There are several critical questions that the joint Israeli-Egyptian investigation into the deadly terrorist attack on the two countries’ shared border on Saturday must address.
During the incident, which lasted several hours, three Israel Defense Forces soldiers were killed by an Egyptian police officer. The first two were killed at around 6:00 a.m., according to the IDF, and the third some two hours later, during a shootout that broke out after back-up forces arrived to search for the gunman.
Israeli forces led by the regional brigade commander killed the gunman soon afterwards.
The first key question is whether the terrorist, who was armed with an AK-47, acted on his own, or as a member of a larger terrorist group that has infiltrated Egypt’s security forces.
Egypt’s initial claim, that the terrorist had entered Israeli territory in pursuit of drug smugglers, is unconvincing, and reflects pressure within Egypt to smooth over the incident with a convenient narrative rather than attempt to ascertain the facts.
It is fair to assume that Israel has made it clear, behind closed doors, that this explanation is illogical and unacceptable in light of the assailant’s conduct; he remained in Israeli territory for two hours after the initial shooting, before he again fired on Israeli forces.
The second question must address the role that a significant drug smuggling run, which occurred at 2:30 a.m. that same night, and in the same area, may have played in the attack.
Both incidents occurred in the desolate Mount Harif border region, and the attempt to smuggle some 1.5 million shekels’ worth ($400,000) of narcotics into Israel, at the same time as the attack is unlikely to have been a coincidence.
Was the smuggling run, which the IDF thwarted, an attempt to distract the military?
A third question that needs to be given consideration is whether the attack was the result of a jihadist-Islamist group seeking to undermine the ongoing security cooperation at the border between the Israeli and Egyptian militaries.
Both Islamic State and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood are vehemently ideologically opposed to strategic ties between the two countries, and both are also committed to the overthrow of the el-Sisi government in Cairo.
To date, Israeli-Egyptian cooperation has managed to largely stem both drug trafficking and terrorist infiltration from Sinai.
The attack might have been an effort to undo this stability and bring anarchy to the area. In order to stop further attacks, it is crucial that Israel and Egypt get to the bottom of these questions, and maintain their cooperation.
Separately to the joint investigation, the IDF is holding its own independent in-depth inquiry, led by Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano, and the commander of the territorial 80th Division, responsible for the area, Brig. Gen. Itzik Cohen.
The incident occurred in the jurisdiction of the Paran Brigade, which defends 170 kilometers (105 miles) of the Israel-Egypt border, and swaths of the adjacent Negev desert.
The brigade includes both the Bardelas (Cheetah) and Caracal (Wildcat) co-ed battalions, and has scored growing success against drug smugglers seeking to move enormous amounts of narcotics into Israel from Sinai.
Last year, the Paran Brigade set up a joint operations center in Beersheva together with the Israel Police and Israeli Air Force to coordinate security operations. The result has been a 30% drop in cross-border drug runs in 2021 compared to 2022, according to the IDF.
Much of that success depends on the operational assumption that Egyptian security positions around the border are on the same team, and that the border is a peaceful frontier in regards to the official state security forces on the other side of it.
That is why Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told his Egyptian counterpart, Mohamed Zaki, on Saturday, “Our cooperation in investigating the severe attack that took place today, is of great importance to the ties between our countries.”
Gallant’s comments express both the deep strategic interest that both countries have in maintaining this cooperation, and the no less important need to get to the facts of the incident, with full transparency.