If the oil spill is terrorism, then it means national security focus needs to prevent future spills like this and other threats.

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN   MARCH 4, 2021 17:45

Israeli Navy boat  (photo credit: FLICKR)
Israeli Navy boat (photo credit: FLICKR)

Last year, Israel took delivery of its first Sa’ar 6 Corvette. This new ship and the subsequent class of ships based on it are supposed to help protect Israel’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

An oil spill that began in early February and has decimated Israel’s coastline now brings into the spotlight questions about protecting the EEZ and monitoring potential naval threats. This includes ships that appear like commercial or civilian ships but may threaten Israel.

Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry has called the oil spill a type of ecological terrorism. If it is terrorism, then it means national security focus needs to prevent future spills like this and other threats. When the Sa’ar 6 was sailing from German shipyards last year to arrive in Israel, the navy said that the mission of defending the EEZ as a strategic asset was the primary security mission for the Israeli Navy.

Historically one of the smallest arms of Israel’s military forces, the navy is being bulked up.

This took on added importance during the Second Lebanon War and with the development of natural gas platforms and a new gas forum in the East Mediterranean, as well as a potential pipeline to Cyprus and Greece. Some tensions have also been heating up across the Mediterranean. Historically, Israel has had to deal with threats from ships that traffic weapons, such as the Karin A in 2002. That was a Palestinian freighter in the Red Sea, raided by Israel and found to have tons of weapons. Israel also raided the MV Francop in 2009, finding on board thousands of 107mm Iranian rockets as well as other weapons. In both cases, Iran was the source of the illicit arms.Israel also interdicted the Mavi Marmara, a ship carrying activists destined for Gaza. Ten were killed in the raid, causing an international incident with Turkey.  

NOW COMES the case of the Emerald ship. Tanker Trackers has put out a new report on the ship that illustrates its journey. In January it was spotted off the coast of Dubai. It sailed up the Persian Gulf and switched off its transponder. It then went to Kharg Island and then via the Suez Canal on February 1. On February 2 it was seen by satellite west of Haifa. It then went off Cyprus on February 9 and engaged in a ship-to-ship transfer of oil that was destined for Syria on February 14.

Around 700,000 barrels of oil was moved from the ship to another ship. Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry says the ship “went dark again before entering Israel’s economic waters. Between February 1st and 2nd, the ship polluted Israel’s economic waters while in motion and with its equipment turned off. When it reached Syrian territory, it once again turned on its devices. Between February 3 and 14, the tanker unloaded all the crude oil it was carrying onto other vessels.”  Israel needs the Sa’ar 6 Corvettes to help defend the economic waters. 

The INS Shield or Magen ship of the Sa’ar 6 class Corvettes is the first of the Israeli missile boat fleet that will be outfitted with Israeli defense systems of the latest type over the coming years.Israel naval doctrine has shifted to focus on defending the EEZ. For instance, it needs to defend the Tamar field off Gaza and Leviathan off Haifa, as well as the liquified natural gas port and the Karish-Tanin field, which is around 80-100 km. off the coast.

New naval technology includes better detection systems, such as optics, electronic warfare and multi-mission radar that can detect threats up to 200 km. away.  ONE OF the questions that the Emerald affair raises is the importance of tracking all the ships that may enter the EEZ, especially ships that are linked to Iran and that may have been off Iran and then come into waters off the coast of Israel.

Although ships may appear civilian or commercial in nature, a ship that can spill oil can also spill other things or offload threats. Iran, for instance, has been mining ships in the Gulf of Oman. It has in the past trafficked missile technology to Gaza.  The oil spill, once Israel began to label it ecological terrorism, has raised eyebrows. Israel’s Mossad and Defense sources were blindsided by the claims of Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel regarding the concept that Iran was behind the spill. Neither the IDF nor Mossad were part of the investigation, a Post report noted on Thursday.  

Regardless of whether the IDF or Mossad were involved this time, the timeline of the ship and its entrance into and exit from Israel’s EEZ, while turning off its transponder, leads to questions about whether the ship should have been more closely monitored. Had that been done, the oil spill would have been detected earlier.

While it’s unclear if the spill was intentional and whether that constituted ecological terrorism, the next incident may be more grave or come from a different direction.Israel’s concerns over the need to protect the EEZ are clear in the drive to outfit the Sa’ar 6. In addition, The Jewish state has impressive surveillance assets, from satellites to UAVs. Some of Israel’s UAVs are tasked for naval missions when they have been sold or leased to other countries.

These maritime missions, whether for Heron or Hermes or other UAVs, are well suited to track vessels.In addition, Israel’s Elbit Systems has combined a UAV with an unmanned naval vessel, providing unique capabilities for using ships teamed with UAVs. There is a lot of potential in this technology.The use of UAVs for maritime missions is increasing. At Italy’s Sigonella Naval Air Station, NATO is supposed to be deploying a Global Hawk derivative.Given the increasing threats in maritime areas, and Iran’s threats particularly to shipping, Israel will need to focus on this arena. The case of the Emerald is a warning and a lesson.