Patrolling the Gaza Coast with Israel Navy's Boat 836

The Post joins Navy patrol boat for a look at life onboard.

Israel Navy's Boat 836 off Gaza coast 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Israel Navy's Boat 836 off Gaza coast 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Five Israel Navy boats travel north up the coast in formation, as black waves flow underneath, and a starry Mediterranean night sky stretches out above.
The lights of Ashkelon and of the northern Gaza Strip shimmer in the distance of the hot August night.
The voice of Lt. Kobi Akiva, the outgoing commander of this formation of the navy’s Dvora fast patrol boats, comes over the radio.
“Thank you for allowing me to command you at sea, it’s been a privilege. Each of you is an incredible person who is willing to lay down his life for his country, and after that, for one another,” he says.
The transmission marks the end of a long and extensive drill, in which the Dvora navy crew members practiced identifying and neutralizing terrorist attacks from the coast of the Gaza Strip, and simulated a host of other complex scenarios they might encounter in the near future.
The Jerusalem Post joined the crew of Boat 836, a Dvora Mark 3 vessel, which is the latest model of the navy’s sturdy coastal security boat.
Hours earlier that same day, the crew of Boat 836 cruised at 44 knots in the open sea, speeding towards a mock terrorist sea target, which was simulated by a police boat.
On the boat’s upper deck, the wind beats the young sailors’ faces and the foam of the water bubbles beneath. ‘‘He who does not throw up is not our brother,’’ Leading-Rating sailor Menachem Feder says in jest, asking this reporter and the Post’s cameraman, Marc Israel Sellem, if our stomachs are holding up (neither of us fell victim to seasickness).
A hi-tech multi-channel radio system carries messages between various members of the boat’s crew members, and broadcasts with other Dvora boats as well.
Down in the lower deck, sailors staff sophisticated radar, weapons and communications systems. And one floor below that, soldiers are preparing dinner in the vessel’s kitchen.
Surprising culinary delights are prepared in the kitchen of Boat 836 (Marc Israel Sellem)
Surprising culinary delights are prepared in the kitchen of Boat 836 (Marc Israel Sellem)
By the end of the day, the crew has practiced firing on three terrorist boats, striking targets on the Gazan coast, extinguishing a fire on board, and facilitating the evacuation of an injured sailor. To top it all off, Boat 836 has to practice towing another Dvora to safety in pitch darkness.
At the start of the day, when Boat 836 was preparing to head out to sea from the Ashdod Navy Base, a jovial atmosphere dominates the vessel.
A crew member with a cheerful voice takes the microphone on the upper deck and proceeds to read the to-do list over the boat’s loudspeakers. The crew members tasked with carrying out each procedure shout back a confirmation.
‘‘Locked and loaded!’’ The boat’s gunners call out after examining their weapons.
Then, the ship’s commander, Lt. Erez (last name withheld), takes the steering wheel and microphone. ‘‘Good afternoon, 836,’’ he says, his calm voice permeating the vessel. ‘‘We’ll be heading out to sea to join the drill. Pay attention to targets,’’ he says.
The Israel Navy has a total of three formations of Dvora boats in service, covering the North, Center and South.
LT. JUNIOR grade Yarin Ben-Zikri, deputy commander of Boat 836, speaks about what it is like to serve here. ‘‘We get home leave once a month. All week we maintain ship, train, and carry out security patrols of Gaza.’’
A soldier surveys the horizon (Marc Israel Sellem)
A soldier surveys the horizon (Marc Israel Sellem)
 Looking ahead to the drill, he says it will be ‘‘big,’’ adding, ‘‘We don’t get to do this kind of thing in routine times. It will improve our ability to strike targets on the coast, and to deal with cross-border terrorist raids via the sea.’’
There are a few key terms that, once uttered on the boat’s speaker system, send the crew rushing to their locations.
Shouting ‘‘Battle positions’’ on the microphone will ensure that all crew members on the upper deck head to their weapons and surveillance systems in seconds. If in their bunk beds below, the sailors, who sleep with their shoes on, must be at their stations within 30 seconds.
‘‘Connection positions’’ is an order that tells crew members to head to the bow and stern and prepare to catch or throw ropes to neighboring vessels.
Sgt. Liav Shalobok, a mechanic and a medic, has been serving on Boat 836 for a year. ‘‘The conditions aren’t easy. You challenge yourself. It turns you into a man, for life. Ironically, this also entails mastering laundry and cooking,’’ he says.
‘‘You’re fighting for your home – this boat is your home. This is where you sleep, eat, and shoot from. It’s a home on the move. And it’s crowded,’’ Shalobok adds.
Boat 836 crew members try to relax in between challenging missions (Marc Israel Sellem)
Boat 836 crew members try to relax in between challenging missions (Marc Israel Sellem)
Seventy percent of the time, Boat 836 carries out counterterrorism patrols along Gaza, with each patrol lasting between 24 and 72 hours. Crew members have a range of weapons at their disposal to engage threats, including an M242 Bushmaster cannon on the bow which can fire up to 120 rounds per minute.
A heavy 0.5-inch machine gun is on stern, and there are two MAG machine guns at the sides. Down below, an array of screens displayed radar and camera data.
