Before dawn on July 22, 2022, Israeli Navy troops stationed in the Mediterranean Sea, about nine nautical miles off the coast of the Gaza Strip, spotted a fishing boat making its way from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula towards the harbor Palestine was run by the terrorist group Hamas. .
As the sun rose and the boat entered a restricted area off the coast of the southern part of the Strip, near the Palestinian city of Rafah, Navy patrol boats approached the vessel and asked its occupants stop the speaker. The people on board ignored the calls, and the troops opened fire, sinking the boat. The Palestinians jumped out and swam ashore, apparently unharmed.
The vessel, according to the Israeli Navy, was carrying equipment to be used by Hamas naval commanders, who are known for attempting a major attack on Israel during the 2014 war with the terrorist group.
No attention was paid to successfully investigating the smuggling. The Israeli Navy’s Ashdod Base – which is in charge of the Gaza Strip – is overburdened with missions at sea as it faces multiple threats from Hamas and other terrorist groups.
The Ashdod Base has a huge area of operations, from Rafah on the border between Gaza and Egypt to an area much further north. The 916th Patrol Squadron is mainly focused on the region around Gaza, up to 40 nautical miles out to sea.
While the Navy is mostly meant to deal with protecting shipping lanes (as Israel has no coast guard) and natural gas rigs, it is increasingly thwarting Hamas’ attempts to smuggle equipment into Gaza, with used in future wars against Israel.
Smuggling attempts by sea from northern Egypt are believed to be frequent and are only expected to increase. Anti-smuggling measures and operations by Egypt and Israel have made underground tunnels that once connected Egypt to Gaza impossible.
Over the past year, the Navy has successfully intercepted every smuggling attempt from Egypt to Gaza that it has detected, although it believes there are some it has missed and Hamas is getting better at them. .
The number of smuggling incidents carried out by the Navy is still classified. In November 2022, the head of the army at the time, Aviv Kohavi, awarded the Chief of Staff Appreciation Medal of the Ashdod Medal for his efforts to prevent Hamas from smuggling weapons and equipment into Gaza.
Besides equipment for Hamas divers, the Navy has seized raw materials used to make rockets and other explosives on boats.
It is not an easy task to identify a boat involved in a smuggling attempt, according to Lt. Ido Levi, who leads the Karish Patrol, or Sharks in the 916th Squadron, which oversees several vessels involved in anti-smuggling operations.
“We come across all kinds of fishing vessels from Gaza, of all shapes and sizes. There are about 400 to 500 vessels in Gaza. With each vessel, the patrol will go through a suspicion process based on current information and the vessel itself. It is up to the commander of the boat to decide whether he is an innocent fisherman or not or whether he is encountering a terrorist,” Levi said in The Times of Israel aboard a Dvora-class patrol boat off the coast Ashdod.
“It is a Sisyphean task. The captain of the boat could spend many days and nights dealing with fishermen who pass the [permitted fishing] border, asking them to return. His goal is to recognize when he is an innocent fisherman and when he is a terrorist. That is why the training period to command a ship is so long – it takes about four years to achieve this position,” he said.
“During the whole training process, that’s what you do. You work on your judgement, your sense of doubt and critical thinking. It’s complicated, because every day you come across suspects who are usually innocent, but there’s always that time that maybe he’s a terrorist,” Levi added.
Israel has maintained a naval and land blockade of Gaza since 2007, when Hamas seized control of the Strip from the Palestinian Authority in a bloody conflict that followed contested elections. Egypt also blocks the territory.
Critics say the blockade is a form of collective punishment that harms the Gazan economy. Israel says it is necessary to prevent Hamas from acquiring weapons it intends to use against Israeli civilians, as it has done many times.
The blockade has had a very negative impact on fishermen, who cannot go too far from the shore without facing the threat of Israeli fire. As a result, the shallow waters near the coast were overfished, reducing catches, and therefore profits, over time.
The fishing business is quite profitable in the poor Strip, but it is considered much more profitable to help Hamas smuggle equipment.
Currently, the designated Gaza fishing zone extends 15 nautical miles from the coast of the Palestinian barrier, the largest ever since the blockade began. In response to rocket attacks, Israel sometimes reduced the area down to six or even three nautical miles. And during wartime, the fishing zone is completely closed.
Patrol boats of the 916th Squadron do not normally enter the three nautical mile zone, unless absolutely necessary, due to the risk of anti-tank missile fire by terrorist groups in Gaza, and to avoid confrontation with fishermen .
Despite the designated 15-nautical-mile zone, fishermen from Gaza often try to operate outside it, prompting patrol boats to intercept them, instruct them to return and, in rare cases, arrest them.
Such contours are usually ended when troops call the occupants by loudspeaker to return to the designated fishing area, but they may escalate to sailors firing light machine guns into the air or sea in near the vessel, and after that neither shall be done. make an arrest.
“Every day we deal with a large number of fishermen who exceed the limit, which makes it very difficult to determine what their intentions are. We have logs to find out which boats are going over the limit more, and which boats are not, or for example, is this a new boat that we haven’t seen before,” said Levi.
The Navy says it seeks to enable Gazans to fish as much as possible, but at the same time, it believes Hamas or other terrorist groups will try to take advantage of this to launch attacks on Israeli assets by sea or using boats of fishermen for smuggling.
“When the land border was complicated for smuggling, the terror groups in the Strip started using civilian fishermen to smuggle by sea,” said Levi. There had been a significant increase in such efforts over the past year, he noted.
“We have a heavy presence on the border between Egypt and Gaza. There are always vessels on patrol, to make sure there aren’t any [boats] crossing from Gaza to Egypt or Egypt to Gaza,” he said.
Ashdod Base and Navy vessels are responsible for protecting the Tamar and Mari-B offshore natural gas platforms, located approximately 23 kilometers (14 miles) off the southern coast of the city of Ashkelon.
Hamas frequently sends drones over the Strip, which have sometimes been used to gather intelligence on Navy operations, and on offshore platforms.
The Navy fears that Palestinian terrorists in the Strip could launch explosive drones from the coast at the rigs. In the past they tried to launch a remote controlled submarine full of bombs.
According to previous Navy assessments, the models in the arsenals of the Palestinian groups are guided by GPS and are capable of carrying about 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of explosives. Such weapons could be directed at targets offshore and along Israel’s coast.
During a three-day blast with Palestinian Islamic Jihad in August 2022, the Navy identified an attempt by the terrorist group to launch an explosive underwater drone at the Tamar rig, although it failed to carry out the attack.
Because the rockets produced in the Strip are not precision-guided munitions, they are unlikely to hit the rigs, an extremely small target, from the coast (although Hamas has tried in the past to launch rockets at the Tamar rig).
Given the various threats to the platforms, they are protected by a ship-borne iron dome missile defense system and other air defenses.
To thwart the smuggling attempts, the Navy is using more intelligence – some in-house, but mainly from the Shin Bet security agency and the Directorate of Military Intelligence – better radar systems and surveillance cameras, and the patrol boats are on high alert higher to check each and every Palestinian vessel they observe.
The 15 Navy troops on the Dvora-class patrol boat told The Times of Israel that they spend up to a week at sea during missions, coming back to shore once or three days to briefly resupply with food and fuel. .
“Besides the sense of mission you feel when you’re doing routine security near the Gaza Strip, the command of the soldiers is the most important part for me,” said Levi, who previously commanded a patrol boat.
“There is this openness with them, the commander of the ship has to live with them, it is very close. He wakes up with them, brushes his teeth with them, showers with them, and eats with them,” he said, as the vessel returned to port. “It’s a real sense of family.”