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Discovering the Underwater Missions Unit

Israeli Navy Week: Navy releases a collection of exciting photographs from the tiny, little-known, critical Underwater Missions Unit.
By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 8/10/2010, 12:51 PM / Last Update: 8/10/2010, 12:57 PM

Israel News Photo: Shay Weiss

In honor of Israeli Navy Week, the Navy has released a collection of exciting photographs from the tiny, little-known, critical Underwater Missions Unit. This, in addition to the Naval Officers’ Course graduation ceremony, a national Navy quiz, and Israeli Navy Day on Thursday.                   

A report by the IDF Spokesman’s Office says that the released “breathtaking” photographs “reveal just a small piece of the big picture. Each image offers a rare glimpse into the extensive activities of the unit’s fighters.” This, because the unit is one of the few units whose routine activities remain a mystery to the general population.

Only a select few soldiers in compulsory military service get to join the Underwater Missions Unit, whose members wear a special “octopus pin” on their uniforms. In fact, the number is so small that the selections for the unit only occur once every two years. 

The soldiers of the Underwater Missions Unit are mobilized when an explosive device is discovered in the depths of the sea and requires disabling, and when external parts of ships inside the water require repairs. They are also the ones called up to search and remove underwater debris after maritime accidents.

“Our level of diving today is among the best in the world,” claims Unit Commander Maj. Oren. “We go from project to project: from the renewed searches for the remains of Yakir Naveh, the Israel Air Force pilot who crashed into the Sea of Galilee in 1962, to the controlled explosion of explosive material left in the sea from the 40s. In many cases I find myself with three teams located in opposite ends of the country.”

Maj. Oren says, “It is safe to say that 50 percent of the unit’s activities are not planned in advance. We are a small unit, one that is not very well known, but one that is extremely significant in wartime. If our enemies fill the water with mines, we have to clean it up.” 

These days, with attempted terrorist attacks becoming ever more creative, the Underwater Missions Unit becomes especially necessary. The unit was called up to deal with an unexpected threat at the beginning of the year, when barrels of explosives launched from the Gaza Strip were discovered off the coast of Israel.

(photo, left, by Shay Weiss)

Four months ago, after Katyusha rockets were fired towards Eilat, it was reported that one had landed in the sea. The Underwater Mission Unit, being the only unit in Israel trained in underwater sapper work, was sent from its base in Haifa to Eilat, and surprised itself by finding it within ten minutes.

Pulling it out was a different story, Warrant Officer Yuval Gonda recounts: “We dove back in again to pull out the rocket from the sea. A rapid rocket fall into the sea is equivalent to a direct hit on the ground, so we understood that if the rocket was supposed to explode, it already exploded. But it is important to understand that you have to be a professional in order to draw such conclusions – and here we all operate according to the instructions of the sappers’ commander.”                 

Yet another memorable experience was the six hours they spent during the first Gulf War pulling out of the water the 19 bodies of victims of the American shuttle accident that occurred near the coast of Haifa.

The unit recently successfully concluded a military test in which it provided supplies to a submarine stuck at a depth of dozens of meters below sea level. “We participate every year in more than 100 experiments under the sea,” explains Maj. Oren. “Not long ago, one of my NCOs came to me and told me that during the past 18 months we haven’t had any time at all, that we simply go from project to project.  I think that is the biggest compliment you can give a unit.”