In Israel, Tough Questions Follow Fatal Attack on the Egyptian Border

A breached emergency gate at Israel’s southern border with Egypt that was held closed only with plastic handcuffs; the passage of hours before two Israeli soldiers’ bodies were discovered; and the botched pursuit of an infiltrator that led to the death of a third soldier.

On Sunday, a day after three Israeli soldiers were killed at Israel’s mostly peaceful border with Egypt, the Israeli authorities were examining a series of failures and mishaps that allowed a lone suspect identified by both the Israeli and Egyptian authorities as a member of the Egyptian security forces to cross the heavily fortified boundary undetected, spend several hours inside Israeli territory and kill three Israeli soldiers in two separate locations before being encircled and fatally shot.

And as Israel prepared on Sunday to bury the three soldiers, analysts were raising painful questions about the apparent blunders involved.

Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty more than 40 years ago, and the Israeli troops patrolling the border are more used to dealing with drug-smuggling gangs than with armed militants. The episode on Saturday was the first of its kind along the Egyptian border in more than a decade.

According to the Israeli military, troops remained deployed along the border early Saturday after a major cross-border drug smuggling attempt was foiled and a haul worth about $400,000 was seized at 3 a.m. The units deployed in the area regularly thwart such smuggling efforts, the military said, often using live fire.

The last contact made with two Israeli soldiers — a man and woman — holding one of the positions along the border was at 4:15 a.m., Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military’s chief spokesman, told Kan, Israel’s public radio, on Sunday. The pair began their 12-hour shift at 9 p.m. on Friday.

Radio contact is supposed to be made on an hourly basis, but this did not happen, he said. Only at 9 a.m. on Saturday did a commander arrive at the position to check on the pair, find them dead and raise the alarm about an assailant on the loose, Admiral Hagari said.

Forces and trackers sent in pursuit were aided by a drone that spotted a suspicious figure in the sand about a mile from the border, inside Israeli territory, around noon.

But Admiral Hagari said that the drone images did not clearly show a weapon, and that the troops needed to get closer to ensure that the figure was not an Israeli civilian who could have been hiking in the area. As the troops closed in, the person opened fire from a distance of about 200 yards, fatally shooting a third Israeli soldier and wounding a fourth before being killed himself.

His identity and motivation remained unclear on Sunday. The Israeli news media reported that a Quran was found in his bag, suggesting a possible Islamist link, but any affiliation with a militant group was not immediately known.

Among the other questions that remained to be investigated, Admiral Hagari said, was why an emergency gate in the steel fence along the border, through which the suspect entered Israel, had no proper lock but was held closed only by plastic hand restraints; why sensors along the fence did not detect the breach; and how he managed to reach the army position and surprise the soldiers without being spotted by lookouts.

Sometimes, Admiral Hagari said, the systems can be affected by weather conditions.

“The Israeli defenses collapsed yesterday,” Yossi Yehoshua, a military affairs commentator, wrote on Sunday in the Hebrew newspaper Yediot Ahronot. Given that the Israeli military “enjoyed real superiority in terms of manpower, daylight visibility conditions and auxiliary troops,” he wrote, the pursuit should have ended without Israeli casualties.

Other analysts questioned whether troops stationed along the border could be expected to remain alert for 12-hour shifts in the heat of the desert.

The Egyptian Army publicly offered a different version of the event on Saturday, saying in a statement that at dawn on that day, a member of its security forces had breached the security fence while chasing drug smugglers and had exchanged fire that led to the deaths 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 account for the hours between the smuggling attempt and the shootings that the Israeli military outlined.

Admiral Hagari said the Israeli military had been in touch with Egyptian officials from about 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, in the spirit of their strategic alliance.

Though many Egyptians are unhappy with the peace treaty with Israel, Israeli and Egyptian authorities have coordinated closely along the border in recent years, particularly since the rise of an Islamic State affiliate in the vast deserts of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Myra Noveck contributed reporting.

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