'In the navy'

Israel’s fast patrol boat squadron combines all the romance of guns on the high seas with the cramped quarters of a dorm room for 10 men as they confront Hamas and other threats.

By
May 19, 2016 11:27
Israeli Navy

A group of Super Dvora Mk III-class patrol boats defend the coast of Israel along the border with the Gaza Strip. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)

 
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Even at sea, life revolves around a relaxing cigarette. In the deep black of midnight, the moon is just a sliver above.

On the bridge of the 24-meter- long Israel Navy Shaldag-class Fast Patrol Boat, the quarters are cramped, as the men take a brief break from a training exercise. A few light up a smoke.

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Twenty-four-year-old Lt. Yossi Akrish, the captain of the ship, takes a break from piloting and sits on a chair. Five men in fatigues crowd around. The guns and helmets are stowed. Chips and Bissli are passed up from below decks. Someone in the dark paws at me with a small plastic cup, asking: “Water?” Yes. To my surprise, it’s ice-cold. It’s one of the few breaks while at sea for the 12-man crew of a boat that is part of Squadron 916, which patrols off the coast of the Gaza Strip.

On May 9 several boats from the squadron took part in a monthly exercise off the coast of the border between Ashkelon and the Strip. Located at the port of Ashdod, the base is unassuming.

It has a utilitarian and workmanlike feel to it. Along the walls of the port where the patrol boats bob back and forth at dock are posters celebrating the unit’s work. Like their sister patrol squadrons 914 and 915, based in Eilat and Haifa, the main task of Squadron 916 is to secure Israel’s border. The difference here is that unlike the borders with Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan, which have been relatively peaceful and quiet for a decade, the border here is with the Gaza Strip, with Hamas fighters who are always trying to find ways to attack.

On land, Hamas builds tunnels; at sea, it has been active training a frogman unit of what it rather gloriously refers to as “Navy SEALs.” On the first night of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, Hamas attempted to infiltrate four of these frogmen via the sea to a beach near Kibbutz Zikim. Squadron 916 coordinated with other IDF units to monitor Hamas movements and kill the terrorists.

Firas Abi Ali, an analyst for IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, told Maan news in 2014 that Hamas’s sea ventures were “unprecedented,” and other analysts said they saw the hand of Iranian expertise behind them. Israel has intercepted diving suits being smuggled into Gaza, and in January a Hamas member named Hamdi Sultan was reported killed at sea while accompanying Gazan fishermen.



In July 2015 the group Wilayet Sinai, an Islamic State affiliate, fired a Kornet antitank missile at an Egyptian patrol boat off Rafah, near the Gaza border.

In video posted online, the boat can be seen exploding in a fireball. A Gaza- based fisherman named Abu Ibrahim Mohammad told Business Insider that he could see the Egyptian boat catch fire about a mile off shore. It was the second time extremists had targeted the Egyptian Navy after a November 2014 attack. Thus Israel’s naval patrol must prepare for threats emanating from Egypt and Gaza.



TO CONFRONT threats at sea, Squadron 916 has three units of a few Shaldagor Dvora-class ships. The Dvora-class ships have been in service since the late 1980s, and the Shaldag since the 1990s.

There is little difference between them in look. At around six meters wide and 25 meters long, they sit low in the water and have a bridge closer to their bow. It is accessed from a ladder about the height of a man. One mast has communications equipment and a large night-vision scope and searchlight apparatus that can be unhinged to swivel back and forth. Below decks in the cabin, there is a control room, and below decks are living quarters, a small kitchen and table, toilets and officers’ cabins.

A door below leads to an engine room deeper in the bowels of the ship. At the stern, next to the gun emplacement, is a raft lashed to the deck.

The ships have a Typhoon Weapon System 25-mm. main gun built by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems up front. This gun, which is self-stabilizing against the rocking of the sea and remotely controlled from inside the ship, can fire accurately up to 1.5 km.

The ship has a .50-caliber gun at the stern, and two MAG gun emplacements on the bridge. It can do 45 knots at top speed. In size and shape it is little different from the PT-109 boat John F. Kennedy was on in the Second World War.

One or more of these units from the squadron are always on patrol off the Strip. In addition, the squadron has three units of Snapir small rigid-hulled inflatable boats that can be used in the open sea or for closerto- shore operations. The squadron also secures two gas rigs that operate off Ashkelon, the Mari B rig and Tamar platform.

Before the training mission, the Ashdod Port naval base is a hive of activity.

Four boats are getting ready to depart.

Each has little plastic banners with the name of the unit that mans them.

One is called Sparta, another Viking, but for some reason the one I’m asked to get on is called W8409 and has the motto “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s from Spider-Man, says one of the crew.

Michael Ivno, the deputy commander of the ship, has a youthful face and a casual demeanor. It’s something that comes across in the personalities of most of those in this squadron, an easygoing personality combined with commitment to their mission and pride in their work.

“We spend [a few] days at sea off Gaza, making sure weapons don’t get in and patrolling for other security issues. This is our main mission,” says Ivno.

According to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a state’s territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles (22.2 km.) into the sea. Under the Oslo Accords, Gaza fishermen were allowed to fish up to 32 km. off the coast. Since the 2005 disengagement from the Strip, Israel has been especially sensitive to Palestinians attempting to smuggle weapons by sea to Gaza, or to use the sea to attack Israel, and that has affected the fishing range. After Hamas won the Palestinian legislative election in 2006, it consolidated its control over the Gaza Strip. By June 2007 Hamas had taken control of the entire area, effectively creating a Hamas-run statelet. In reaction to Hamas’s rise and the kidnapping of Gilad Schalit, Israel imposed a 10-km. restriction on Gazan fishermen in October 2006 to protect against weapons smuggling and threats. According to the human rights group B’Tselem, the fishing restriction “constitutes collective punishment and severely damages the livelihood of Gaza fishermen.”

Israel’s blockade of seaborne traffic into and out of the Strip has been a source of tension in the wars with Hamas. During and after Operation Cast Lead in 2008, the fishing limit was reduced to 4.8 km. It was extended to 19 after Pillar of Defense in 2012 and then reduced again briefly during Protective Edge. In April, the fishing rights were again extended to 14.5 km. off the southern Gaza Strip.

DEPUTY IVNO is a specialist on the ship’s weapons. He describes past work with ground units and special forces to deal with Gaza-based threats. He also says the squadron fears that Hamas may acquire missile technology that could threaten his ship at sea.

“The main gun, the Typhoon, is something we’d use only with a real threat. When dealing with the fishermen, our main defense is the two MAGs [mounted on the bridge].”

Because of today’s exercise, the boat will have more than its complement of 11 men and a captain. “The idea today is to practice stopping a vessel that has gone into a closed military zone. We will go up to the suspicious ship and stop it by shooting out its engine and make sure they don’t have weapons.”

The ship’s crew, in addition to the captain and deputy, also has a “chief,” who is responsible for the engine room and making sure the boat runs smoothly.

The crew consists of men who have been on the boat for years and one man who has been on it only two weeks.

“We have all types of people, including Ethiopians and Druse; it’s a close connection between us,” says Ivno.

The diversity of backgrounds also translates into diversity of interest in the various jobs. Some of the men want to train to be mechanics because they can use the skill after leaving the service. Others will sign on for longer service and attend an officers training course, or will want to be sailors in civilian life.

Ivno has served two years in the navy.

He had just started his service when Operation Protective Edge broke out. “I was new to the unit during that war. It was an experience you recall your whole life. We didn’t sleep all day and night, and we kept ourselves awake; we had to give 100 percent all the time. It went on like that for days.”

He describes living on the boat “90% of the time,” always being either at sea or ready to go out. During the 2014 conflict the navy encountered many problems, which it has learned from. For instance, there were problems in coordination and contact with army units on the ground and with the air force. “We had different languages and lingo, and the concept now is to improve those communications,” explains Ivno. Luckily, the unit did not have any casualties.

Traditionally, the navy was seen as the orphaned arm of the IDF, an army whose romance was in the heroic tank charges of the Six Day War or the slogging infantry tactics of the second intifada.

