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Israeli Navy Steps Up Red Sea Presence 09/16 06:11

   

   ATLIT, Israel (AP) -- Israel's navy has stepped up its activities in the Red 
Sea "exponentially" in the face of growing Iranian threats to Israeli shipping, 
the country's just-retired navy commander said in an interview.

   Vice Adm. Eli Sharvit stopped short of confirming a series of attacks and 
mishaps on Iranian ships that have been attributed to Israel. But he described 
Iranian activities on the high seas as a top Israeli concern and said the navy 
is able to strike wherever necessary to protect the country's economic and 
security interests.

   "The state of Israel will protect its freedom of navigation across the 
globe," Sharvit told The Associated Press, days after completing his five-year 
term. "That's not related to distance from the country."

   Sharvit was a busy man during his tenure -- overseeing a small but 
well-equipped force responsible for safeguarding Israel's Mediterranean coast 
as well as the Red Sea, a vital gateway for imports from Asia.

   While the Israeli navy has an overwhelming advantage over its enemies in the 
region, it nonetheless faces an array of threats. They include the Lebanese 
militant group Hezbollah, which possesses an arsenal of guided surface-to-sea 
missiles, and Gaza's Hamas militant group, which has developed a small squad of 
naval commandos, as well as the challenges posed by Iran's military activity 
across the region.

   One of the navy's most important responsibilities is protecting Israel's 
natural gas platforms in the Mediterranean Sea, which now provide some 75% of 
the country's electricity.

   To the north, Hezbollah has made no secret of its intentions to target those 
platforms if war breaks out. The Iranian-backed militant group successfully 
struck an Israeli naval vessel during a 2006 war, killing four soldiers, and is 
believed to have vastly upgraded its missile stockpile since then. Israel says 
Iran continues to try to smuggle sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah.

   Sharvit confirmed that Israel has intercepted many arms shipments to 
Hezbollah. "We are very vigilant concerning seaborne arms shipments, and every 
time that a shipment is one of arms, and not something else, we act," he said.

   With Lebanon's economy in disarray, however, he said Israel has "no 
interest" in stopping fuel deliveries meant for civilian use.

   Along Israel's southern flank, Sharvit said Hamas has a small but formidable 
unit of well-trained naval commandos.

   Hamas frogmen managed to infiltrate an Israeli beach during a 2014 war 
before they were killed. Since then, the unit has been equipped with 
state-of-the-art equipment allowing them to travel underwater well up Israel's 
coastline and making them much harder to detect, Sharvit said.

   During a recent war in May, Israel says it thwarted an attempt by Hamas to 
launch a torpedo-like underwater drone at Israeli targets.

   Israel has faced criticism over its naval blockade and heavy restrictions on 
Gaza. Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent a Hamas military buildup. 
But critics, including human rights groups and U.N. officials, say the policy 
amounts to collective punishment.

   "Israel's disproportionate and unreasonable restrictions on access to Gaza's 
territorial waters as well as to vital items needed to repair fishing boats 
harm the livelihoods of thousands, put lives at risk and hinder economic 
development," said Gisha, an Israeli rights group that has called for the 
blockade to be eased.

   Sharvit, however, said it is difficult to separate the civilian and military 
spheres because Hamas uses the open waters to test rockets and train its navy 
commandos. "The sea is the biggest test site in Gaza," he said.

   But Israel's biggest concern, by far, is archenemy Iran. Israel accuses Iran 
of trying to develop nuclear weapons, a charge Iran denies. It also cites 
Iran's military presence in neighboring Syria and Iran's support for militant 
groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

   In recent years, Israel and Iran have been engaged in a shadow war that has 
seen the killings of Iranian nuclear scientists, mysterious explosions at 
Iranian nuclear facilities and more recently a series of explosions on cargo 
ships with Iranian or Israeli connections. In most cases, no one has claimed 
responsibility.

   Sharvit refused to discuss specific operations but said Israeli naval 
activity in the Red Sea has grown "exponentially" over the past three years.

   Iran for years anchored a ship off Yemen that was believed to be a base for 
its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard. That ship, the MV Saviz, came under a 
suspected Israeli attack last April.

   The Red Sea also has deep strategic significance by hosting key global 
shipping routes, including the Suez Canal and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Almost 
all of Israel's imports enter by sea.

   "We have increased our presence in the Red Sea most significantly," Sharvit 
said. "We are operating there continuously with main ships, that is to say 
missile frigates and submarines. What in the past was for relatively short 
periods of time is now done continuously."

   He also said that Israel is ready to respond even further away to direct 
attacks on Israeli shipping. "If there were an attack on Israeli shipping lanes 
or Israeli freedom of navigation, Israel would have to respond," he said.

   He said that has not yet happened. The cargo ships believed to have been 
targeted by Iran in the Persian Gulf had Israeli connections but were owned and 
operated by businesses based elsewhere. He said such attacks merit an 
international response.

   Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow and Iran expert at the Institute for National 
Security Studies in Tel Aviv, described the navy as "good but small" and 
cautioned against relying too heavily on it in Israel's overall Iran strategy.

   "I think some operations may be an overstretch," he said, adding that 
heightened tensions at sea could expose Israel's vulnerabilities connected to 
its heavy reliance on global shipping.

   "I would put my efforts elsewhere," he said.

 
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