How Egyptian-Israeli border incidents used to be handled

In the coverage of the current state of Egyptian-Israeli relations, there is often a lack of historical memory of previous border incidents involving Israelis shooting Egyptian border guards. By some accounts, there are have been over 50 deaths of Egyptian guards or soldiers at the hands of Israelis (as well as a much smaller number at the hands of Palestinians) since the Camp David treaty was signed. Under Mubarak, these were most often swept under the carpet, so it's not altogether surprising that anger over the latest shootings was intense when Mubarak was no longer there: it's as if Egyptians were making up for lost time.

I was combing through the archives of my articles for the Cairo Times in 2000-2002 and found this little item, from early July 2001, that is telling of the way both Israeli and Egyptian authorities handled these incidents:

Road rage in Rafah

The killing of a Rafah border officer gets the perplexed treatment

The death of an Egyptian border patrol officer is an unfortunate enough event at a time of heightened tensions between Israel and Egypt, but the suggestion that 23-year-old Al Sayed Al Gharib Ahmad was both run over by a car and shot seemed a bit too much for an accident. Egyptian authorities had announced that Ahmad had been shot from the Israeli-controlled border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt by Israeli soldiers who were firing on Palestinian demonstrators.

According to the medical sources quoted by Agence France Presse (AFP) newswire, Ahmad had been shot in the eye, the abdomen and the leg, while his body was subsequently run over by an unknown vehicle. The same sources from Rafah hospital also said that other Egyptian soldiers had been wounded by the stray bullets. Other Egyptian sources confirmed the death and woundings, although none would do so publicly.

The matter got more complicated on 30 June, when it was revealed that Israeli soldiers had handed over Ahmad's body to their Egyptian counterparts on 29 June. Although initial statements indicated that Ahmad had been shot while on the Egyptian side of the border, both Egyptian and Israeli authorities now said that the body had been on the Israeli side. Israeli radio reported that it had been found 45 kilometers from Rafah in the Gaza Strip, at a point on the Israeli-Egyptian border called the "Nitsana sector." How Ahmad's body came to be in Israeli-controlled territory remains a mystery.

The story gets more complicated, however. Most surprisingly, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Embassy in Cairo said that the body showed "no evidence of being shot at." According to the government of Israel, Ahmad was killed by what amounted to "a hit and run accident." While the spokeswoman confirmed to the Cairo Times that Ahmad's body had indeed been found in Israeli-controlled territory, she did not know how it had gotten there. As an Egyptian-Israeli investigation team continues to look into the matter, she said there were "no final conclusions yet."

The Egyptian side has provided little clarification on the case. During a 1 July speech before the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, Foreign Minister Ahmad Maher called the incident "an unfortunate accident."

"From what I hear," Maher said, "this is an accident, but I do not have all the information yet. I think the Israelis should refrain from actions which can cause such accidents."

Does this mean that the Egyptian chief of diplomacy thinks that the Israelis shot Ahmad? Or that they ran him over? That there are no clear indications of what really happened to the young border guard, in what must surely be one of the most heavily patrolled borders in the world, seems odd. The whole affair might be swept under the carpet like so many other border incidents, such as the shooting of seasonal olive workers near the border last November or the massive influx of over 800 Palestinian refugees only two weeks ago. In the meantime, it seems we will have to wait for the findings of the Egyptian-Israeli commission to have a coherent (if not convincing) version of events.