Now, with the specific threats in Gaza and major investments in building fast patrol boats in the last two decades, this squadron has a new esprit de corps.

Trained in traditional combat roles, such as using an M16, and dressed in green fatigues, the men aboard these boats call themselves “warriors first.”

Their older colleagues recall Protective Edge and helping coordinate raids into Gaza, or operating closely with the ground troops. As one watches the 12- man crew put on their dark blue ceramic bulletproof vests and green helmets, the sense is that this is a combat unit that just happens to be made up of sailors in the navy. They bear more of a resemblance to the men depicted in movies about US river patrol boats in Vietnam.

As the crews of the fast patrol boats prepare for their mission, they play music and some talk to women from the base. Although the smaller Snapir units are coed, the patrol boat squadrons are all-male, in keeping with the close quarters the men must live in aboard ship. With one cramped room up in the bow section for all the men to sleep in, in shifts, a coed environment might be tricky here.

There is some competition over the choice in music. While one crew member says he’s just got back from seeing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and likes classics, another man wants to hear trance.

With the signal to get moving, all hands are on deck. A lanky man at the bow pulls in the bowline tethering the ship to the dock. The engines come to life, controlled from a console with English on all the buttons and built by Rolls- Royce. Across from us on the bridge, with the boat flying flags marked “Sparta,” some men wrap their necks in keffiyehs.



THE SUN is setting off Ashdod. Akrish backs the boat up and then heads for the port’s entrance.

The Shaldag boat has been in the water since 2004 after being delivered from Haifa’s Israel Shipyards. It already has a bunch of wear and tear. The black chair on the bridge, which looks like it might be a comfy office chair, has an arm missing.

Darkness is falling during the 10-minute drive out of port. The men stand at their stations. One holds an M16 with a grenade launcher on it, for firing illumination rounds. Another stares out to sea along the dark metal barrel of the MAG. The bright yellow lights from the shipyards glow on the faces of the crew.

Bulk carriers with names such as Avocet, a 189-meter cargo ship, lie at dock in Ashdod, cranes looming above them.

This, Israel’s second deep-water seaport after Haifa, begins to fade into the distance as our vessel takes a wide turn to the southwest. It’s quiet, except for the humming engines at the stern. Men remove and stow the flags that until then had been displayed on the bridge and mast, showing the unit’s insignia and Star of David.

It’s a relatively warm 22°. Waves are at 42 cm., according to the captain. It’s a bit surreal out here off the coast of Israel.

As Ashdod moves into the distance, the lights of Ashkelon come into view.

The smokestacks of the Ashkelon Dorad Power station with their bright lights are clearly visible, as is a red light just to the south. That’s the Zikim Beach border with Gaza. In September 2014 Avera Mengistu, an Israeli, crossed the border fence that runs down the beach and made his way into Gaza, in an incident that is still unclear. He is being held by Hamas. I thought of him as we bobbed along out to sea.

Off the bow were bright white lights in the distance. This is the Gazan fishing fleet that comes out at night and uses bright lights to attract plankton, which in turn attracts fish. In the depth of night, these little lights in the distance and our proximity to Gaza remind one of how small this region is. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the number of fishermen in Gaza in 2000 was 10,000; but since Israel has maintained a closer blockade of the coast, that number has declined to 3,500. According to OCHA, “95% receive international aid.”

The issue of the blockade has also rankled many pro-Palestinian protesters abroad. Several initiatives to use boats with international volunteers on them to “break the siege” attempted to make it to Gaza between 2008 and 2011.

In the most serious incident the Israel Navy raided a six-ship flotilla and boarded the MV Mavi Marmara. In the subsequent fracas with Turkish IHH volunteers, 10 Turks were killed and some 600 had to be off-loaded at Ashdod. The incident strained relations with Turkey, and the issue of allowing Gazans rights at sea has been brought up by the Turkish government in numerous negotiations with Israel since then. In late April Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu once again reiterated the need to solve Gaza’s water and electricity issues.

