The Tragedy on the Israel-Egypt Border Touches on Iran, the Gulf Arabs and the US (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- June 5, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Last Friday night and early Saturday, a renegade Egyptian soldier penetrated the Negev-Sinai border fence and killed three IDF soldiers. Was this an IDF failure? Are there regional ramifications?

A. However tragic the death of three Israel Defense Forces soldiers, especially at peace time, the tactical Israeli failures and mishaps the incident points to require brief analysis in the Egyptian-Israeli strategic context. Only on this basis can we turn to the interaction between Egypt-Israel relations and the broader region.

Put simply, the Israel Defense Forces failed to defend Israeli territory, at a cost in lives. That this happened at what is perhaps the most isolated spot in Israel, at Har Harif on the border with Egypt half-way between the Gaza Strip and Eilat, not only should not exonerate anyone of blame, but should sound an alarm about Israel’s other, less isolated borders.

An Egyptian border policeman, apparently motivated by radical Islam, penetrated Israel’s sophisticated border fence without sounding an alarm. Border sensors did not notice him. Two IDF soldiers at a border post were apparently surprised and killed in the middle of the night without returning fire. Their deaths were not noticed by their commanding officers for hours. Once a pursuit operation was launched against the Egyptian on Israeli territory, air support was inexplicably delayed and another IDF soldier was killed before the Egyptian was also killed and the incident closed.

The IDF is investigating the multiple failures that allowed all this to happen. The Egyptian Armed Forces are cooperating. These efforts were nearly marred by Egypt’s knee-jerk cover-up claims that its border policeman entered the Negev in hot pursuit of drug smugglers. That affront in turn (this is, after all, the Middle East) obliged Prime Minister Netanyahu to make a bombastic public demand, well after a competent Egyptian-Israeli investigation had commenced, that “the joint inquiry be all encompassing.”

Q. Isn’t this supposed to be a quiet border?

A. It is quiet militarily, but very much alive in terms of interdiction of smugglers. The border fence was built in 2013 along the 240 km between Gaza and Eilat in order to keep out asylum and job seekers, most from Eritrea and Sudan, that Egypt was lax about policing. The fence succeeded in stopping illegal migrants. But it does not stop Bedouin drug and weapons smugglers in Egypt, nightly, from throwing their goods over the fence to fellow Bedouin, often from the same tribe, in the Israeli Negev, and shooting at Israeli and Egyptian soldiers who intervene.

This is what keeps the Egyptian and Israeli forces actively engaged in policing the border. Egypt and Israel are at peace and cooperate broadly on security issues. The border has come to symbolize Israel’s quiet but effective intelligence and air force cooperation with Egypt in combating ISIS-associated Bedouin who attack Egyptians in North Sinai and smuggle weapons to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.

The border fence, then, is broadly a success story. It is paralleled by Egypt’s effective effort, repeatedly, to mediate between Israel and Gaza’s Islamist movements to end periodic flareups of violence and restore Israeli and Gulf Arab economic aid to Gaza’s two-million-plus Palestinian population.

Since Saturday morning, Israeli and Egyptian security officials at all levels have been in close contact to ensure that the Har Harif tragedy is localized. It seems increasingly clear that the Egyptian policeman who killed the three Israelis had a connection to Sinai Islamists or to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt proper.

Of even greater concern is the question whether IDF failures at Har Harif are at all characteristic of IDF performance elsewhere in Israel. Until now, the IDF’s mixed male-female infantry units policing this peace border and that with Jordan have distinguished themselves.

(Note that one of the three soldiers killed at Har Harif was female. This provided fodder for far-right Israel Channel 14 commentators to fume about “crazy leftist agendas” in the IDF.)

Q. How do regional ramifications enter the picture?

A. Last week we wrote about Israel’s threats against Iran and the possibility that they were intended in part to reassure Israel’s new friends in the Gulf: the UAE, Bahrain, and even Saudi Arabia with which Israel has yet to normalize relations. Yet even as Israel strives to avoid friction with Egypt following the Har Harif incident, it confronts the likelihood of Iran and Egypt very soon renewing diplomatic relations after some 40 years of estrangement.

Iran, clearly on a diplomatic ‘roll’, has also recently resumed relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. And it is Iran, after all, that has emerged as the primary backer of the very Gaza-based militant Islamist movements that Egypt, in consultation with Israel, seeks to restrain.

Q. Once again, it’s all about Iran . . .

A. Indeed, concerning Iran it gets worse for both Israel and the United States. Tehran just announced that it is forming a naval pact with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Pakistan and China. This, following Abu Dhabi’s decision, due to disappointment with the American commitment to its security vis-à-vis Iran, to pull the UAE out of a 34-nation Combined Maritime Forces Gulf-area coalition initiated by Washington. Abu Dhabi is reportedly unhappy that US naval forces did not respond forcefully to Iran’s recent seizure of two civilian tanker ships in UAE waters.

UAE and Saudi complaints about America’s failure to back them up forcefully against Iran-sponsored attacks on their energy infrastructure go back to the Trump administration. Pulling out of a US-sponsored naval coalition and possibly joining one sponsored by Iran may simply be Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s way of signaling the Pentagon that it needs to play a more active role in Gulf defense. By the same token, Iran’s new initiative for a naval pact with the Saudis and Emirates may be little more than tactical bluster. But note that China too is reportedly viewed increasingly as an alternative naval partner to America by Gulf Arabs.

Then again, there are indications that Washington is exploring a new, minimalist (“less for less”) nuclear deal with Iran to replace the defunct JCPOA and at least temporarily stop what appears to be Iran’s race to a military nuclear option. Oman, another Gulf emirate, is reportedly involved.

Israel’s Netanyahu and America’s Trump only contributed to the military nuclearization of Iran through their misplaced and aggressive opposition to the original 2015 JCPOA nuclear freeze deal. Today, eight years later, Israel’s security leadership is wary of any new US-Iran nuclear deal that appears primarily to give Iran sanctions relief and enable Washington to direct its strategic attention to China and Russia while merely postponing the inevitable--a nuclear Iran--all too briefly. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are presumably unhappy too.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Yediot Aharonot Arab affairs commentator Smadar Perry summed up on Sunday: “The fatal attack yesterday morning [at Har Harif] takes place at a critical point in time for Egypt’s relations with Israel specifically and the countries of the Middle East in general.” Put differently, Israel’s Iran worries are not only being exacerbated in the US-Persian Gulf context but are spreading to Egypt, too.

America’s strategic reorientation toward confronting China and Russia, which seemingly downgrades the US strategic presence in the Middle East, appears to have everyone there exploring new options. Some of these, which favor Iran, are potentially bad news for both Israel and the West.