Egypt and Israel have agreed to form a joint committee to investigate the shooting incident that took place on the Egyptian-Israeli border at dawn on 3 June. The incident resulted in the death of Egyptian Central Security conscript Mohamed Salah Ibrahim and three Israeli soldiers: Lia Ben Nun, Ori Yitzhak Iluz, and Ohad Dahan. Iluz and Ben Nun had served in the Bardelas Battalion, Dahan in the Caracal Battalion.
The agreement reflects the ability of the two sides to respond quickly and with flexibility to sudden developments and coordinate effectively within the framework of existing security arrangements, and their confidence that the incident will not affect their bilateral relationship. Working together to determine what exactly took place, the two sides will identify any steps that need to be taken to fill security gaps and prevent a repetition.
On the day of the incident an Egyptian Armed Forces spokesman said an Egyptian security forces officer was pursuing drug smugglers across the security barrier after which an exchange of fire took place, resulting in the death of three Israeli soldiers, the injury of two others, and the death of the Egyptian policemen. The spokesman added that security and legal measures were being taken to investigate the incident and secure the area. He offered condolences to the families of the deceased and wished a speedy recovery to the wounded.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi received a phone call from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Presidential Spokesperson Ahmed Fahmy said the two leaders tackled the border incident, stressing the importance of full coordination to unravel the details of the incident. They reiterated their commitment to working together within the framework of their relations.
In another official statement earlier, the military spokesman said that Egyptian Defence Minister Lieutenant General Mohamed Zaki phoned his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant to discuss the incident and extend condolences to the families of the victims on both sides. The ministers discussed coordination to avert the recurrence of such incidents. The Egyptian authorities had released no further statements by the time this report was filed.
In addition to setting in motion investigations on the Egyptian side, Egyptian authorities have formed a team to work alongside the Israeli team in the joint investigation. On Sunday, Israeli Chief of Staff Herzl Halevi appointed Major General Nimrod Aloni to the Israeli investigatory team. According to Israeli news reports, Eliezer Toledano, head of the Southern Command, and Brigadier General Itzik Cohen, commander of the 80th Division, will probe the conduct of Israeli troops during the attack. The Israeli Broadcasting Corporation also reported that a high-ranking Egyptian officer visited the scene of the incident and spoke with Toledano and Cohen.
Israeli narratives diverge from the Egyptian one. One Israeli account suggests that, contrary to the Egyptian narrative of the policeman pursuing the smugglers across the border, his pursuit of the smugglers had ended before he crossed the border and that he deliberately targeted the Israeli soldiers. It suggests that events played out in an approximately five-hour timeframe, yet the incident was only discovered at 9am. According to another account, an Israeli combing operation led to the soldier who was shot dead at 11am. Presumably, the investigations will reveal the circumstances surrounding the policeman’s death and whether he could have been neutralised rather than killed.
In Egypt, the media has tended to accept the authorities’ account. While acknowledging that there is little information on the timing and circumstances to make any judgement calls, the tendency has been to refute conflicting accounts in the Israeli media. The position is that the Egyptian side has offered a reasonable account of the incident given the available evidence, and it should stand in unless new and concrete facts become available.
Common themes run through the Israeli reports. One has been to rake up rare border incidents that occurred over a decade ago — the cases of Suleiman Khater and Ayman Hassan — and imply that Saturday’s incident was ideologically motivated. The Israeli media seems determined to shrug off any suggestion that the Egyptian policeman may have been trying to do his job. Yet reports in Egypt have suggested Mohamed Salah had been in service for a year, making the hypothesis he was fired by some sudden ideological drive less likely than that he was chasing smugglers.
Israeli reports of the incident have regularly compared the Egyptian border with the tense and volatile situation on the Israeli-Lebanese border. Such comparisons are hollow. Apart from extremely rare incidents, the Egyptian-Israeli border has been peaceful for decades. There are joint security arrangements in place that do not exist along Israel’s northern borders, and Egyptian and Israeli security authorities are in constant communication.
While it is important not to minimise the seriousness of the incident, the media should bear in mind that, however divergent the accounts, communications between Cairo and Tel Aviv reflect a mutual desire not to let the incident mar relations. That there have been three border incidents during more than four decades of Egyptian-Israeli security coordination is indicative of the extent to which both sides are eager to keep the border area safe and stable.
The area where the incident occurred — rugged terrain extending some 200 km along the border between Mount Sagi and Mount Harif in the Negev desert — is known for organised crime. Egypt has been very successful in fighting terrorism in Sinai, but it has also been working to combat crime in general.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly