A man identified by Israeli and Egyptian authorities as an Egyptian security officer entered Israeli territory on Saturday and killed three Israeli soldiers in two separate shooting incidents in a remote desert area along the border between the two countries, according to a preliminary investigation by Israel. military.
Many details were sketchy hours after the incident came to light, but Israeli military officials appeared to be treating the incident along the normally quiet border as a rogue attack and said an investigation was being carried out in collaboration with the Egyptian Army.
The Israeli and Egyptian militaries offer different versions of the episode’s details.
An Israeli military spokesman said the chain of events began at around 2:30 a.m. on Saturday when Israeli soldiers thwarted an attempt to smuggle drugs across the border, which involved ladders placed along the border fence. They seized about $400,000 worth of goods, said the spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hecht.
Then, at around 8 a.m., when Israeli soldiers stationed at the border post failed to answer calls on their radios, a commander went to the scene and found the bodies of a male soldier and a female soldier, Colonel Hecht said. They are thought to have been killed an hour or two earlier.
More soldiers arrived to conduct a search of the area, and around noon they tracked down a suspect on Israeli territory, the colonel said. In the exchange of fire that followed, a third Israeli soldier was killed, as was the suspect, who was wearing a uniform worn by Egyptian border guards. An Israeli non-commissioned officer was slightly injured in the exchange of fire.
The Egyptian army said in a statement that at dawn, a member of its security forces tasked with securing the border had broken through the security fence while chasing drug smugglers. The soldier said he had been involved in a shootout that resulted in the death of three Israeli soldiers and the wounding of two others as well as the death of the Egyptian officer himself.
The Egyptian statement did not take into account the time between the smuggling attempt and the shelling outlined by the Israeli military.
The Israeli military said the attacker’s affiliation and motives were not yet clear, and officials were investigating whether he acted alone or on behalf of an organization. The Egyptian army offered its “sincere condolences to the family of the deceased” in its statement and suggested that legal action would be taken against anyone found to be involved.
Israel and Egypt signed a peace agreement more than 40 years ago and Israeli officials and analysts stressed that the strategic relationship between the two countries is unlikely to be affected by Saturday’s events. Colonel Hecht said that Israeli and Egyptian liaison officers remained in constant contact, and that they had been in contact even as events were unfolding.
On Saturday evening, Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, spoke by phone with his Egyptian counterpart, Mohamed Zaki, and expressed appreciation for Mr Zaki’s “commitment and cooperation in the investigation of the incident,” according to a statement from Mr Gallant’s office. .
Israeli and Egyptian authorities have coordinated closely along the border in recent years, especially since the emergence of an Islamic State affiliate in the vast desert of the Sinai Peninsula. The affiliate brought down a Russian passenger jet in 2015, and has frequently attacked Egyptian security forces there.
Although the desolate mountainous region has long been known for drug-smuggling activity, deadly security incidents along Israel’s border with Egypt are far rarer, with the last major attack occurring more than a decade ago.
In August 2011, eight Israelis were killed in multiple attacks from across the Egyptian border near the Israeli resort of Eilat. In that episode, militants opened fire on an Israeli bus on a road winding along the border and, minutes later, detonated a bomb next to an Israeli army patrol. The militants then fired an anti-tank missile and hit the private vehicle, killing the passengers.
As a result of the chaos, Israeli troops killed three assailants who had crossed into Israeli territory. Israeli security forces also killed five Egyptian officers who were pursuing the assailants on the Egyptian side – bringing Israel and Egypt to the brink of a diplomatic crisis.
Vivian Yee contributed reporting from Cairo, and Jonathan Rosen from Jerusalem.