In the last month, a nasty rumor circulated through the world's media. It started with a Syria TV report on IDF spy devices found on Ant Island, Tartus Port, which was broadcast in the first week of March 2013; it is reproduced below. Israel didn't react at all. On the last day of March, the UK's Sunday Times newspaper repeated the Syrian report adding a few details. This opened the path for Israeli media to comment on the issue. Israeli news outlets can circumvent the military censor only by reporting sensitive stories as "quoted from foreign news sources," which are not subject to Israeli censorship. The trial of Mordechai Vanunu, Khaled Mashal's assassination attempt, and events related to Operation Defensive Shield were also famously censored. Following the routine, on April 1, the event was reported, and thus confirmed, by Israeli mainstream media.
Soldiers from "Shayetet 13" (Fleet 13), Israel's naval commando unit, installed the equipment. They approached the island with a German-built Dolphin class submarine, left the U-boat in inflatable dinghies equipped with silent outboard motors, landed on Ant Island, took samples of rocks and left. The samples were used to create the camouflage rocks shown in the pictures and video. Afterwards, they returned and placed equipment capable of following and broadcasting the activity at the Port of Tartus back to Israel in real time. The equipment subsequently found by the Syrians included a camera, a satellite dish, and other objects including batteries and cables. The commandos confronted a complex environment. They were on Syrian territory, on a spot closely watched by the American Sixth Fleet and a British base on nearby Cyprus.
More important than the Western forces is the fact that the Port of Tartus, one of Syria's two main ports, is also the only Russian navy base in the Mediterranean Sea. The facility was leased by Russia in a 1971 deal, under which a multibillion-dollar debt was written off; Admiral Viktor Chirkov, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, has publicly admitted: "Tartus is essential to us." In recent months, Syria got military supplies through this port. Israel wanted to get real-time data on Russian movements and supplies. In its reports on the spying event, Israeli media added the obligatory "quoted from foreign news sources," but also attempted to add damage control comments for the sake of the IDF activities. The reports imply doubts on the origin of the spying equipment. After all, none of the soldiers had signed it. They couldn't drop their military ID's on the spot because they move without any documents. Israel could deny it safely.
The Matrix Hits Media
Finding errors in media reports and reviews of IDF special units is common. Contradictions between different descriptions seem to be the norm and eventually discredit most sources. Oddly enough, many times the reports are correct; their only fault being that they are incomplete. With few exceptions (Kingfisher being the most obvious one), these units rate as battalions. However, beyond the formal definition and their subdivision into platoons, there is no operational similarity between them and regular battalions. Each commando platoon has a specific training, which transforms it into a military expert in that topic. Then, specialties are constructed in a matrix fashion across the army. Every commando unit has a counterterrorism specialized platoon. This makes it easier for the IDF to have at any moment an available specialist on the topic. Moreover, it allows a combination of capabilities that increases maneuverability. In special conditions, such a grid-organization enables it to answer complex situations. Imagine a need to perform a counterterrorism operation atop Mount Hermon, at the ski resort. Sending a commando unit accustomed to work in the desert will cause difficulties. The soldiers would not have proper equipment; they would not know how to behave in the snow. In such a case, a mixed team from Sayeret Matkal Alpinist and Counterterrorism platoons would be formed and delivered.
Yet, the wheel of history made a sudden turn and the confusing matrix scheme hit back at the IDF. Sayeret Matkal—formally Battalion 262, de facto an administrative brigade—is an elite special forces unit, best known for Operation Thunderbolt in Entebbe. Modeled after the British Army's Special Air Service (SAS), its main function is as a field intelligence-gathering unit, used to obtain intelligence behind enemy lines. Shaldag ("Kingfisher" in Hebrew), a unit appearing twice in The Cross of Bethlehem was initially a specialized company within Sayeret Matkal, which was separated and became an unusual commando unit within the IDF. I met them not only in the IDF, but also before. A future Kingfisher soldier had studied with me in high-school. He was slightly deformed. His legs were like thin sticks; his arms belonged to a superhero. At the age of 15, he climbed a rope effortlessly all the way up to the gymnasium’s ceiling without using his legs. After the class was over, he did that three times in a row; he kept chatting all the time and easily won the bet (a moneyless bet; in our Communist kibbutzim money was a reactionary term). He was perfect for a military unit heavily dependent on helicopters and motorbikes. Kingfisher specializes in their use for the sake of placing beamers behind the enemy lines. They enter Syria and Lebanon as if they were suburbs of Tel Aviv. In 2002, during Operation Defensive Shield, they failed to show in Bethlehem, becoming the reason for the disastrous Siege of the Nativity Church.
As reported in Hezbollah Beats Kingfisher, in December 2010 the Lebanese Army announced that it had dismantled two Israeli espionage sites watching on Beirut from Jabel Snin and Jabel Baruch (see box and pictures below). This equipment had been placed by Kingfisher. Israel's immediate and hysterical response was to perform low-altitude air-strikes on similar spots surrounding Tyre. In such an effortless way, Israel recognized its deed. The equipment delivered by the naval commando in the recent event is equal in shape and operability to the one used by Kingfisher. After all, both units go to the same military schools. Israel was caught red-handed after it forgot that breaking routines is the key rule for becoming a successful James Bond.
Now and Then
On December 15, 2010, the Lebanese Army announced it dismantled two Israeli espionage sites watching on Beirut from Jabel Snin and Jabel Baruch. Two weeks before that, Lebanon placed a formal complaint at the UN Security Council against Israel after the existence of the devices was exposed by the Hezbollah. The devices included watching equipment and signals sending and receiving communications gear; it could be activated from afar. It was hidden under fake rocks in a mountainous area. Here are some of the pictures released by the Lebanese.
Israel panicked. At 6:30 PM of the same evening, the Israeli air force made low flights over Tyre and apparently destroyed a similar espionage in the area. Similar flights took place along the Zaharani River.
Readers of The Cross of Bethlehem can finally find a collateral corroboration of my description there of “Kingfisher,” a spinoff from Sayeret Matkal. This is a special commando unit specializing in the placement of electronic beamers, cameras and other espionage equipment beyond the Israeli borders. “Beamer” is an electronic device used for guiding certain type of bombs to a target. Working with special means described in my book, it is active in Lebanon and Syria. The latter has never released information on the beamers in its territory. Despite the danger in the placement of this equipment Israel favors this method since it saves costly flights; the lives of the soldiers involved are of secondary concern. In several recent occasions I commented on the ongoing erosion in the Israeli military force. The two major battles won by Hezbollah in 2006 and 2009 were clear signs of that. Now, we can see the IDF is losing even its relative advantage in intelligence gathering. Hezbollah beats Kingfisher.