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Israel's increasing concern about Hamas' growing naval capabilities

June 18, 2019 at 3:08 am

GAZA CITY, GAZA – OCTOBER 8: Palestinians gather to support the “maritime demonstration” to break the Gaza blockade by sea with more than 20 vessels of various sizes in Gaza City, Gaza on October 8, 2018. ( Mustafa Hassona – Anadolu Agency )

 Israeli circles have demanded that a large-scale military naval operation be carried out in Gaza to respond to the growing military capabilities of Hamas, provided that it would surprise Hamas and exploit the soft belly of Gaza, specifically the western side of Gaza’s coast on the Mediterranean Sea.

I will discuss Israel’s warnings about Hamas’s growing naval capabilities, its readiness to confront them, the movement’s combative capabilities in the face of an Israeli maritime invasion, and Israel’s purposes for the marine operations.

Israeli reports are increasingly concerned about Hamas’ naval commando units, which have successfully developed strategic capabilities on the seafront. This is especially in the light of the lingering Israeli memories of Hamas’s infiltration of Zikim Beach, north of Gaza during the 2014 war.

Since the end of the war, Hamas has expanded its naval combat capabilities. It spent money on them and trained their fighters, and the Israeli army has not ignored this threat. It has begun a secret battle to thwart it, as its intelligence agencies know that Hamas is increasing its use of its naval capabilities. Therefore it is conducting intense field investigations, in coordination with various ground and naval army units, and showing more vigilance and caution along the beaches using maritime equipment.

Hamas considers its naval commando unit to be the elite unit and biggest amongst its military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Therefore, its best fighters are chosen for these units, and they are divided into geographical groups distributed across Gaza and given various tasks under tight command.

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Hamas’s human frogs range in age from 18 to 20 years old and undergo long and difficult rigorous military training. They belong to small units that train in dozens and are trained in diving and naval operations. They are very physically fit, capable of coordinating with other units, and are very brave.

The Hamas naval commando training and graduation ceremonies are covered by Palestinian social media and are closely monitored by the Israeli intelligence. Hamas has used the past years of the ceasefire to intensify its naval training, build its combative strength, and increase its naval capabilities.

Hamas divers’ training includes quick drills in the sea to carry high-quality explosions against Israeli naval vessels, operating ships carrying explosives with bombers and without, and moving from the sea to land and vice versa in organised cells. They are also trained to launch guided anti-tank missiles from the coast to the sea against ships and towards the heart of Israel.

Israel’s biggest fear is the divers trying to sneak under the ships into the Ashdod port or the power station and planting explosive devices. The increased training of Israeli naval forces indicates that they give great importance to training their fights to fight the Hamas divers.

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Israeli intelligence claims that Gaza is full of fishermen, who have been practising this profession for years, understand the language of the sea and know how to swim, and therefore they can grab a number of them and quickly turn them into skilled commando fighters.

In recent years, the Palestinians have tried to challenge the Israeli navy by blowing up some boats by obtaining technical means and effective protection day and night, while they search for any Hamas activity in the sea and thwart it.

Perhaps what prompted Hamas to develop their naval capabilities is their realisation that the Israeli air force and the Iron Dome and Wind Shield systems thwart their rockets and missiles and protects tanks and armoured vehicles from the anti-weapons they possess. This has caused it to quickly develop and intensify their combative naval capabilities. This is cause for concern for the Israeli army because Hamas may carry out operations using naval mines and target Israeli boats.

The Iron Dome, Israeli military systems which intercept missiles - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The Iron Dome, Israeli military systems which intercept missiles – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The naval threats Israeli is facing from Gaza nowadays are reminiscent of the long history in the 1970s, which witnessed a wave of violent attacks on the seacoast.

While Israel changed its policies on the naval front, it has not succeeded in ultimately preventing the attacks. The prevalent notion amongst the army is that it cannot completely close the naval area, which requires it to come up with out-of-the-box ideas to face Palestinian threats from the coast. This includes decisive military decisions and daily manoeuvres.

Israel revealed that military unit 916, which is charged with protecting the southern settlements along the Gaza border focuses on the areas adjacent to the seashores to counter Hamas’ growing military capabilities by confronting its naval forces, which using fishing operations for military operations, working over and under water, such as infiltrating Israeli areas through the Gaza beaches.

