Eilat Marine police - a tiny force with a big assignment

Even without the threat of terror from the water, the unit has its hands full.

eilat marine police 224  (photo credit: Courtesy Eilat Marine Police)
eilat marine police 224
(photo credit: Courtesy Eilat Marine Police)
Under a bright blue sky, and with kilometers of turquoise water stretching behind him, Supt. Arman Skyman seems calm and confident as he looks out over Eilat Harbor, a long stretch of beach dotted by hotels and water-sports operators. As commander of the Eilat Marine Police, Skyman is faced with a near-impossible task - to work with the Israel Navy to secure a coastline within range of scuba-diving terrorists originating in three countries only a brief swim away, while serving as a boat-borne traffic cop for one of the country's most popular - and crowded - tourist destinations. But for a crack police force tasked with complex missions, the Eilat Marine Police are, in many ways, a bare-bones unit. The unit consists of seven salaried policemen (Skyman: "We hope to get a policewoman sometime soon") and some 15 volunteers. They operate a few small speedboats, supplemented by one inflatable motorized rubber boat and a jetski used for undercover operations. Until last week, the unit was housed in one room at the Eilat Marina, but last Thursday they celebrated the housewarming of a brand-new three-room headquarters at Eilat Port, offering them a more centrally-situated - and roomy - location. The change of location was one of four goals for the unit delineated by Eilat Subdistrict Commander Asst.-Cmdr. Yehuda Dahan in an attempt to make the small, family-like unit more operationally capable. In fact, the only one of the goals still unfulfilled remains increasing the unit's operations to 24-hours a day. Currently, due to lack of personnel, the unit operates in two eight-hour shifts. The Eilat unit is one of three marine police units operating in the Southern District, with a significantly larger force responsible for the busy port city of Ashdod. Ashdod is also the base of the volunteer divers rescue team, which cooperates heavily with the Eilat unit as well. Skyman is a font of nautical know-how, switching within seconds between explaining the etymology of the English term "knot" as a measure of nautical speed and the tactics adopted to prevent smugglers from making the quick trip from Egypt into Israel. But the unit has its hands full even without the threat of terrorists. Along the Eilat coastline, 17 different water-sports companies operate along the seven kilometers of Red Sea beach stretching from the Egyptian border at Taba on the southwest to the Jordanian border at Aqaba on the northeast. Scuba divers and snorkelers compete with jetskiers, parasailers, motorboaters, windsurfers, kayakers and even oil tankers for a piece of the narrow northern end of the Red Sea. Sometimes, the results can be tragic. In August, two teenagers were seriously injured and two lightly injured when a boat pulling water-skiers collided with the innertube on which they were being pulled by a second motorboat. Local police arrested the operators of both boats under suspicion of negligence resulting in injury, negligent operation of a watercraft and violation of boating laws. "We made it four years straight without an accident like that," recalls Skyman, regretfully. He emphasized that the small police force works hard to enforce maritime right-of-way rules as well as basic safety in the gulf. As many as 1500 boats operate there, and many amateur boaters are not well-informed as to the basic safety rules at sea. In recent years, police have tightened up the rules surrounding licensing of the water-sports operators, who are restricted from operating within 300 meters of each other. That can be a difficult rule to maintain in such a small space. Dahan said he had received some complaints from the operators, but that maintaining safety was worth it. The other great challenge facing the waterborne cops are the borders themselves. In recent years rules involving boats from Egypt have been considerably tightened. In the early years of the decade, innocent-looking private pleasure boats were a favorite medium for smugglers to sneak cargo - and particularly trafficked women - into Israel's borders. Back then, Skyman said, boats could move freely between Eilat and the Sinai peninsula. Now, every incident of even accidental border crossings results in a full police investigation and debriefing. Arman says the tougher rules have paid off. Smugglers, he says, have found the nautical route too difficult - and are now using other venues - including the land border, for their smuggling operations. And while the unit has its work cut out for it, performing a delicate balancing act between public safety and national security, it remains - according to Dahan - among the most popular placements for Eilat police. "Veteran detectives will come up and ask me to move them to the marine police," said Dahan. The difficult hours, the close quarters and the challenging work, he says, have led to a level of camaraderie that is the envy of other units.