Over the years dozens of Gazan fishing boats have been reportedly detained by Israel for straying too far from shore, and some fishermen wounded.

YUVAL MORDOV says that the majority of their work at sea involves dealing with Gazan fishermen. “We train and practice with all our weapons so we are ready for war,” but the real training is how to stop and neutralize a suspicious vessel that could pose a threat.

“Usually with the fishermen, it’s a local population, and we will shoot in the air and they will head back to Gaza. But it’s the 1% that are from Hamas that we train for.”

Mordov is trained as a mechanic, but, like the other crew members, he’s proud of being ready for combat. “It’s a difficult job; you must be alert and concentrate.”

His colleague Amer Amir, who is a Druse from Peki’in, laughs with Mordov about the nicknames crew members have. An Ethiopian man is “Chris Brown,” and Amir is “Abu Iman.” “It’s a family here,” says Amir. “He’s my brother. We know everything about each other. We live in such close quarters, you get used to each other’s odors.”

As the men discuss their various attributes, two bright glowing oil platforms come into view off the starboard side.

These are the gas fields out here that also require protection. Amir says one of the qualities of the unit is the different walks of life they come from. As some spray from the sea makes its way up to us, he brings me a piping-hot cup of Turkish coffee. “In the winter we get big waves and you’ll be all wet and cold.”

He points out the Ashkelon power plant and Gaza in the distance.

After being at sea around an hour, the men are still in the mood for reminiscing.

“There are special moments out here; sometimes you see dolphins.”

I make my way down the little ladder from the bridge to the control room and then down to the kitchen. Down below, it’s cramped and seasickness-inducing.

Several of the sailors on station must man the radar and remain down in the cabin. Others are sleeping until their shift comes on. A few more minutes here and I wonder about the seasickness, the rocking, the closed room.

In the sleeping quarters there is air-conditioning, but that’s the only creature comfort. It looks like the sitting room from Jaws – just one table and a small kitchen. The bridge beckons, with its refreshing wind.

One wonders if the men get to fish when they are out here for a few days.

No one says that’s a possibility, but one imagines that stowed somewhere down below decks are a rod and tackle. If the Gazans are fishing, surely the navy must fish sometimes. After all, aren’t the fish here plentiful, with the Gazans kept closer to shore? Amir takes this moment of inquiry to raise another issue: empathy. “Our captain stresses this often. Most of the Gazans just want to feed their families and sell fish. It’s the rare threat we watch for.”

Akrish, the 24-year-old captain, agrees. “We try to tell the people to have empathy for the fishermen, who do their jobs and bring money home. But with terrorists we must be tough and professional, and do our job and never let a terrorist into Israel.”

There is a learning curve involved.

“The main issue is the fishermen. The toughest thing is to figure out who is a fisherman and who is a terrorist. First, it is experience to know who is a terrorist, and to be human and patient, and we have intelligence, and all that comes together,” says Akrish.



IN THE exercise the fast patrol practices how to deal with two boats coming out of the Gaza Strip, in which one has strayed over the 10-km. limit currently in force. In the almost pitch-black, the ship makes for its target. Somewhere down below on radar, orders are relayed back and forth to the pilot and captain, who stand on the bridge driving hard.

Spray comes over the sides a bit as the ship makes headway.

“I want to see how we get close to and stop them [the suspicious ship]; it’s an issue we deal with every week,” says Akrish.

As we approach the fake suspicious ship, which is being captained by another Israeli team in a rigid hull inflatable that looks like a small fishing vessel, the crew are called on deck to get to their battle stations. At the stern, in the dark, one lonely sailor lashes himself to the .50-caliber gun. On the bridge two men unlimber the MAGs and aim them out to sea. Helmets are unsecured and the men put them on. Everyone looks serious. One spry, skinny sailor climbs above the bridge, standing precariously on a metal stand and mans a searchlight and night-vision apparatus. As we approach the vessel, he searches the night for it.

Eventually, when the suspicious boat is spotted, our vessel makes a wide arc around it. It’s like a cat circling its prey, but the cat is doing 64 km. an hour at sea with waves and wind. Amir takes hold of a radio transmitter, and his voice is transmitted over a loudspeaker.

