Because Israel is a nation surrounded by foes, it relies heavily on the strength of its military, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The olive green fatigues worn by the ground forces are probably the first thing you think about when you hear the term IDF. Although perhaps less visible than its army counterpart, the navy plays a critical role in Israel’s defense. It is responsible to safeguard Israel’s 170 mile (273 km) coastline, nearly all of which is on the Mediterranean, and its territorial waters which extend twelve nautical miles from land.
Before the official founding of the IDF in 1948, the naval arm of Israel’s military could trace its beginnings to several different streams. One of the earliest was the Betar Naval Academy, founded in 1934 in Civitavecchia, Italy, which produced some of the navy’s future commanders. Then, the Marine High School, associated with the Technion, was opened in Haifa in 1938. By the time of World War II, several other avenues opened to the Jewish fighters who were drawn to the sea. A large number of Haganah (Jewish underground army during the Mandate Period) volunteers joined the British Royal Navy while others took a more clandestine route, becoming members of the Palyam (the Palmach’s naval branch).
When considering experience and qualifications, it was a very mixed group that made up Israel’s fledgling navy in 1948. Members of the Palyam had experience in underwater demolition and escorting immigration ships but no sea background in navigation or leading a ship into battle. Those who had served in the Royal Navy during the war had technical skills and discipline but no active sea service. Israel’s merchant marine captains had sea experience but no combat skills.
At the beginning of Israel’s War of Independence (1948), the entire navy consisted of three former Aliyah Bet (immigration) ships that had been seized and impounded by the British at Haifa. Under the noses of the British, these ships were refurbished and once the Mandate was lifted, sailed for Tel Aviv where they were outfitted with antiquated weaponry. During the War, they patrolled and also bombarded Egyptian coastal installations.
Today’s modern navy bears little resemblance to its humble beginnings of nearly 70 years ago. Its fleet includes corvettes (a highly maneuverable armed escort ship that is smaller than a destroyer), missile boats, submarines, patrol boats, support boats, commando boats, aircraft and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). Israel’s Dolphin-class submarines are among the world’s most advanced. The Protector, an unmanned surface vehicle (USV), is an Israeli-developed vessel that can perform a multitude of diverse operations. Its high-pressure water hose can be used to prevent flotillas from sailing to Gaza. Its remote-controlled weapons have an impressive hit-to-kill ratio. The vessel can gather intelligence or take part in naval warfare, all without putting personnel at risk.
Although the navy’s official headquarters are in Tel Aviv, the port of Haifa is the scene of much of its activity. The training base in Haifa includes submarine operations, missile boat operations and the naval command school. In addition, the city and port are home to the Missile Boats Flotilla, Submarine Flotilla and the Patrol Boats Squadron 914. Atlit, Ashdod and Eilat, on the Red Sea, complete the list of naval base locations.
Israel’s navy has three primary objectives: to defend and protect the nation against threats from the sea; to defend and protect infrastructure along the coast; and to prevent smuggling of weapons to terrorist organizations such as Hamas in Gaza. Its members have served with distinction in every war that Israel has fought since the declaration of statehood on May 14, 1948.
As the level of threats surrounding Israel grows, seemingly on a daily basis, the challenges facing the navy are growing as well. Following the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel declared an air, land and sea blockade in order to limit rocket attacks on southern Israel and to prevent Hamas from obtaining additional weapons. The navy has detected and prevented numerous attempts to smuggle weapons over the past eight years.
Then, the discoveries of two large gas fields off Israel’s coast have also added to the challenges. The Tamar field, 50 miles (80 km) west of Haifa, is currently producing natural gas and sending it to Ashkelon by way of a 93-mile-long (150 km) subsea pipeline. The second discovery is the Leviathan field, 29 miles (47 km) southwest of Tamar. Both are inviting targets for terrorists bent on attacking Israel.
The heart of any organization is, of course, its people. One extraordinary group is Shayetet 13, the navy’s special forces unit which traces its origins back to the pre-State Palyam members who specialized in marine sabotage. Today, members of the ultra-secretive unit undertake “sea-to-land incursions, counter-terrorism, sabotage, maritime intelligence gathering, maritime hostage rescue and boarding” (Wikipedia).
Candidates for Shayetet 13 must agree to serve at least four and a half years, 18 months longer than the normal commitment. They undergo one of the toughest training courses in the IDF and at the end are assigned to one of three sections: raids, diving or above water.
Most of the operations that Shayetet 13 undertakes are never made public. One exception, however, was the 2014 capture of the KLOS-C, a ship carrying powerful Iranian rockets. The operation took place in international waters, 93 (150 km) miles off Port Sudan, 932 miles (1,500 km) from Israel. The interception resulted in the capture of a significant amount of weaponry which was headed for Gaza.
The KLOS-C operation is just one example of how Israel’s sea power, its navy, protects this tiny nation from seaborne threats, vigilantly upholding its motto, “Open Sea, Safe Land.”
Source: By Janet Aslin, Assistant Editor
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