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A pilot sailing in Noah's Ark
By REUVEN BEN-SHALOM
14/03/2014
We descended to the ship's cargo bay, where we revealed huge amounts of weaponry.We were thunderstruck, realizing that these weapons could have potentially changed the balance of power and wreaked terror on Israeli civilians.
 
I recently attended a meeting at the Israeli Navy Headquarters in Tel Aviv, and took the opportunity to visit old friends. The Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Ram Rotenberg, was in a hurry to join a room full of officers with serious-looking expressions on their faces.

I had seen such excitement before, and wondered what the Navy was up to this time.

Last week's raid on the Iranian ship Klos-C solved the mystery, and took me back to January 3rd 2002, when the IDF intercepted the ship Karine-A, 500 kilometers from Israel.

While I was serving as head of helicopter operations at the Air Force Headquarters, Navy officials requested our assistance in capturing a ship which had been purchased by the Palestinian Authority, loaded with weapons in Iran, and was heading towards Gaza.

The operation was code named "Noah's Ark".

We enthusiastically engaged in detailed planning, conducted training sessions and rehearsals, and coordinated with all Air Force units involved. New techniques and creative solutions were invented in order to answer the extreme and complex challenges we faced.

I managed to persuade the commander of the operation, Head of Naval Operations, Rear Admiral Eli "Chiney" Marom (who later became the Commander of the Navy) to take me with him as liaison officer and advisor. He agreed, on condition that I didn't vomit during a training session in the Mediterranean. I kept it in, so I was in.

Our command group flew to Eilat, where the naval forces were converging. I enjoyed my status as "advisor" and remained close to Chiney throughout all intelligence updates, situational assessments, gear checks and briefs.

The Karine-A was delayed in Yemen due to engine problems, so we spent a few days waiting in Eilat, but the decision to launch was finally made. We set out before dawn, our command group on a Dvora class patrol boat. All base personnel were out on the docks, waving and wishing us good luck. It was a surreal experience, unlike any mission launch I had ever seen.

It took me time to get accustomed to the swaying, and when I looked back after a while, I was surprised to still see Eilat.

"Wow, this is slow," I said.

"At sea, you need a lot of patience," Chiney explained.

I began touring the ship and getting acquainted with the crew. I was highly appreciative that they had given me my own bunk, marked "the pilot." Dinner that evening was one of the best meals I ever ate, and after that, I sat on the commander's seat on deck, dazzled by the brilliant night sky.

The sea was as smooth as glass, and I commented on this.

"Just you wait," someone said. "You haven't seen anything yet."

Being out at sea was not only different physically, but emotionally as well, the result of being alone, so far away from home, and facing challenges posed by nature and man. On top of this, there was also getting accustomed to a completely different organizational culture, language, traditions, superstitions and humor.

Throughout the mission, I witnessed incredible procedures and maneuvers. A diverse team of professionals demonstrated original thinking, determination and wholehearted devotion to the mission. I was not only impressed. I was awestruck.

A severe storm was headed our way, so Chiney decided to sail south and intercept as soon as possible. This led to significant operational ramifications, some even contradictory to all we had planned, but the appropriate adaptations were made.

"At sea, when you are given a chance, you grab it," Chiney said.

It was time. Naval and air assets began closing in on the ship. We stood huddled in the Dvora, observing the events via thermal imagery. Suddenly, something unexpected happened, and I recommended launching an aerial maneuver earlier than planned. Chiney agreed, and ordered to call out the codename: "Harry Potter".

With perfect timing, the deck was overrun with Flotilla 13 operators, commanded by Ram, surprising the crew and seizing control of the ship. The sight of everyone performing the orchestrated operation so smoothly was magnificent.

We were immediatly whisked over by speed boat to the ship. We descended to the cargo bay, where we soon revealed huge amounts of weaponry, including Katyusha rockets, AK-47 and Dragunov rifles, mortar shells, mines, explosives and anti-tank missiles. Everything had been skillfully packed in sofisticated flotation devices, including tool kits and accessories.

We were thunderstruck, realizing that these weapons could have potentially changed the balance of power and wreaked terror on Israeli civilians.

Finding the navigation instrumentation familiar, I declared myself navigator of the Karine-A. My comrades honored me by accepting my comments and advice, and Chiney even approved, with minor corrections, my plan on how to cross the Straits of Tiran.

Sailing home was no treat. The sea was extremely rough, and the ship was bobbing up and down violently, its rundown smoky engine producing a meager 4-8 knots.

A helicopter from my squadron delivered us food, and Erran, the pilot, broadcasted: "Reuven, we're hoisting you up!" Chiney was shocked and said: "We set out as a team, and we're returning home as a team." He was right, of course.

During the next two days, much effort was put into extracting the weapons, and we sent footage to the folks back home, who were eager to see the results.

A few hours before arrival in the port of Eilat , an armada of Navy vessels passed us in salute formation. The operators stood on the deck, brandishing the siezed weapons and screaming at the top of their lungs. It was a remarkable and touching moment I will never forget.

I could see the lights of Eilat gleaming in the distance, but I didn't run to collect my things. I was an experienced seafarer by now, and "at sea, you need a lot of patience."

Twelve years have passed, and here we are, still engaged in defending Israel from Iran's efforts to promote and inflict terror on our citizens.

One might think that the clashes between Iran and Israel are mostly verbal, on the diplomatic front at the UN and in the media. But it is a very real confrontation, of much more than just rhetoric.

Iran is waging an aggressive campaign to become a regional power. Besides declaring the intention to destroy Israel and striving to acquire nuclear weapons, it is in fact attacking Israel regularly, by arming, funding and training proxy terror organizations.

Israel protects its citizens and interests by thwarting arms shipments, and crippling efforts to build destructive capabilities. Success depends on superb intelligence and streamlined inter-agency efforts. Israel's weapon of choice is now the keyboard, and when necessary, the long and capable arm of the IDF and Mossad is unleashed.

This week, I attended the press conference in Eilat, where the weapons were put on display. I believe we have much to learn on how to conduct our public diplomacy efforts, but the fact is that a deadly and strategic capability was denied from reaching terrorists, and this is a source of pride and relief.

I salute the extraordinary men and women from all defense agencies who performed well, and dedicate themselves year-round to the protection of Israel.

The writer is a former Israel Air Force pilot, founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd. and project manager at CockpitRM.

www.CCSt.co.il
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