Deadly border clash deepens Egypt-Israel tension and stokes anti-Israeli sentiments

Gun battle was caused by Israeli forces breaching no-go area along Egypt-Gaza border, sources say

People carry the coffin of Egyptian soldier Abdullah Ramadan during a funeral in Faiyum Governorate. EPA
Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest on Israel-Gaza

Israeli troops were in breach of a prohibited, no-man's area that runs parallel to Egypt’s border with Gaza in the city of Rafah when Egyptian troops fired warning shots to alert them to their transgression, sources told The National on Tuesday.

They said the Israeli soldiers did not heed the warning. Instead, they opened fire, initiating a gun battle that killed an Egyptian soldier and wounded three, including one in serious condition.

There were unconfirmed reports that Monday’s gun battle also killed an Israeli soldier and wounded five others, the sources said.

There was no comment from Israel about whether its forces suffered casualties in the clash.

The militaries of Israel and Egypt said they were reviewing the incident.

“It’s standard practice that warning shots are fired if the no-go area is violated,” said one of the sources. “Their action was clearly provocative. A case of harassment.”

The incident has plunged relations between Egypt and Israel to a new low amid months of tension caused by the Gaza war, which began nearly eight months ago.

It has also fuelled already strong anti-Israeli sentiments in a country that fought its Middle East neighbour in four full-fledged wars between 1948 and 1973. Many Egyptians continue to see Israel as their country's number one enemy despite a 1979 peace treaty.

The deadly clash on Monday has unleashed a new wave of anger on social media platforms, the only window for freedom of speech in the country of 106 million people. Most users branded the dead soldier a “martyr” and a “hero”, with strong anti-Israel sentiments online.

They identified the deceased soldier as 22-year-old conscript Abdullah Ramadan and widely shared an image purporting to show him smiling in desert camouflage fatigues and with armoured fighting vehicles in the background.

Many Egyptian have expressed frustration over the reference to the soldier in an army statement as a “onsor” – Arabic for “individual” or an “element” – rather than honour him by mentioning his name.

Others lamented he was not given a full military funeral worthy of a soldier who died “defending his country” and shared images of his funeral on Tuesday that drew hundreds of mourners to his village in Fayoum, an oasis region about 120km south-west of Cairo.

His coffin was shown to be wrapped in the black, white and red Egyptian flag. Many also shared short poems composed to praise him.

“These are the creme de la creme of Egypt, they are the eyes of the Egyptians,” wrote prominent political activist Haitham Mohammedein on Facebook along with an image of the soldier.

Border skirmishes between Egyptian and Israeli forces are rare.

Comments attributed to an anonymous, high-level source and aired on state media outlets on Monday night underlined the depth of Cairo’s anger over Monday’s shooting.

Egypt warned against compromising the security and safety of its security forces and would take the necessary measures to prevent the incident from recurring, said the source.

Monday’s deadly exchange of fire also underlined the tension prevailing on Egypt’s border with both Gaza and Israel since the war began.

In October 2023, two weeks after the war began, Israel said one of its tanks had accidentally hit an Egyptian position near the border with Gaza. Egypt said several Egyptian border guards sustained minor injuries in the incident.

Four months earlier, three Israeli soldiers and an Egyptian security officer were killed in a clash at the border.

Cairo was deeply angered when Israel’s military launched a ground offensive on Rafah on May 6 despite its warning against such an operation given the hundreds of thousands who had taken refuge in the city.

Its anger deepened when Israel a day later seized the Palestinian side of Egypt’s Rafah border crossing with Gaza. In response, Egypt closed the crossing and, in its strongest public rebuke to Israel since the war began, declared its intention to join South Africa’s case before the UN’s top court that accuses Israel of genocide.

It has also placed on high alert and beefed up forces in areas of the Sinai Peninsula near the Israel and Gaza borders.

On the other hand, Egypt has made it clear that it has no intention of relinquishing its role alongside the US and Qatar as a mediator in the Gaza war on the grounds that the conflict impacts its national security at a time when its neighbours Libya and Sudan, respectively, are already mired in instability and violence, forcing hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in Egypt.

Also alarming Cairo is the prospect that the war in Gaza, which has displaced most of the enclave’s 2.3 million population, would eventually force the Palestinians there to flee across the border into its sparsely populated Sinai Peninsula.

The war has also affected Egypt's already troubled economy, pushing it to the brink of meltdown before a multi-sourced rescue package of about $50 billion arrived earlier this year.

The Gaza war was caused by an attack on southern Israel by Hamas, whose fighters killed about 1,200 people and took hostage another 240. The attack, the deadliest in Israel's history, drew a devastating response by Israel that killed more than 36,000 Palestinians and wounded more than twice this many.

Updated: May 28, 2024, 4:29 PM