Israeli navy training.
(photo credit: IDF)
In recent months, the Israel Navy has intercepted a number of attempts by Gazan terrorists to smuggle weapons and goods to the Strip by sea, as naval smuggling routes have become more attractive, a senior navy source told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
“This poses a threat. There have been a number of smuggling attempts in recent months that we have thwarted. We are monitoring the area day and night; thwarting smuggling is one of our central missions. We will not allow Hamas to build up its [military] force via sea smuggling,” the source stated.
The increase in attempts to smuggle weapons and contraband into Gaza involves Palestinian fishing boats that head out into the Mediterranean, sail to the Egyptian coast, load cargo, and attempt to return to Gaza. The route has been used for years, but the scope of such attempted runs is expanding.
“There has been an increase in these attempts in light of strict Egyptian enforcement against smuggling on the ground in Sinai,” the source said. “This has made sea channels more attractive.”
But only some of the smuggling vessels carry arms, the source said. Others contain contraband, ranging from cigarettes to fishing equipment.
“Every time, it’s something different on board,” he said.
“Our aim is not to harm the smugglers, particularly those who are not terrorists and are carrying goods rather than weapons. We want to get to the smuggled equipment. Unless we see them threatening our forces, we don’t try to fire on them,” the officer added.
The Israel Navy fired on two fishing boats that left Gaza this week and loaded unknown cargo in Egypt before attempting to return to Gaza. In both cases, the boats were followed by a navy vessel on the return journey from Egypt to Gaza, and the navy identified that they had taken on goods.
The navy ordered the boats to stop and fired warning shots, but when the boats continued, the navy fired and struck the vessels. Those on board jumped into the water and swam to the Gazan shore.
“We avoid hurting them, and allow them to leave,” the source explained.
Crucial to maintaining coastal security is the ongoing cooperation between the Israel Navy and the IDF ground forces, he added. “We can’t do this if only one side excels. The trick is to combine both components, and this is happening.”
The navy continues to enforce a 6-nautical-mile (just over 11 km.) fishing zone off the Gazan coast as part of Israel’s navy blockade, designed to prevent large-scale arms smuggling into Gaza, where Hamas and other terrorist groups possess thousands of rockets, mortars, rocket-propelled- grenade launchers, and firearms of various types.
“Our coastal arena controllers monitor things around the clock to stop the smuggling runs. We had a number of incidents in last week, and this is not unusual,” he added.
For now, the navy is set to continue playing a cat-and-mouse game with smugglers, in a routine described by the officer as “the situation we had prior to Operation Protective Edge.”
Last month, Cmdr. Eli Soholitzki, who until recently was in charge of the navy’s Squadron 916, told the Post that Hamas in Gaza continues to fire rockets into the Mediterranean periodically as part of its weapons upgrade program.
The launches are used by Hamas arms designers to experiment with various projectile models.
The Israel Navy monitors those launches closely.