Soldiers check the weaponry on the Sa'ar 4.5 missile boat during a routine patrol of the Yam Tethys natural gas rig, which sits in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of the Gaza Strip. (Ruth Eglash/The Washington Post)


ASHDOD — For the Israeli naval ship Keshet, it was a routine patrol: Head south from base in the port of Ashdod, navigate the choppy waters of the Mediterranean Sea, circle round the Yam Tethys natural gas rig, which sits more or less opposite the Gaza Strip coast, check for any signs of infiltration into Israeli territory and then head back.

For the war-weary group of international journalists struggling to find their sea legs, the patrol offered a rare insight into Israel’s navy, which over the past four weeks has acted as a strategic support to Israel’s ongoing military operation against Hamas in Gaza and served as a deterrent against militants attempting to infiltrate Israel via the sea.

“We were not surprised by Hamas’s attempt to infiltrate into Israel from the sea. They have used many different measures to attack us,” said Cmdr. Z, one of the Keshet’s two commanders who spoke on the condition of anonymity in accord with standard Israeli military protocol.

He was referring to an incident on July 8 when members of Hamas’s armed wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, attempted to attack an Israeli military base that sits on the coast just north of the Gaza Strip. Israeli surveillance cameras picked up on the infiltration early, and five Hamas militants were subsequently killed in the attack. Hamas later revealed that it had been training a naval commando unit for sea-related combat.

“We had information of what they were planning,” said Z, who would not confirm whether it was his ship that was involved in preventing the infiltration but added that the army was ready for the militants when they surfaced on the Zikim beach near the base.

“My mission is to protect my family, friends and my country,” he said, describing how in addition to the sea patrols, gun boats like the Keshet, which means “bow” in Hebrew, provide strategic support to the Israeli air force and ground troops by hitting targets inside Gaza that sit closer to the sea.

Israeli soldiers on a routine navy patrol in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast between the Israeli city of Ashkelon and Gaza on Friday. (Ruth Eglash/The Washington Post)

While the missile boat, an Israeli-made Sa’ar 4.5 model fitted with multiple weapons, claims to have a high level of accuracy when firing at onshore targets from the sea, the Israeli navy drew wide international condemnation on July 16 for heavily shelling a Gaza beach where Palestinian children were playing soccer, killing four. The army has said it is investigating the incident.

On Friday, the day foreign journalists were taken out to sea; the waters and the Gaza coast appeared calm, the sparkling Mediterranean blending with the clear blue summer sky. There were no signs of shelling from sea to coast and no rockets from Gaza toward Israel were visible, even though just 40 or so miles to the south, the latest humanitarian cease-fire had just broken down and heavy fighting was taking place in the Gaza-Egypt border town of Rafah after reports that an Israeli soldier had been captured by militants there.

“We feel safe on the boats. We are here for defense,” said Corp. Dillon, 20, a lone soldier from Philadelphia who has been serving for about six months. “But it’s still hard for us to hear about what is happening inside Gaza to the soldiers on the ground. Some of them are our friends.”