JERUSALEM, Dec. 24 (Xinhua) -- The Israeli Navy will take delivery of four new gunboats in the coming years that will be tasked with protecting the country's gas and oil rigs in the Mediterranean Sea, Yediot Aharonot reported Monday.
The rigs, located some 130 kilometers beyond Israel's territorial waters but within the country's "economic waters zone, " are a prime target for ground and ship-based rockets, or other militant attacks.
Five contiguous offshore fields cover 500,000 acres, and are adjacent to the larger Leviathan, Tamar and Yam Tethys drilling platforms, discovered several years ago off the Haifa coast.
The security establishment and Finance Ministry in recent days agreed that the private operators of the rigs will underwrite most of the estimated 400 million U.S. dollars price tag of the four vessels, capping three years of heated debate over the issue, Yediot Aharonot said.
As well, the operators will shoulder the cost of physically securing the rigs, including measures to detect hostile divers in their immediate vicinity.
The government will loan the funds necessary to purchase the vessels, and will be reimbursed once the rigs begin generating revenue, according to the report.
In January, the army's high command tasked the navy's missile boat flotilla with securing the offshore rigs, citing the mounting dangers posed by militant groups or an armed conflict with neighboring states.
Senior Hezbollah official Naim Qassem vowed last year that his organization would not allow Israel to encroach on what he said was Lebanon's maritime sovereignty and seize its oil and gas resources.
Israel fears that Hezbollah might attempt to target the rigs, as well as Israeli ports, with explosives-laden vessels, divers, underwater craft and anti-ship missiles.
To counter these threats, the four gunboats approved for procurement will reportedly be similar to a model employed by the U.S. Coast Guard, and will be fitted with advanced radar, missiles for striking ground and maritime targets, and countermeasures for defending against a host of ground-to-sea missiles.
The navy plans to deploy the vessels on routine patrols in the waters around the existing rigs. In the long-term, they will secure future drilling platforms, facilities and gas exploration projects, the report said.
The Defense Ministry is reportedly negotiating with several shipyards, including in South Korea, on building the boats according to the navy's specifications, with the first vessel scheduled for delivery during 2014.
The navy isn't alone in protecting the vast gas reserves, which Israel said have a potential to yield billions of dollars in the next decade. In August, the air force began deploying surveillance drones over the rigs as an additional layer of protection.