The unit carries out monitoring and investigative operations, as well as operations security monitoring and tracing along the Gaza naval border, from the north to the south. It also thwarts any attempts to use fishing operations 9 miles into the sea to carry out military operations.

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About 1,500 fishing boats operate on the Gaza beach, and Israel claims that one ship could infiltrate these numbers of boasts and fishermen and carry out a bombing of the Israeli naval cruiser, a strategic site in the sea, or an Israeli beach. It also claims that the Palestinian groups plan for such operations and can carry them out, and therefore Israel’s mission is to prevent such an attack from happening.

Israel built a sea barrier off the coast of Zikim, on the northern border of Gaza, reaching the beaches, to provide a protective cover for the nearest land point from the sea. This barrier is a wall that is very difficult to pass through or infiltrate. It is also planning to add more protection and wall that are difficult to jump over, as well as technological equipment that can detect early on any attempts to infiltrate the areas close to the Israeli coast.

The army announced the end of the barrier construction after months of work. The barrier is 200 metres long and 6 metres high. It is equipped with advanced sensors to detect the movements of armed Hamas fighters. This barrier is made up of three layers: first, a layer under the sea, the second made of rock, and the third made of barbed wire. The barrier will break waves and impenetrable.

Members of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas, take part in a military parade on the third anniversary of Israel's attacks on Gaza in Khan Yunis, Gaza on 20 July 2017 [Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency]

Members of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas in Gaza on 20 July 2017 [Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency]

The construction of the barrier confirms Israel’s fears of Hamas’s naval capabilities, because it is seeking to reduce the capabilities of its naval units but cannot completely prevent them. Hamas is engaged in guerrilla warfare with the army and will find alternatives to confront this barrier. It could reach the power plant in Ashkelon, located 4 kilometres north of Gaza through the advanced diving methods used by Hamas’s divers, the human frogs.

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These Israeli efforts indicate their realisation that Hamas has developed its naval military capabilities and is seeking to improve its combat experience in this field. Hamas is giving this matter priority. The Israeli security is monitoring the movement’s actions, despite sometimes exaggerating their capabilities, as former defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, announced that this barrier would prevent infiltration to Israel via the sea. He also claimed that it is a new blow to Hamas that will cause it is losing a new strategic capability it invested a large amount of money in.

The Palestinians believe that this barrier will not completely prevent them from going behind the enemy lines of the Israeli army, but it will make their job harder by increasing the distance they need to dive to. However, Hamas’s naval forces are prepared and have a fighting spirit, as well as possess the ability to move and work thanks to its breathing equipment. It has developed its methods and obtained equipment making it capable of moving distances underwater longer than it can above water.

The Qassam Brigades revealed the details of an infiltration operation carried out by one of its naval units of an Israeli base in Zikim during the 2014 war. The collection of information preceded this operation and monitoring the targeted support. The maritime force swam and dove long distances towards the base and clashes with the army.

Israeli officers expressed their fear of Hamas unleashing their human frogs in the next military confrontation with Israel, and Hamas using them more successfully and effectively given their ability to surprise the army. This is given their possession of expensive advanced equipment, boats, jet skies, mines, and weapons for underwater combat.

The danger of Hamas’s naval groups lies in their ability to carry out armed operations and sneak behind Israeli lines within a few minutes using fishing boats. They can reach the oil pipelines on the Israeli shore due to the lack of a fence or wall around the naval oil pipelines.

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While Israel has made great effort to foil attempts to smuggle weapons and diving equipment to Hamas through the Karam Abu Salem crossing in the south of Gaza, its rush to finish the barrier within 7 months suggests that Hamas’s naval force will be the first to target it in the next confrontation, because Hamas considers it an alternative to the tunnels that the army continues to uncover.

Amid Israel’s warning about Hamas’s naval capabilities, there have recently been calls to target Gaza from the sea because it is unpredictable, unlike the eastern land borders, and because it is close to the Hamas homes and targets. Most of the areas adjacent to the sea are densely populated, and the Israeli special forces can easily go undercover within them and carry out assassinations and abductions.

Therefore, Israel is preparing itself to confront Hamas’s naval capabilities via the physical barrier, naval obstacles, and technological means. It is also training human crews and chasing Palestinian fishermen in search of any security information regarding Hamas’s human frogs. This is because it is not hiding its concern of Hamas targeting its oil and gas fields since Hamas is spending a lot of money on them. It would also be a moral and military achievement for Hamas, making these fields the gold ticket for Hamas in the next war.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.