Searching for Hamas Divers in Gaza

The Snapir Unit of the IDF Navy, charged with the task of defending Israel's ports, is considered one of the Navy's elite units. We paid a visit to the Unit at the Port of Ashdod. Exclusive

The Snapir Unit operates under the commander of the Navy's 916th Squadron. It was established in 2005 for the purpose of defending Israel's ports in Haifa, Ashdod and Eilat. For those not familiar with it, this unit is highly specialized. It is has a mixed personnel of male and female warfighters who operate together, back to back. The Unit's warfighters go through a year-long training program at the conclusion of which they have the option of taking an additional training course for Tzir'ah patrol boat commanders, despite the fact that they are not naval officers. This is an unusual case for the Navy and a "bonus" for the warfighters of the Snapir Unit, which has almost no officers, with the exception of the three unit commanders at the three ports.

The warfighters come to the Unit pursuant to a naval warfighter preparatory program and another preparatory program which is unique to the Snapir Unit. The training program of the Unit's warfighters typically includes intensive operational activity at sea and an extensive range of specialized training courses, some of which are delivered by the men of the Navy's 13th Flotilla (Naval Commandos). The specialized training courses include drills for dominating a merchant ship and an advanced counterterrorism course, where the warfighters hone their firearms handling and shooting skills. The Unit's service program does not include officer training, and most of the Unit's warfighters complete their military service as NCOs. The reason for this is the fact that the Navy maintains a strict separation between the naval officer training program and the training programs for non-officer warfighters. It is rare for anyone who had not started out as a naval officer cadet to take the officer training course half way through his training program.

Special Character & Capabilities

A visit to the Unit's base at the Port of Ashdod reveals that it is not a large base, but the activity it conducts is essential with regard to the aspect of defending the civilian port as well as with regard to the aspect of protecting the sea border with the Gaza Strip – an activity assigned to the Unit pursuant to Operation Protective Edge. "The primary task of the Snapir Unit is to defend the civilian Port of Ashdod," explains Captain Shaked Ratzon, commander of the Snapir Unit in Ashdod. "For the State of Israel, the maritime shipping routes are the pipeline supplying oxygen to the national economy. Most of the goods imported to Israel are shipped by sea, and the port is the end of the shipping route. If a merchant vessel is attacked in an Israeli port, it will inflict a substantial economic damage on the State of Israel."

In order to accomplish the tasks assigned to them, the people of the Snapir Unit are engaged in several on-going activities. Firstly, every merchant ship entering the port for the first time or regarding which the Unit has specific intelligence, undergoes a physical inspection by the warfighters of the Snapir Unit, on the surface and underwater. As you probably gathered by now, the warfighters of the Unit undergo a scuba diving course (to a depth of 30 meters). This enables them, in addition to the regular inspection of the ships, to deal with the extrication of objects that fall into the water within the port, as well as to perform missions that are better left untold. At the same time, the people of the Snapir Unit emphasize that they do not replace the Yaltam Unit – the IDF Navy unit in charge of technical underwater work.

The Snapir Unit also maintains a rapid intervention detail on 24/7 alert. This detail can provide an operational response within minutes to any threat that may evolve in the vicinity of the port, including floating and underwater threats. For this purpose, the Snapir Unit uses a fast patrol boat designated Tzir'ah in the IDF. The Tzir'ah is an exceptionally fast patrol boat fitted with two outboard motors by Honda capable of 250 HP and a speed of about 40 knots – the equivalent of 60 to 70 km/h. The high speed and excellent maneuverability of the Tzir'ah patrol boat are required in response to scenarios involving an attack by a terrorist who uses a personal watercraft (for example, Jet Ski) or speedboat. The armament of the Tzir'ah patrol boat includes a 7.62mm MAG machine gun, assault rifles, anti-diver charges and non-lethal weapons firing "bean bags" for deterring and apprehending suspects.

The Sea Border with the Gaza Strip

Pursuant to Operation Protective Edge, the Snapir Unit was assigned the task of securing the sea border along the northern part of the Gaza Strip. In the early stages of Operation Protective Edge, on July 8, 2014, a detachment of Hamas naval commandos entered Israeli territory from the sea. In that incident there were no IDF casualties, but the Navy command realized that this threat should be addressed. Indeed, pursuant to Operation Protective Edge, two things happened – the IDF installed underwater sensors by DSIT along the sea border with the northern part of the Gaza Strip, to identify enemy divers, and assigned the task of securing the sea border in that area to the Snapir Unit.

Since then, the routine security activity along the sea border with the Gaza Strip became the primary task of the Ashdod unit. According to Captain Ratzon, Hamas initiated some severe incidents in this sector in the past, with the intention of attacking the Navy's Dvora patrol boats. These incidents included an attempted attack using a booby-trapped flotation suit and terrorists masquerading as fishermen who detonated explosive charges. Apparently, those incidents do not deter the warfighters of the Snapir Unit – on the contrary: "Before I enlisted in the Unit, I was not aware of the activity in the Gaza Strip," says Sergeant Liad Schneider, a Unit warfighter. "During routine situations, this is our core activity."

The lion's share of the Unit's activity takes place around the sea border with the Gaza Strip. The Unit's warfighters are involved almost daily in activities that include apprehension of fishermen who cross the border, apprehension of suspected terrorists or uncovering of criminal activities by narcotics and arms runners. "Our main concern is an intrusion by a detail of divers from the sea, like the incident during Operation Protective Edge," says Captain Ratzon. "That is what we are here for." 


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