While Hamas’s terror tunnels and its reportedly refilled and upgraded rocket arsenal garner attention, the Israeli Navy is keeping a watchful eye on the terror group’s growing maritime capabilities and is investing its resources in preventing attacks “at sea and from the sea,” a naval officer said.
Since the 50-day war in 2014, Hamas has developed both its tactics and weaponry for sea-based warfare, training “endlessly” to carry out attacks with them, according to Maj. Irad Shtatar.
A 20-year veteran of the navy, Shtatar commands the Ashdod Observation Company, a unit of mostly female soldiers who monitor optical cameras and radar arrays.
“We see rearming on every level on the sea-front — systems, weapons and trainings. Hamas sees the sea as an option to achieve its aggressive, operational ambitions,” he said in his office at the Ashdod Naval Base.
“In parallel, we are tracking these developments to make sure that we have a response to these threats,” he added.
Hamas naval smuggling of materiel appears to have dropped off significantly, if not stopped completely, according to Shtatar.
However, he said, there’s no way to ensure a “hermetic” seal of Gaza’s coast, leaving open the possibility that people could still be smuggled via the sea.
In the time immediately following the 2014 war, the navy saw an increase in such smuggling attempts. But while there are regular reports of Israeli sailors firing warning shots toward Gazan fishing boats, Shtatar said his team has not seen any cases of it in nearly a year.
He credits this to both the efforts of the Navy and the comparative ease with which Hamas can smuggle illicit goods through underground tunnels into the Sinai Peninsula.
A small fishing boat, after all, can only carry so much materiel, whereas a tunnel can bring in far more, he noted.
Frogmen and submarine drones
Set up on two coastal control centers, Shtatar’s company watches above and, increasingly, below the water 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for infiltrations to Israel from the sea, smuggling and attacks on the country’s shipping lanes and gas fields.
“Hamas is making serious developments in the underwater domain,” Shtatar said, but would not elaborate on what specific types of weaponry the navy believes Hamas has acquired.
However, Mohammed al-Zoari, a Tunisian expert in unmanned vehicles, was said to be constructing small, remote-controlled submarine drones for the terrorist group when he was killed by gunmen in December. (The Mossad was blamed for the killing; Israel would not comment on the allegation.)
Analysts have also warned that Israel could be vulnerable to naval mines, like those that flooded global black markets with the fall of the Soviet Union.
According to a 2015 assessment of Hamas written jointly by a researcher in the Prime Minister’s Office and Gabi Siboni, a program director at the Institute of National Security Studies think-tank in Tel Aviv, were the terrorist group to sink an Israeli naval ship, it would “generate a story of victory, which it long has been hoping to achieve.”
But the terrorist group is working not only to attack Israeli military targets, but against civilian ones as well.
“Attacking civilians is Hamas’s raison d’être,” Siboni said, in a phone conversation this week.
In terms of attacks from the sea, over the past two years, Israel uncovered multiple attempts to smuggle wetsuits and other scuba gear into the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom crossing, which the Defense Ministry says were bound for Hamas and its frogmen units.
This type of attack was carried out during the 2014 war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge. On July 8, 2014, four Hamas naval commandos swam ashore outside Kibbutz Zikim on Israel’s southern coast.
The frogmen brought with them automatic weapons, fragmentation grenades and explosives, the latter of which they used against an Israeli tank, unsuccessfully. Some 40 minutes after they came in from the surf, the Hamas operatives were killed in a combined attack from the sea, ground and air, and the incident came to a close.
Initially presented by the military as an unmitigated victory, a leaked IDF review of the incident later showed the army’s response to be slower than previously thought and the commandos’ attack to be more successful than it had seemed. (Their attack on the tank, for instance, was not initially reported.)
To prevent such coastal infiltrations in the future, Shtatar’s soldiers use “advanced optical cameras and radar,” as well us underwater sonar systems to track the movements of objects at sea, he said.
From Gaza to Netanya, 24 hours a day
The enlisted soldiers in the Ashdod Observation Company are exclusively female, Shtatar said, while the officers are a mix of men and women.
This is not unique to Shtatar’s unit, throughout the navy, air force and ground forces, only women serve in these surveillance monitoring positions, as per the army’s understanding that they are better suited for the task than male soldiers.
The unit is responsible for the waters from Gaza to just above Netanya, while the rest of the coast is monitored by soldiers in the Haifa Observation Company.
Much of the soldiers’ time is spent watching and tracking Gazan fishermen, whose industry makes up a significant part of the Strip’s economy.
As part of the naval blockade on Gaza, which Israel says is necessary for security reasons, fishermen must stay within 6 miles (9.66 kilometers) of the shore.
Last year, that was temporarily extended in the southern half of the Gaza coast to 9 miles (14.5 kilometers) during the spring fishing season and, according to Shtatar, Israel intends to do the same this year as well.
There were plans to enlarge the fishing zone for the fall season, but they eventually fell apart. Israel blamed the Palestinians for failing to abide by the conditions for the extension. Gazans blamed Israel for setting “unrealistic” demands.
Palestinian fishermen who attempt to leave the permitted fishing area or those behaving “suspiciously” are intercepted by the navy, for fear that those ships could be used for smuggling or attacks, Shtatar said.
A smuggling attempt was prevented in April 2016. A ship was spotted behaving suspiciously off the Gaza coast. When a navy patrol boat was called to the scene, the ship’s crew began dumping cargo overboard before jumping into the water themselves. Once the ship was empty, the navy boat blew it up.
A few months later, the suspected smuggler was arrested after the ship he was sailing left the designated fishing zone, according to the Shin Bet.
The Ashdod Observation Company also monitors the ships coming in and out of the Ashdod port and Israel’s commercial shipping lanes, which may not represent a security risk, but are considered a strategic asset, which could also be vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
His soldiers monitor the seas around the clock, every day of the year, with the knowledge that they are responsible for the security of civilians and their fellow soldiers, Shtatar said.
“It’s Sisyphean work,” he said. “But I wake up every morning with a smile.”
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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