Israeli forces pose with 105 kilograms of narcotics seized at the Egypt-Israel border. Credit: IDF Spokesperson.
Israeli forces pose with 105 kilograms of narcotics seized at the Egypt-Israel border. Credit: IDF Spokesperson.
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‘Smuggling, not terror, is the real border threat’

Unless the IDF takes steps to combat rampant cross-border smuggling, deadly attacks like the one on June 3 are bound to recur, say experts.

The deadly June 3 attack on Israel’s southern border may have been an isolated incident, but highlighted the larger problem of cross-border smuggling, which is disrupting Israel’s efforts to maintain not only its border with Egypt but also with Jordan.

Efraim Karsh, emeritus professor at King’s College, London, and former director of the BESA Center, doesn’t believe there will be any repercussions from the attack, as Israel views it as an isolated case. He noted that Islamic State has taken responsibility for the incident.

For its part, Egypt has agreed to compensate the families of the victims.

In the early morning of Saturday, June 3, Mohamed Saleh Ibrahim, 22, shot dead Sgt. Lia Ben-Nun, 19, and Staff Sgt. Uri Iluz, 20, at an observation post near the border. In the ensuing manhunt, Staff Sgt. Ohad Dahan, 20, was killed in an exchange of gunfire with the terrorist, inside Israeli territory. Ibrahim, too, was killed in the exchange, and a fourth Israeli soldier sustained minor injuries.

An initial investigation revealed that Ibrahim had entered the border area through an emergency gate in the fence, secured only with plastic handcuffs.

Israel’s Army Radio reported on Sunday that six rifle magazines, a Koran and a knife were found on Ibrahim’s body. According to the report, the presence of the Koran has led the IDF to believe that Ibrahim was motivated by Islamic religious extremism.

However, Egypt claimed that Ibrahim had crossed the border to pursue drug smugglers following an earlier arrest.

While according to the Israeli military a drug trafficking attempt was thwarted at 3 a.m. that morning, the Egyptian statement did not explain the time gap between that and the murders of Iluz and Dahan.

According to Karsh, it is smuggling, not Islamist terrorism, that is the real problem on Israel’s southern and eastern borders.

“It’s two sides of the same coin,” he said, referring to smuggling and terrorism. “Bedouin on both sides of the fence are involved in smuggling. Once you take care of the Bedouin issue, the border will be quieter.”

Eyal Zisser, a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University, agreed that the attack was an isolated incident that does not reflect the policies of the Egyptian regime.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, he said, “remains committed to the peace agreement with Israel, and the continued close relationship and military cooperation.”

“For Sisi, a policeman brainwashed by extreme Islam is a threat to his regime and not only to Israel, so we can calm down,” he added.

Sisi’s concerns are valid. Last year, ISIS terrorists attacked a checkpoint in Qantara, in the Sinai province of Ismailia, killing 11 Egyptian soldiers.

The presence of ISIS on Israel’s southern border, coupled with the persistent smuggling problem, presents a unique challenge for both Egypt and Israel. 

The problem is even worse on Israel’s eastern border.

In one of the most serious cases to date, in April, Israeli authorities arrested Jordanian parliamentarian Imad al-Adwan after finding 12 rifles and 194 pistols in his vehicle at the Allenby Bridge border crossing.

Further investigation revealed that since February 2022, al-Adwan had engaged in the illicit transportation of a diverse range of goods into Israel. This unauthorized activity took place on 12 separate occasions and was facilitated by the misuse of Adwan’s diplomatic passport. Among the items involved in this illegal operation were exotic birds, electronic cigarettes and gold.

Yossi Kuperwasser, director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, has noted that according to Israel Defense Forces figures, during 2020-2021 some 1,600 smuggling attempts from Jordan were interdicted. In the first months of 2023, he notes, several hundred weapons were seized in other smuggling attempts.

According to Michael Milstein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, weapons smuggling across the Egyptian and Jordanian borders over the past decade has reached “strategic challenge” proportions.

He told JNS that the smuggling across Israel’s border with Jordan is among the main sources of the growing security threat in Judea and Samaria.

Milstein noted that Israel’s coordination with Egypt and Jordan—both of which have signed peace treaties with Israel—“is very strong today, and a broad part of it is focused on smuggling prevention.”

Preventing such activity is also a Jordanian and Egyptian interest, as those who promote smuggling are also responsible for crimes, public disorder and even terrorism in both countries, he noted.

However, in Karsh’s view, unless the IDF implements operational changes at the borders to deal with the smuggling phenomenon, it is only a matter of time before another deadly incident occurs.

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