Before dawn on July 22, 2022, Israeli Navy troops stationed in the Mediterranean Sea, around nine nautical miles from the coastline of the Gaza Strip, identified a fishing boat making its way from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula toward the Palestinian enclave run by the Hamas terror group.
Once the sun had risen and the boat had entered a prohibited area off the coast of the southern part of the Strip, near the Palestinian city of Rafah, Navy patrol boats approached the vessel and called on its occupants via loudspeaker to halt. Those on board ignored the calls, and the troops opened fire, sinking the boat. The Palestinians jumped off and swam ashore, apparently unharmed.
The vessel, according to the Israeli Navy, was ferrying equipment to be used by Hamas naval commandos, who are best known for attempting to stage a major attack in Israel during a 2014 war with the terror group.
Successfully foiling the smuggling was not a given. The Israeli Navy’s Ashdod Base — which is tasked with the Gaza area — is overloaded with missions at sea while facing myriad threats from Hamas and other terror groups.
The Ashdod Base has a massive area of operations, from Rafah on the Gaza-Egypt border to an area much further north. Its 916th Patrol Squadron is mainly tasked with the region around Gaza, up to 40 nautical miles out to sea.
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While the Navy is largely meant to deal with protecting sailing routes (as Israel has no coast guard) and natural gas rigs, it is increasingly finding itself thwarting attempts by Hamas to smuggle equipment into Gaza, to be used in future wars against Israel.
Israeli troops spot a suspected smuggling boat making its way from the Gaza Strip to the Sinai Peninsula on April 8, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)
Attempts at smuggling via the maritime route from northern Egypt are believed to be frequent and are expected to only increase. Underground tunnels that once linked Egypt to Gaza have been rendered largely unusable by Egyptian and Israeli counter-smuggling measures and operations.
Over the past year, the Navy has been successful in foiling every smuggling attempt from Egypt to Gaza that it identified, though it believes there are some it did not catch and that Hamas is getting better at carrying them out.
The number of smuggling incidents foiled by the Navy remains classified. In November 2022, the Ashdod Base was awarded the Chief of Staff Medal of Appreciation by then-army head Aviv Kohavi for its efforts to prevent Hamas from smuggling weaponry and equipment into Gaza.
Aside from equipment for Hamas divers, the Navy has seized raw materials used to manufacture rockets and other explosives on boats.
Identifying a boat involved in a smuggling attempt is no easy task, according to Lt. Ido Levi, who commands the Karish, or Shark, Patrol in the 916th Squadron, overseeing several vessels involved in anti-smuggling operations.
Lt. Ido Levi, commander of the Karish Patrol in the 916th Navy Squadron, on board a Dvora-class patrol boat off the coast of the southern city of Ashdod, March 27, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
“We encounter all sorts of fishing vessels from Gaza, all shapes and sizes. There are around 400 to 500 vessels in Gaza. With each vessel, the patrol will go through a process of suspicion based on current intelligence and the vessel itself. It’s up to the boat’s commander to decide whether or not it is an innocent fisherman or whether he is encountering a terrorist,” Levi told The Times of Israel aboard a Dvora-class patrol boat off the coast of Ashdod.
“It’s Sisyphean work. It can be many days and nights of the boat commander dealing with fishermen who pass the [permitted fishing] boundary, calling on them to return. His goal is to recognize when it is an innocent fisherman and when it is a terrorist. This is why the training period to command a ship is so long — it takes around four years to reach this position,” he said.
“During the whole training process, that’s what you do. You work on your judgment, your sense of suspicion and on critical thinking. It is complicated, because day to day you encounter suspects who usually turn out to be innocent, but there’s always that time it may be a terrorist,” Levi added.
Smoke rises from a vessel off the coast of the Gaza Strip, after the Israeli Navy opens fire at it amid an alleged smuggling attempt, July 24, 2022 (Social media)
Israel has maintained a naval and ground blockade on Gaza since 2007, when Hamas took control of the Strip from the Palestinian Authority through a bloody conflict that followed contested elections. Egypt also blockades the territory.
Critics say the blockade is a form of collective punishment that harms the Gazan economy. Israel maintains it is necessary to prevent Hamas from acquiring weapons it intends to use against Israeli civilians, as it has done on numerous occasions.
The blockade has had a particularly negative effect on fishermen, who cannot stray too far from the shore without facing the threat of Israeli fire. As a result, the shallow waters adjacent to the coast have been overfished, diminishing hauls, and thus profits, over time.
