On 3 June 2023, an Egyptian police conscript shot and killed three Israeli soldiers along the border between Egypt and occupied Palestine.
The Israeli military said that the 23-year-old Egyptian police conscript, Muhammad Salah, had snuck into Israel and killed two border guards. When reinforcements arrived, Salah shot at them, killing a third soldier and wounding two others before he was shot by an Israeli soldier.
Judging by their official commentary in the aftermath of the shootings, Israel and Egypt were seemingly in a state of confusion.
Egyptian authorities initially claimed that the police officer was chasing drug smugglers and did not identify him until the Israeli media identified Salah and released a photo of him on 5 June.
Egypt’s limited release of information on the incident was perhaps due to a fear among its authorities that Salah would become an icon in the eyes of the Egyptian public and military.
Someone whose actions might tap into Egypt’s historical enmity toward Israel and inspire others to commit similar acts. Someone like Egyptian soldier Suleiman Khater, who in 1985 killed seven Israelis on a Sinai Peninsula beach.
This fear was most evident in the secret burial of Salah, blocking public displays of mourning or protest. Egyptian security forces also detained Salah’s brother and uncle and escorted them to the funeral.
However, all these attempts to minimize Salah’s actions and to strip the situation of any symbolism or significance failed. Salah received a great deal of attention on social media for several days, becoming a trending topic on Twitter as Egyptians on social media praised Salah.
The significance of Salah’s act goes beyond the attack’s immediate impact.
It revived certain sentiments in Egypt’s collective memory, such as the idea that Israel, as an enemy to Egypt, should be resisted. It also reinvigorated the idea of the Egyptian officer as a symbol of resistance, like the soldiers who fought against Israel in the October War in 1973.
The underlying message of Salah’s attack, whatever his intentions, was that though relations between Egypt and Israel might be normalized, such relations were never normalized in the Egyptian consciousness.
Deep-rooted feelings of resentment are still present in the Egyptian collective memory following years of Israeli wars and massacres.
In the 1967 War, Israel attacked Egypt, destroying Egyptian airports and warplanes. This was followed by an Israeli land invasion across the Sinai Peninsula to the Suez Canal.
Subsequent reporting on the 1967 Israeli invasion revealed that Israeli soldiers committed mass executions of Egyptian prisoners of war in Sinai. In some instances, the Israeli soldiers had the Egyptians look out at the sea and then shot them from behind.
It is estimated that 3,000 Egyptian prisoners of war were executed by Israel in August 1967.
The Israeli journalist Yossi Melman reported in July 2022 that the Israeli army burned 20 Egyptian soldiers alive in the 1967 Six-Day War, burying them in a mass grave west of Jerusalem.
Israel saw the 1978 Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel as an opportunity to neutralize Egypt, which had once been a great Arab military power and nationalistic symbol. This neutralization meant Israel would enjoy a calm and safe border.
In subsequent decades, Egypt has abandoned its strong stances in support of Palestine; its political weight has declined to the extent that its role is mostly limited to that of mediator between Israel and Palestine.
However, these official relations have not necessarily turned into cultural and societal normalization among Egyptians, as Israel has, in many respects, remained an enemy in their collective consciousness.
These deep-seated feelings are expressed in a poem titled “Do Not Reconcile,” by Egyptian poet Amal Dunqul, who died in 1983. It is a poem that has been recited throughout the Arab world to reject reconciliation with settler-colonial Israel.
Do not reconcile.
Do not reconcile.
Do not try to find ways to hide.
Do not reconcile over blood
even with blood.
Do not reconcile
even if they say a head for a head
Are all heads equal?
Is a stranger’s heart
equal to your brother’s?
Ahmed Abu Artema is a Palestinian writer, activist and refugee from Ramle.