JERUSALEM — France and Cyprus for the first time have joined the Israeli Navy-led Noble Dina naval exercise, which takes place annually but was canceled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The exercise series, which this year took place March 7-12 in waters west of Cyprus, previously included counterterrorism scenarios and drills to protect ports. This year, as in the past, ships practiced anti-submarine procedures. The navies also conducted search-and-rescue scenarios as well as a drill simulating battle between ships, the Israel Defense Forces said.

Israel sent a submarine and the INS Romach, a Sa’ar 4.5-class missile boat housing anti-submarine systems. In total, Greece, France, Cyprus and Israel sent six ships, including submarines.

Israel recently took delivery of the Sa’ar 6 warship to improve the country’s defenses of its exclusive economic zone, but the vessel was not in attendance because it is still being outfitted. The last year saw tension between Greece and Turkey in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as increased strain between Israel and Iran after an Israeli-owned ship was attacked near the Gulf of Oman. Israel accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard of attaching an explosive device to the cargo vessel Helios Ray on Feb. 25 as it traveled from Saudi Arabia to Singapore. Iran has denied the allegation.

In addition, more than 1,000 tons of tar are estimated to have washed onto Israel’s Mediterranean coastline last month, causing extensive environmental damage and forcing the closure of beaches to the public. Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority called the incident one of Israel’s worst environmental disasters, with the clean-up expected to take months. On March 3, the Environmental Protection Ministry identified the ship it believed was responsible for the Feb. 1 oil spill as the the Panama-flagged, formerly Libyan-owned tanker named Emerald.

Israel’s environmental protection minister has described the oil spill as an intentional attack by Iran. However, the Israel Defense Forces would not comment on the ongoing investigation, and Iranian officials have not publicly acknowledged the allegation.

Noble Dina is designed to strengthen cooperation among participating navies and enrich their repository of operational knowledge, Israel says. Lt. Cmdr. Amichai Rachamim, head of exercises for the Israeli Navy, emphasized the importance of having surface vessels as well as helicopters and air force assets from participants.

“It is focused not only on surface exercises but also multi-threat exercise of air and underwater and surface threats,” he said. “The main task is to combine and cooperate multinationally against the threats and practice our forces and ships in answering these threats and building the cooperation against these threats.

“The Cyprus and Hellenic navies that are close to us are our neighbors at sea. It is important to practice with them as well as with the French and U.S. Navy, which act in the Mediterranean.”

Israel recently announced that its naval personnel and most of its armed forces have been vaccinated against COVID-19, a development that helped enable the exercise this year.

Israel, Greece and Cyprus signed a deal to build a gas pipeline in the East Mediterranean last year, and a new subsea cable is also undergoing construction. The naval officer would not say if defending these future energy assets was a particular part of this drill. “When we talk about national assets, whether Israel or Cyprus, [we] can see the importance or main mission of the navies is to defend national assets, defending those in the EEZ, and of course for us that is something that is important,” he said.

Israel recently improved diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, among other regional countries, but neither the UAE nor Egypt participated this year in the naval drill. Rachamim said Israel sees those nations as “partners, and we see opportunities to act with them. I believe we will see [their future participation], but not in this one this year. We believe in the future we will see more cooperation with more countries.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Seth J. Frantzman is the Israel correspondent for Defense News. He has covered conflict in the Mideast since 2010 for different publications. He has experience covering the international coalition against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and he is a co-founder and executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.

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