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Officer removed over friendly fire incident on Egypt border that wounded 2 soldiers

Internal probe finds Caracal Brigade deputy commander failed to coordinate aspects of operation with other units involved, violated regulations when he opened fire on border cops

View of Road 12 on the Israeli-Egyptian border, on October 15, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)
View of Road 12 on the Israeli-Egyptian border, on October 15, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

The IDF on Friday announced the removal of the deputy head of the battalion involved in a friendly fire incident during which two Border Police officers were lightly wounded while thwarting a drug smuggling attempt along the Egyptian border last week.

An internal investigation into the January 27 incident found that the deputy commander of the Caracal Brigade erred in a number of ways, including in failing to coordinate aspects of the drug smuggling operation with the various units involved and in violating open-fire weapon regulations, the IDF said in a statement, which did not include the identity of the commander removed from his post.

The battalions involved were also ordered to study and simulate the incident to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

The head of the IDF’s Southern Command Eliezer Toledano, who handed down the disciplinary action, said in a statement that the drug smuggling that takes place on the Egyptian border poses a criminal problem with broader security ramifications and “is characterized by great complexity that requires complete coordination between all involved.”

IDF chief of staff Aviv Kohavi accepted the decision taken by Toledano and characterized the incident as a “serious and unnecessary [one] that should have been avoided.”

According to an IDF spokesperson, there were at least nine smuggling attempts along the frontier overnight, making it “one of the most active nights on the Egyptian border in recent memory.”

Soldiers from the Caracal Battalion guard the Egyptian border in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

On a sometimes nightly basis, Egyptian smugglers attempt to pass contraband over the border — mostly marijuana from grow houses in the Sinai Peninsula, but sometimes harder drugs like heroin — to Israelis, who collect the packages and sell the drugs in Israel.

The IDF and Israel Police seized some 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of drugs, worth an estimated NIS 8 million ($2.5 million), over the course of the night, one of the largest busts in at least the past year, the military said. No arrests were made, however.

On the night in question, smugglers on the Egyptian side of the border drove up to the security fence in armored vehicles, with machine guns on top, and opened fire “massively” into Israeli territory, the IDF spokesperson said.

The machine-gun fire was not initially directed at Israeli troops but was instead meant to deter Israeli forces from approaching the area, she noted.

A team from the Caracal Battalion, which guards the Egyptian border, responded to the attack and returned fire. A Border Police vehicle with the two officers inside was also nearby and approached the fence from the Israeli side.

During the firefight, the Caracal soldiers — including the deputy battalion commander — apparently believed that the Border Police vehicle was a truck being used by the Israeli smugglers to collect the packages of drugs, and opened fire at the tires, the IDF spokesperson said.

The two officers were lightly wounded by the gunfire and were taken to Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center for treatment, the military said.

The case of friendly fire came after a deadly incident weeks earlier, in which two officers from the elite Egoz unit were shot dead by a fellow officer in another case of mistaken identity.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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