An Egyptian policeman shot and killed two Israeli soldiers who were manning a guard post near the border on Saturday morning, the military said. The Israel Defense Forces said there was a further exchange of fire in the area hours later, inside Israeli territory, in which the gunman and another IDF soldier were killed.
The incidents occurred between Mount Sagi and Mount Harif in the Negev desert. The circumstances were under investigation by the military, including how the gunman, an Egyptian policeman, managed to infiltrate Israel from Egypt.
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.
The IDF initially barred publication that the three soldiers were killed until their families were notified.
The troops killed in the initial attack were named as Sgt. Lia Ben Nun, 19, from the central city of Rishon Lezion, and Staff Sgt. Ori Yitzhak Iluz, 20, from the northern city of Safed. The soldier killed in the later clash with the gunman was named as Staff Sgt. Ohad Dahan, 20, from the southern city of Ofakim.
Iluz and Ben Nun served as combat soldiers in the Bardelas Battalion. Dahan served in the Caracal Battalion. Both units are tasked with guarding the Egyptian border.
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 Battalion is tasked with the Egyptian border.
IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari told reporters that the male soldier and female soldier — later named as Iluz and Ben Nun — began a guard shift together late Friday at an army post on the border. After the soldiers did not answer calls on the radio early Saturday morning, an officer reached the scene and discovered the pair dead, according to the IDF’s initial investigation.
Hours later, the IDF said there had been a new exchange of gunfire in the area of the initial attack, as troops were carrying out searches for the suspected attacker.
“During an encounter with a terrorist in Israeli territory, a short while ago, an exchange of fire developed. Troops and commanders engaged [the suspect] and shot and killed him,” the IDF said in a statement.
One soldier — later named as Dahan — was killed and a non-commissioned officer was lightly wounded during the clash with the attacker, the IDF added later.
Hagari said the gunman who was killed in the afternoon clash was likely responsible for the deadly early morning attack.
The IDF said the assailant was an Egyptian police officer. “An investigation is underway in close and full cooperation with the Egyptian army,” the IDF added.
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.
On Saturday morning, hours before the first gunfire incident, IDF troops foiled an attempt to smuggle drugs over the border, seizing contraband with an estimated value of NIS 1.5 million ($400,000), according to military officials.
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.