Israel’s coastal waters once swarmed with life. Dolphins, octopuses, turtles and types of rays still prowl the Mediterranean, but they are rarely seen. Recently Israel decided, in cooperation with the Society for Protection of Nature, to let soldiers help nature and in the process, be better civilians. On terra firma, that means making the huge reserves of land held by the military more friendly, but at sea, it means something more exotic.
“We work a lot with cement because the buoys on the border are anchored with it,” says commander Ido Kaufman of the IDF’s YALTAM underwater mission unit. “The cement is not good for animals, so we changed the material with [a different type of] cement so it won’t be bad to for the environment, and we made shapes on it so that when we throw an anchor, life will develop on that anchor.”
Now Israel’s elite military naval divers can take a few moments to catalogue what kind of animal life they might see when doing routine maintenance work. It makes soldiers better citizens, the IDF says. It makes Israel a better place – and the dolphins, seahorses and jellyfish benefit.
Kaufman sits in an office at Haifa naval base. The base is a maze of docks and soldiers going back and forth to ships and offices. In the distance, beyond the navy, is the Port of Haifa. The old piers and warehouses and the mountains in the distance make for a pleasant scene. Kaufman has been commander in this unit for five years. He was previously in civilian life before returning to the army. Like many commanders, he has served in a variety of capacities to reach this pinnacle of command.
YALTAM is one several units requiring divers in the military. Shayetet 13, the elite combat unit, is one that is better-known. YALTAM deals with explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) and professional divers. There are three diving teams, one of which specializes in EOD, such as defusing bombs and explosives. The diving platoon can also be called up for different special missions. A second platoon focuses on technical aspects of boats and naval gear or armaments. A third training platoon rounds out the unit.
Training is rigorous: 16 weeks of boot camp, followed by a year of several other courses that include a diving school, advanced diving and learning to work underwater. This can involve training to dive to a depth of 100 meters. For these deeper missions, Israel’s divers learn to work with specialized equipment, such as DC-55 rebreathers.
EOD disposal at sea is complex. On land, Israel uses its elite engineering unit, Yahalom, but what about mines in the water?
“When we reach the water, ships, or underwater or on the beach, we go to Yahalom and do a course and then we are EOD-certified,” says Kaufman. He dims the lights in his office. We’re sitting around a long table. The office has commendations and plaques in it. He illuminates a slide on a projector. After flipping through some flow charts showing how the unit is part of the IDF structure and how it is composed of different platoons, he shows some photos from the Dead Sea. Next to Kalia Beach, the ugly stretch of beach located at the northern end of the Dead Sea, Kaufman shows how tourists recently found old grenades and mines.
It is some of the ordnance that has appeared over the years. In 2012, for instance, German ordnance from the First World War appeared near Kalia. Mauser rifles made in 1895 were found. Jordanian ordinance was also found over the years.
Controlled explosions are among the options that can be used to safely handle and remove the ordinance.
ONE OF the most important missions for YALTAM is search and rescue. The unit is always ready to go at a moment’s notice. If there is a civilian in distress or need for divers, they would be the first to be deployed.
“We almost went to Thailand to help the boys in the cave,” Kaufman says, referring to the July 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue. The divers and their equipment were hours from the airport and ready to go when it was called off because they heard the Thai divers had begun to bring the kids out. It took them two days to take them out. Unfortunately, if I had started earlier then we would have been there,” the commander says. He seems displeased that his team didn’t have an opportunity to go.
For Kaufman, one mission signifies the importance Israel places on rescuing people, even years after an accident. For 16 years, the divers searched the Sea of Galilee for missing IDF pilot Yakir Naveh. One month every year, the divers would enter the murky waters to search.
“We started from knowing where the wheels of the plane were and where the wing was. After four years, we changed the method of searching. We took the whole plane out; we took everything out and then we did a sonar search and we found the pilot’s seat and parts of the cockpit, and then we began to search in the mud.”
Using metal detectors in zero visibility, time marched on and on. To search an area the size of a basketball court took two weeks. They eventually found the pilot’s seat sidearm and watch. Finally, after 56 years of searching, divers from a different search found the pilot.
“We weren’t there this year when the pilot was found. We did everything we could and because of the work we did over 16 years, they found it right in the way that we thought he would be found,” Kaufman notes.
ONE OF Israel’s greatest nightmares took place in 1968 when the Dakar submarine and its 69 crewmembers disappeared. Today the naval divers work with other navies in the world to practice for the need to rescue a submarine in distress. It could be an Israeli submarine or one from another navy.
“We have agreements with other navies. A country alone cannot help a submarine; you need a lot of gear and each navy would use a lot of countries cooperating,” Kaufman says. These include the largest submarine escape-and-rescue trainings, such as ATO’s 2008 Bold Monarch exercise. These kinds of major exercises take place every three years.
Israel also does other types of joint cooperation with foreign navies involving divers. For instance, in dealing with EOD, Israel works with the US and French forces, according to the IDF. They have also trained with the Germans.
MUCH OF the work of YALTAM is shrouded in secrecy. This is typical when it comes to Israel’s navy and elite units. Kaufman notes that the unit is prepared to deal with any kinds of munitions and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) they might need to.
“We are ready for any ammunition, just name it, rockets, missiles, bombs, mines.” He says that maritime explosives rigged by terrorists can come in many forms, just like on land. The difference is how it might be placed. Whereas one might use a balloon on land, one can use a booby-trapped buoy in the water. Everything suspicious is considered a potential IED.
“For instance, 10 years ago there was a suicide fishing boat that exploded near an IDF Dvora patrol boat. We have to develop skills to handle things like that. My job is to deal with it,” says Kaufman.
“The navy knows how to not go into certain places where there might be a bomb, so when they encounter something like that, they call me and I deal with it. Of course, there are also times they call and it turns out to be nothing.”
But not every threat involves the YALTAM. When the Mavi Marmara flotilla was boarded by Israeli commandos in 2010, the divers were not asked to search it.
“It depends on the situation, such as a small boat with munitions that it is smuggling. When you go on a civilian ship, before you go into mission, you take risks; you manage them and engage your forces accordingly,” explains Kaufman.
THE UNIT faces a range of challenges. For instance, the unit is integrating women, like many roles in the army that have recently opened to females.
“It is an issue because it is a change in thinking. We succeeded in it,” the commander says. “We now have women in each course and they finish the course and are doing well. That began in 2006. The number is rising. Our unit also got bigger. We can’t disclose exact numbers, but we can say that our goal is 50% met. We aren’t there yet, but the percentage is rising.”
When it comes to technology, advances are slower in the diving realm than in other areas. Whereas in the air Israel is always upgrading the types of technology it employs, such as drones or more precise weapons and radars, when it comes to diving, some things haven’t changed greatly in years – or decades.
The sun is setting in Haifa as Kaufman and his soldiers discuss some of the ins and outs of being a naval diver.
“We see a lot of turtles,” he says, and they do their best to help preserve their ecosystem.
For the commander who ends his service in February 2020, it has been a proud career helping guide this essential unit in Israel’s navy. Some of his soldiers have gone on to be professional divers and work for companies that use divers.
Turning back to the soldiering part of diving, I wonder about the specific threats Israel might face.
“We cannot speak about potential threats,” Kaufman says. “But I can tell you that we know what is threatening us. We are ready and we are continually preparing and training. We know how to deal with everything. We maintain our focus on the right things.”
So Israelis can sleep securely at night; the divers peering into the deep, dark blue are vigilant.