout their shift. Ben Nun and Iluz were found some two hours after they were shot dead, and five hours after forces last checked in on them.

An Israeli soldier closes a gate leading to the border at a military base following a deadly shootout in southern Israel along the Egyptian border, June 3, 2023. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

As a result, the IDF decided to immediately seal the emergency gates on the border barrier, reduce the 12-hour guard shifts to a yet-to-be-determined length, and determine a minimum number of soldiers for such guard duties. Cohen had previously ordered that soldiers guard in groups of four during night hours, although this was not implemented.

The probe also praised the troops who killed the gunman once he had been identified. “The forces who engaged [the attacker] acted with determination, which resulted in his neutralization,” the IDF said.

The IDF and the Egyptian army are meanwhile also jointly probing the attacker’s motives.

Mohamed Salah Ibrahim, 22, the Egyptian policeman who killed three IDF soldiers on the border. (Social media; Israel Defense Forces)

Three senior IDF officers, including Toledano, traveled to Cairo on Sunday morning to meet with Egyptian army officials as part of 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.

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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