Updated: Feb 6, 2021
About the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code, as determined by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and its significance in Israel
In Israel, the ISPS Code pertains to the defense of the country’s ports and the commercial vessels entering it. The Code was implemented in response to the 9/11 attacks and the bombing of the French tanker MV Limburg. The U.S. Coast Guard acts on behalf of the American government as the regulatory agency tasked with inspecting the security levels in ports and ships according to this Code.
If the country does not meet the requirements mandated by the Code, many foreign commercial vessels may be prevented from entering Israeli ports, and Israeli vessels may be barred from entering American ports. Such a situation has severe economic and commerce implications for Israel. Thus, it is vital for us to understand what is required in terms of port and vessel security to meet the Coast Guard’s guidelines.
According to the Code, port and vessel security consists of three security situations. Is Israel, the authority to determine the security level is assigned to the Israel Police. However, to facilitate making the most suitable decision, a committee convenes, which I have been privileged to participate in, as the representative of the Navy, the Israel Port Authority, and other national security organizations.
The three maritime security (MARSEC) levels defined by the ISPS Code:
Is the lowest level of security, for day-to-day ship or port operations. This level ensures that the port’s security activities remain vigilant 24 around the clock.
Is a heightened level of security for a limited time period, activated due to a concern about a security risk according to an evaluation of the situation. It requires the security offices to implement additional security measures, in accordance to the level of risk.
The highest security level, involving additional security measures beyond level 2, typically in light of reliable information indicating intended hostile destructive activity in the port or a vessel approaching it.
Level 3 is activated for a limited amount of time, according to the evaluation.
Security levels may change from time to time, and any updates are in line with intelligence evaluation conducted regularly by the security organizations.
So how is the level of security determined in Israel?
The Israel Police convenes a forum consisting of the representatives of all relevant security organizations. Each organization presents its position with regards to the required level of security according to the situation assessment it conducted prior to the forum.
After all participants present their position, the security level for the upcoming work year is determined. This decision is binding for all the bodies involved, and in particular, the ports. The ports' security managers act in accordance with the protocols published by the US Coast Guard, which visits Israel regularly to examine the determined level of security and whether the ports comply with the administration's guidelines.
Israeli ports’ level of security was set at MARSEC Level 2, For an extended period, requiring all port and shipping companies to comply with strict conditions whenever they visited the Israeli ports. The State of Israel, through the various organizations involved in determining the ports’ level of security, understood that this obligation directly impacts insurance costs and negatively affected Israeli commerce and economy, as it led shipping companies to reduce their number of visits in Israeli ports. To address this situation, a special security assessment was held, with the participation of all the relevant organizations. It resulted in the decision to lower the security level to the ISPS Code’s MARSEC Level 1. It should be noted that in practice, due to the country’s contemporary security situation, the ports’ security level has remained high.
What happens when the US administration-set requirements and set level of security are not met?
1. The problem will usually emerge in a surprise audit by the US administration. Such a situation will lead to a dialog between the country's relevant authorities, in which the gaps and unmet issues will be presented. In such a case, the responsible approach would be for the two governments to resolve and improve the gaps.
2. Another possibility is the arrival of a merchant vessel in a port whose level of security is different than that required for the vessel. The destination port is responsible to make arrangements for the vessel’s arrival according to the level of security set for it. Bear in mind that in many cases, existing security measures in ports or aboard vessels may be of a sensitive and confidential nature, in order to prevent hostile factors’ ability to plan an assault on the vessel in advance as it enters the port or during its time at sea.
3. Therefore, if there are gaps in the required security levels, it is the ship’s captain’s responsibility to reduce these gaps vis-à-vis the relevant authorities. Preventing or postponing the vessel’s entry until the appropriate defensive measures are implemented is under the captain’s discretion.
4. If a vessel arriving at an Israeli port does not meet the security requirements, the relevant authorities may consider performing an inspection aboard prior to its entry into the State of Israel, or even prevent its entry into territorial waters.
The ISPS Code requires the State of Israel in general, and its ports in particular, to meet their security commitments to the US administration. We have seen that failing to comply with these agreements entails a high risk of an Israeli merchant fleet not being able to enter American and other ports, where the Code applies.
Shipping companies and port authorities are obligated to meet these requirements and act in accordance with the designated protocols. We should expect surprise inspections by the administration to examine the level of security both in ports and aboard vessels.
As a former member of the forum that determines the ISPS level in Israel with many years in the field, I have dealt extensively with port and vessel defense. My experience indicates that security officers of port authorities and shipping companies must address these issues on a regular basis, maintain the established level of security, and set a high professional standard. This latter point is especially meaningful when working with US government officials, who are known to be very strict.