Three Israeli soldiers have been shot dead by an Egyptian security official, Israeli and Egyptian authorities said on Saturday, in the worst incident on the countries’ border for more than a decade.
Egypt was the first Arab country to establish diplomatic relations with Israel in 1979, and the border has been relatively calm since a series of militant attacks in 2011 and 2012, although Israeli forces routinely operate in the area to foil smugglers.
According to Israel’s military, Saturday’s fighting began when the Egyptian policeman shot dead two Israeli soldiers at a military post on the border in the Negev desert at about 6.30am local time. Their bodies were found after they failed to respond to radio communications from a senior officer.
Israeli forces carried out searches in the area and located the attacker on Israeli territory at around noon, the military said. A shootout ensued, in which a third Israeli soldier and the attacker were killed. Another Israeli soldier was wounded.
Egypt’s military said that one of its border guard had crossed into Israel while chasing drug smugglers, and that in a subsequent exchange of fire, three Israeli soldiers and the Egyptian border guard had been killed. The military expressed condolences to the families of those killed.
Israel said that an investigation into the event was being carried out “in full co-operation with the Egyptian army” and that further searches were being conducted to “rule out the presence of any additional assailants”.
“We did not have an intelligence warning on this event,” Israel’s military said.
“The co-operation with the Egyptians is ongoing, it’s good. We’re talking to them all the time. This is not geopolitical.”
The incident comes at a time of heightened tension on Israel’s borders. Last month, its military engaged in a five-day exchange of fire with Palestinians militants in Gaza. In April, it was involved in brief cross-border exchanges with militants in Gaza, south Lebanon and Syria.
Israel’s military said it was possible that the first shooting on Saturday — during which one male and one female Israeli soldier were killed — could be linked to a failed attempt to smuggle drugs into Israel earlier that morning.
The attempt was thwarted at around 2.30am local time — about four hours before the first shootings — and Israeli forces seized drugs worth about 1.5mn shekels ($400,000).
A decade ago, Israel built a fence along its border with Egypt in a bid to prevent the arrival of migrants from Africa, as well as incursions by Isis militants operating in Egypt’s restive Sinai province.
Israel’s military said it was still trying to establish how the attacker had crossed the border fence.