In Arabic, he orders the suspected threat to stop.

In this practice session the suspicious boat doesn’t follow orders, so the captain orders one of the crew to mock-fire his rifle in the air. Our boat emits a loud siren, indicating to the “enemy” ship to stop. When that doesn’t work, as our boat keeps making circles coming closer and closer to the “enemy,” the captain orders a man on the MAG to fire at the engine to disable the boat. “Thump, thump, thump,” the sailor mocks firing.

Now the searchlight is on the suspicious boat, and more orders are relayed in Arabic.

The crew of the boat is told to marshal at the stern.

At this point there is some chaos. A man on the suspicious boat begins shining a green laser at our vessel. The captain orders evasive maneuvers. Our boat charges off into the sea.

“It was a successful training exercise. We sought to stop it, the engine was disabled and they [the suspicious crew] jumped into the sea, and then another Gaza vessel came up and ‘shot’ at us, so we destroyed that ship with the Typhoon gun. The crew behaved well,” the captain says.

How often does the crew of a fast patrol boat off Gaza have to stop fishing boats like this? “Once or twice a week,” according to Akrish.

As the crew relaxes after the first part of their exercise, they monitor their sister patrol ship carrying out a similar attempt. The ice-cold water emerges, along with the Bissli.

These night patrols can be a nervous time, one of the crew explains. “We don’t sleep all night, and they [the fishermen] cross the border [into forbidden waters]. It’s more money and food for their families.”

The men find the work fulfilling, and although they admit it is tense, in the time they have served on the boat since Operation Protective Edge, they say, the boat has not been fired upon. They see joining the navy as not only about the experience but also the social mobility it can provide. A trained mechanic can find work after finishing his service. A pilot can work on a yacht in civilian life.

AFTER A short period eating and talking, the men are ordered back to their battle stations. Helmets come out, earplugs go in, flak jackets are on. M16s, stowed on the sides of the bridge, are unholstered.

One man cradles an illumination grenade, like a blackjack player counting his chips.

After making sure everyone is ready, a bell alerting everyone to the “battle” conditions puts us all on our toes. The main Typhoon gun makes a thudding sound and its shells produce a red flare into the distance. After successfully firing on the target with the main gun, the ship moves in closer. Giving it all they’ve got, the crew open up on the target with the MAGs and .50-caliber gun at the stern. With two ships firing on the same target, the whole night lights up with tracers and shells. On the bridge, hundreds of casings scatter on the metal floor. It feels like the night scene at Do Long Bridge in Apocalypse Now.

The thick smell of gunpowder hangs in the air. Seeing all the firepower used at once makes the relatively small vessel seem intimidating. Hamas may have some frogmen whose advantage lies in that they can disguise themselves as fishermen and choose the time and place of an encounter. But they are no match for this well-trained crew. To defend against more sophisticated missile threats, the boats are developing an “active protection system,” according to an article in Jane’s Defence Weekly in March.

As the powder from the live fire faded into the night, Akrish turned his boat back toward Ashdod. He’s looking to be prepared for the next war with Hamas.

A native of Haifa who spent a year in Texas and is a graduate of the Israeli Naval Academy, he hopes to finish out his service in 2019.

“The last time we trained we were doing an exercise to deal with a threat from the land. It’s hard work, but I’m thankful to be here,” he says.

With the difficulties the IDF is going through in the wake of the Hebron soldier who shot a wounded subdued Palestinian, Akrish says its essential for soldiers to be responsible. “They are responsible not only for their own lives but also those of the Gaza fishermen.”

Down below, two crew members have begun to cook the night’s meal. Chicken breast is cut in strips in a heap. Cherry tomatoes fill a bowl. In a large pot, vegetables are being tossed in oil. The boat is rocking back and forth.

“Sometimes we get rice and potatoes and make it with Thai-flavored chicken. On Friday we put in and might do fish and kubbeh hamusta soup,” says one of the men, grinning. The quarters may be cramped, but when it comes to camaraderie and cooking, this boat is full of life.

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