Israeli Boats Hunt Gunrunners, and Peace Groups

An Israeli boat on a coastline patrol. - Pierre Klochendler/IPS.
An Israeli boat on a coastline patrol. - Pierre Klochendler/IPS.
  • by Pierre Klochendler (off the israeli coast)
  • Inter Press Service

Five miles (eight kilometres) offshore, two speed dinghies criss-cross the waters, leaving a trail of foam behind them. 'People get easily pulled away by the strong currents and drown. Our units are called in to save lives,' explains Chief Inspector Micky Rosenfeld.

'Throw the corpse!' orders another marine officer to illustrate what the Israel Police spokesman just said. 'Body in the water,' relays another. The so-called ‘body’ is an inflatable doll. The ‘rescue mission’ is an exercise. 'We use two boats to move in and save individuals. At the same time, we prepare an emergency area where we provide first aid,' adds Rosenfeld.

The dinghies are abruptly changing course. 'We’re now heading exactly 90 degrees towards a fishing boat in order to inspect it and to check where it’s coming from and whether there’s anything suspicious on it,' he says. 'It’s part of our routine activities to protect the area.'

'What’s up? Did you find a good catch? Who’s the licence holder?' enquires a policeman.

Israel’s marine police are a small unit comprised of 48 former military officers who have undergone intensive training in navigation and life-saving mission.

With only four vessels and a slightly larger number of high speed rubber boats, they patrol Israel’s Mediterranean coastline that extends about 117 miles (188 kilometres) from north to south, and venture into high seas — as far as 25 miles (40 kilometres) off the coast.

Their mission is also to provide last-resort backup to the navy trying to prevent infiltrations — of guerrillas to Israel; of arms and drugs smuggled to both the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah; and, of international human right activists.

For ‘hot season’, read ‘high season’ — that of prospective waves of ‘Peace Flotillas’ en route to try to break the three-year-old maritime siege imposed by Israel on Gaza.

'We deal with intruders that come from overseas in order to make some bad things here,' acknowledges Uzi Ben-Shalom, a marine police officer.

Beyond the liquid horizon, all year round, a secret war is being waged on the high seas against gunrunners.

Only last Monday, Israel navy’s elite commandos intercepted a Liberian-flagged ship 184 miles (296 kilometres) off the northern coast on suspicion that it carried arms bound for Gaza.

It was a false alarm. 'No weapon was found on the ‘H.S. Beethoven’,' revealed a military communiqué. 'We’ll continue to act untiringly against efforts by terror organisations to obtain arms in order to harm Israeli citizens,' it warned.

In recent years, the Navy and marine police have stepped up their efforts to stem the flow of weapons to Gaza and Lebanon. Sea routes are critical to arms traffickers, stresses Rosenfeld.

Iranian airplanes heading to Syria and Lebanon have been stopped in Turkey. According to foreign press reports, Israeli drones have also attacked convoys allegedly ferrying weapons in Sudan.

Yet, few covert operations make headlines.

In November 2009, a cargo ship was intercepted. The ‘Francop’ was laden with 500 tons of weapons sent from Iran and destined for the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.

In March 2010, navy commandos seized a ship bound for Gaza. The ‘Victoria’ concealed some 50 tons of weapons from Iran in its civilian cargo, including six sophisticated C-704 anti-ship missiles. The ‘catch’ prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit the southern port of Ashdod.

'All those who question why Israel must stop and inspect ships can find the answer right here,' the Israeli Prime Minister then declared, as the weapons consignment was displayed on the wharf. 'This is the axis that must be confronted and ultimately broken if we’re to stop terror and maintain security,' he added. Such operations have had deep strategic repercussions — for better or worse.

A decade ago, the capture of the ‘Karin A’ loaded with weapons destined for the Palestinian Authority changed irrevocably the common perception that the second Intifadah uprising against the Israeli occupation was solely popular and non-violent.

But not all actions have proven successful.

Two years ago, nine Turkish activists were killed during a botched assault by elite naval commandos aboard a vessel which was attempting to bring humanitarian assistance by breaking the maritime blockade imposed on Gaza.

Though a U.N. inquiry backed Israel’s naval blockade as being 'a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea', it also reproved the use of force on the ‘M.V. Marmara’ as 'excessive and unreasonable'.

The incident eventually led to the deterioration of the strategic alliance between Israel and Turkey, and to the easing of the Israeli land siege on the Palestinian enclave.

The ‘M.V. Marmara’ has since become the flagship symbol of all pro-Palestinian solidarity campaigns launched against the Israeli occupation — be they (sea) flotillas or (air) ‘flytillas’ (the latest such airlift of human rights activists occurred only a fortnight ago).

But at least as long as the maritime blockade is endorsed by the international community, the navy and the marine police unremittingly hunt gunrunners, scouring international waters.

© Inter Press Service (2012) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service