The fishing business is relatively profitable in the impoverished Strip, but helping Hamas smuggle in equipment is thought to be far more lucrative.
Currently, the designated Gaza fishing zone extends 15 nautical miles from the coast of the Palestinian enclave, the largest it has ever been since the blockade began. In response to rocket attacks, Israel has at times reduced the zone down to six or even three nautical miles. And in times of war, the fishing zone is closed off entirely.
The 916th Squadron patrol boats do not typically enter the three-nautical-mile zone, unless absolutely necessary, due to the risk of anti-tank guided missile fire by terror groups in Gaza, and to avoid confrontations with fishermen.
Despite the designated 15-nautical-mile zone, fishermen from Gaza frequently try to operate outside of it, leading the patrol boats to intercept them, instruct them to return and, in rare cases, arrest them.
Usually, such confrontations end with troops calling on the occupants via loudspeaker to return to the designated fishing area, but they may escalate to the sailors firing from light machine guns into the air or at the sea near the vessel, and only after that will an arrest be made.
An Israeli Navy soldier operates a heavy machine gun on a Dvora-class patrol boat off the coast of the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, March 27, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
“Each day we deal with a large number of fishermen who overstep the boundary, which makes it very difficult to determine what their intentions are. We have logs to determine which boats are exceeding the boundary more, and which aren’t, or for example, is this a new boat we haven’t seen before,” Levi said.
The Navy says it seeks to enable Gazans to fish as much as possible, but at the same time, believes Hamas or other terror groups will try to take advantage of this to launch attacks on Israeli assets at sea or use the fishermen’s boats for smuggling.
“Once the land border became complex for smuggling, the terror groups in the Strip began using civilian fishermen to smuggle at sea,” Levi said. There had been a major increase in such attempts over the past year, he noted.
“We have a heavy presence on the Egypt-Gaza border. There are always vessels patrolling there, to make sure that there aren’t any [boats] crossing from Gaza to Egypt or Egypt to Gaza,” he added.
An Israeli Navy soldier test fires a MAG light-machine gun on a Dvora-class patrol boat off the coast of the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, March 27, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
Ashdod Base and Navy vessels are responsible for guarding the offshore Tamar and Mari-B natural gas platforms, located around 23 kilometers (14 miles) off the coast of the southern city of Ashkelon.
Hamas frequently launches drones over the Strip, which at times have been used to collect intelligence on Navy operations, as well as on the offshore platforms.
The Navy fears Palestinian terrorists in the Strip could launch explosives drones from the coast at the rigs. In the past they have tried to launch bomb-laden remote-controlled submarines.
Masked Hamas members parade with a drone on the back of a truck through the streets of town of Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, May 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Yousef Masoud)
According to previous Navy assessments, the models in the Palestinian groups’ arsenals are guided by GPS and capable of carrying some 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of explosives. Such weapons could be directed against targets both out at sea and along Israel’s coastline.
During a three-day flare-up with Palestinian Islamic Jihad in August 2022, the Navy identified an attempt by the terror group to launch an explosive underwater drone at the Tamar rig, although it failed to carry out the attack.
As rockets produced in the Strip are not precision-guided munitions, they are highly unlikely to ever hit the rigs, an exceedingly small target, from the coast (though Hamas in the past attempted to launch rockets at the Tamar rig).
In light of the various threats to the platforms, they are protected by a ship-borne Iron Dome missile defense system and other air defenses.
An aerial view taken on July 30, 2015 shows the Tamar (L) and Mari-B (R) Israeli gas-drill platforms in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Israel. (Ahikam SERI / AFP)
To foil the smuggling attempts, the Navy is using more intelligence — some in-house, but mostly from the Shin Bet security agency and Military Intelligence Directorate — better radar systems and surveillance cameras, and the patrol boats are on higher alert to check each and every Palestinian vessel they observe.
The 15 Navy troops on the Dvora-class patrol boat told The Times of Israel they spend up to a week at sea during missions, coming back to shore once every one to three days to briefly stock up on food and fuel.
“Aside from the sense of mission you feel while conducting routine security near the Gaza Strip, commanding the soldiers is the most meaningful part for me,” said Levi, who previously commanded a patrol boat.
“There’s this openness with them, the commander of the ship has to live with them, it’s all extremely close. He wakes up with them, brushes his teeth with them, showers, and eats with them,” he said, as the vessel returned to the port. “It’s a real sense of family.”