The three Israeli soldiers killed by an Egyptian policeman in attacks on the border on Saturday morning were named by the Israel Defense Forces as Staff Sgt. Ohad Dahan, Sgt. Lia Ben Nun, and Staff Sgt. Ori Yitzhak Iluz.
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.
They were posthumously promoted from the ranks of sergeant to staff sergeant and corporal to sergeant, respectively.
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 Bardelas and Caracal battalions are tasked with the Egyptian border.
The circumstances of the incidents on Saturday, which occurred between Mount Sagi and Mount Harif in the Negev desert, were under investigation by the military, including how the gunman, an Egyptian policeman, managed to infiltrate Israel from Egypt and remain undetected for several hours before and after the initial attack.
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 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.
Several hours later, shortly before noon, the Egyptian policeman attacked troops who were scanning the area. During the clash, Dahan was killed and a non-commissioned officer was lightly wounded. The gunman was killed several minutes later by another group of soldiers, according to the military.
The IDF was investigating how and when the Egyptian attacker infiltrated into Israel, how he was not detected for several hours, and what the military could have done to prevent the deaths of the three soldiers.
The Egyptian army, meanwhile, 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.
On Saturday morning, hours before the first gunfire incident, military officials said IDF troops foiled an attempt to smuggle drugs over the border, seizing contraband with an estimated value of NIS 1.5 million ($400,000).
Hagari said the IDF did not know how to link the smuggling attempt at around 2:30 a.m., some 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) north of the military post which was attacked, to the deadly incident there four or five hours later.
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.
He said the IDF was probing the possible connection between the attempted drug smuggling and the attack. “We will investigate all directions, the incident happened after the smuggling, we will check the connection between the incidents,” he said.
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.
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.
Troops were continuing to search the area for additional possible attackers.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant held an assessment with IDF chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi and other defense officials on the exchanges of fire, his office said on Saturday afternoon.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said he was being continuously briefed on developments at the scene.
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.