Israel’s relatively small but highly effective naval force often operates inconspicuously during major Israel Defense Forces (IDF) operations in Gaza. Nevertheless, it significantly enhances the country’s defense capabilities.
Established in 1948, the Israeli Navy (IN) presently operates various surface ships, including corvette-sized vessels, which serve in roles such as air defense, maritime interdiction, missile attack platforms, patrols, and port security. The IN also operates two classes of submarines, and it is widely believed to possess a second-strike nuclear capability.
The IN, a formal part of the Israel Defense Forces, has recently gained attention for intercepting and neutralizing Hamas divers attempting to infiltrate southern Israel from the waters near the Gaza coast. However, its impact on the current conflict goes beyond direct engagement with Hamas militants.
Historically, the IN has controlled Israel’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the Mediterranean Sea, limiting the flow of external weapons, personnel, and support to Gaza. Additionally, it plays a vital role in safeguarding Israel’s offshore natural gas platforms, which supply a significant portion of the country’s electricity.
With Israel delaying its incursion into Gaza to accommodate a U.S. request for the rapid deployment of air defense systems to protect American troops in various Middle Eastern countries, the IN faces the challenge of preventing Gaza’s resupply by sea, facilitated by proxy groups backed by Iran.
Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a naval affairs expert, highlights that Israel, in cooperation with Egypt, has maintained a naval blockade of the Gaza Strip for over a decade and a half. This blockade has proven effective in limiting the flow of illicit supplies to Gaza, forcing groups like Hamas to seek alternative methods, such as tunnels.
However, the IN’s mission has expanded due to threats and rocket fire from Lebanon and Syria to the north and the potential for missile attacks on southern Israel from regions like Yemen, where Houthi missile batteries are active. As a result, the IN may need to extend its patrol areas to the Red Sea and farther north in the Mediterranean, including waters off Lebanon.
There is concern that Hamas or other groups may target Israel’s natural gas platforms, although their distance from the coast makes such an operation challenging. Nevertheless, as tensions rise in the region, these platforms become potential targets.
When the IDF advances into Gaza, Hamas fighters may retreat to the coast, attempting to escape by sea. The IN actively monitors the coast to detect such activity, employing terrestrial surveillance and using corvettes, missile boats, patrol boats, and unmanned surface ships to intercept vessels and swimmers.
In addition, some of the IN’s corvettes have an auxiliary air defense role with the integration of the maritime version of the Iron Dome missile defense system. However, this defense is primarily effective against short-range threats near the coast.
Israel’s submarines, while capable of gathering intelligence, cannot do so in shallow waters, limiting their utility in intelligence operations. Their strategic role is to maintain a second-strike capability in larger confrontations.
The backbone of the IN’s capabilities lies in its Sa’ar 5 and 4.5 vessels, which are numerous and possess offensive capabilities sufficient to intercept threats from Hamas while addressing potential threats from groups like Hezbollah and Yemen. These vessels play a crucial role in maintaining maritime security around Gaza.
In summary, the Israeli Navy’s role in the conflict is multifaceted, ranging from maritime interdiction and defense to intelligence gathering and safeguarding Israel’s strategic assets. Its operations have a significant impact on the conflict’s dynamics and the security of the region.