Fourth Petty Officer Dima Trachtenberg explains, ‘‘We call this the closed bridge – the upper bridge is upstairs. Here we control the Bushmaster [which has an automatic target tracking system], maintain a command and control panel, and carry out advanced surveillance. We’re looking at all of the things the human eye can’t see from here.’’
One screen lists land targets that Boat 836 might be ordered to strike. Another displays the coordinates of the enemy, and of friendly forces. ‘‘We can send and receive images, and we’re connected to the navy’s command-and-control network. Here is a satellite navigation system, and here is the engine computer display, showing the status of various components,’’ Trachtenberg says.
‘‘This is the emergency backup steering wheel – it’s never used. And here,’’ he says with a smile, ‘‘is the air conditioning. It’s nice and cool downstairs.’’
The navy’s Dvora boats are also equipped with advanced missile defense systems, made up of two rays that are fired on the upper deck that prevent the radars of incoming missiles from locking on to the boat. In fact, the boat’s sensors will know when hostile radars have locked on to it.
Throughout the patrol, the boat’s radio operators are in touch with the navy’s Area Command Post at Ashdod naval port to exchange information on targets of interest.
We head down to the third floor, where the kitchen and sleeping quarters are located.
‘‘We make meals here that are so good it’s crazy,’’ Trachtenberg says, gesturing to a tiny kitchen. ‘‘We cook for 20 people. We all chip in for extras, like sauces. We’ve even made sushi here,’’ he says.
In the kitchen, the diverse backgrounds of the sailors come to the fore, as the sailors “argue” over what ethnic recipe – be it North African or Russian – should be used.
THE SAILORS have some highly creative ways of using rare free time to unwind. In the dead of night, off the Gazan coast, when drifting in the sea, they will gather on the open deck after dinner, produce a guitar and darbuka, and sing.
It’s one way of dealing with the challenges of living in such unusual circumstances, they say.
‘‘The air force pilot disembarks from his plane after completing his mission, and the same is true of tank crews. We live here for 35 days at a time. We get to shower at home once every four weeks,’’ Trachtenberg explains.
The sailors all warn of the pitfalls of winter, when three- to four-meter waves can cause havoc onboard.
Boat 836 is part of a southern patrol formation. There are always boats patrolling the Gaza coast and others on standby. These boats are closely watched by Hamas.
Fourth Petty Officer Avia Azolai describes a central plank of their activities, enforcing Israel’s naval closure on the Hamas-ruled Gaza strip.
The closure is designed to stop the smuggling of rockets that are later fired at Israeli civilians, and to prevent terrorists from accessing the Israeli coast.
The closure means that Palestinian fishermen cannot pass the six nautical mile mark from their coast.
‘‘We ensure no vessel violates this. Gaza is very close to the Ashkelon power plant. Counterterrorism here is a challenge. It’s a strategic target for the terrorists,’’ Azolai says.
‘‘If one vessel gets past us, there could be a terrorist attack within five minutes. On this ship, sailors are always watching radars and cameras,’’ he adds.
The boats are scrambled by Navy operators to the location of every unusual radar signature, some of which end up being as harmless as flocks of birds.
‘‘We have a song about false alarms, ‘everyone’s up because of radar interference,’’’ Azolai says, before singing the words with a smile.
In cases involving suspicious sea vessels, the Dvora will approach the target (without getting too close), and use loudspeaker and radio to call on it to identify itself. If that fails, warning shots are fired in the air, and then into water near the target.
There have been instances of Palestinian fishermen ignoring all of the warnings and being towed to Ashdod for questioning, the sailors recount.
But the crew members face far more serious issues than stubborn fishermen. Two months ago, terrorists in Gaza fired no fewer than 50 rockets at a Dvora patrol boat. They missed their target, but prompted the boat to fire at the rockets to destroy them in midair, and the Israel Air Force to dispatch combat helicopters.
Three years ago, crew members on Boat 836 identified terrorists planting a bomb on the Israel- Gaza fence, and opened fire. One member of the terror cell was shot and killed, and the others were killed in a subsequent air force strike.
Boat 836 departs the Ashdod navy base for another critical asignment (Marc Israel Sellem)
Boat 836 departs the Ashdod navy base for another critical asignment (Marc Israel Sellem)
The boats also accompany foreign freight ships sailing into Ashdod port, and check their details before granting them entry.
After exhausting shifts, the sailors sleep in bunk beds downstairs. If there are no emergencies, they’re woken gently by fellow sailors when a new shift begins.
A red light, rather than bright white light, goes on, and the waking sailors are offered warm beverages.
It’s a stark difference from the sudden wakeup call prompted by a ‘‘get to positions call.’’ Fourth Petty Officer Yonatan Bresler, a mechanic, says his duties are challenging, but that it has been satisfying to learn from the boat’s chief mechanic, who is commonly called ‘‘Chief’’ by the others.
‘‘You gradually learn about the systems,’’ Bresler says. ‘‘Then you go to the Haifa Naval Academy for a training course.’’ All sailors have a double role on the boat. In addition to being a mechanic, Bresler is tasked with manning one of the side deck machine guns.
Complex maneuvers completed, the boats speed back to port in a convoy, switching on their massive projectors (each is equal to 60 million candles), and firing flares in synchronized timing. Soon, they will start a new day off the coast of Gaza.