Background & History
Israel has a long history of Special Forces (SF) activation
and deployment, dating even before the official declaration of the Israeli
state and the forming of the Israeli
Defense Force (IDF) in 1948.
The Israeli SF history can be
divided into three time periods:
Activation of Special missions units before the
declaration of the Israel state.
1948-1974: The establishment of the SF units after
the declaration of the Israeli state.
1974: The acquiring of Counter Terror and hostage
Activation of SF Units Before Israel's Independence
During 1920-1945, Israel was under a British
regime (Mandate). The civilians were both Jews and Arabs and they
frequently engage each other, usually over territorial disputes. The
British mostly sided with the Arabs, and while the Arabs were allowed
to carry weapons, the Jews weren't allowed to organize, carry arms and
to protect themselves. As a result, in 1920-1929 the Israeli Jews formed
several underground resistance movements, with main purpose of protecting
fellow Jews from the Arab terrorists attacks, and eventually to force
the British out of Israel.
The largest and most powerful of those underground
movements was the Defense ("Hagana" in Hebrew). In 1941 the Hagana formed the Smash
Companies ("Plugot Hamachat'z - PALMACH", in Hebrew), which
were the SF Units of their time. Among the PALMACH were the Undercover Mistaravim teams (known then as the 'Arabic Platoon').
These special teams were dressed as Arabs and were used to covertly
move weapons and equipment.
When the Israeli state was formed, and the
IDF could freely and openly move its equipment, there was no longer
a need for these teams and they were disbanded. But in 1987 when the
Intifada - the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli regime in the
Occupied Territories - broke out, the Israeli security services (the
IDF, the Israeli Border Guard - MAGAV and the Israeli Police - IP) that
were inspired by the success of PALMACH Mistaravim teams, formed new
units of Mistaravim.
While the PALMACH handled land-based assignments
well, the Hagana also needed a dedicated maritime special unit. So, in 1943 the PALMACH's Sea Company ("Plugat Hayam" - PALYAM, in Hebrew) was formed. As their name suggests, the PALYAM were in charge of
underwater demolition and maritime activity units. The majority of its activities were yet related to the escorting of ships: immigration ships (while the Exodus became the most famous, there were altogher 66 of them), and many arm ships that carried vital arms to Israel during the Independance War. These activities included a lot of land activities primarily in Italy & France, but also in Romania, Bulgaria, Sweden, Franch Algeria, Greece & Yoguslavia, preparing the ships and the immigrants (ma'apilim). In this prime role, the Palyam members were working under the operational command of the Mossad Le'aliya Bet, and speacial envoys of the Hagana for arm procurement. In 1948, when the IDF was formed, many of the PALYAM members joined the IDF Navy and formed its core personnel and command. In particular, the PALYAM members who specialized in maritime sabotage joined in to form the famous Shayetet 13, the IDF Naval Commando unit.
1948-1974: Establishment of SF Units
In 1948 all the resistance movements were joined together
in order to form the IDF. One of the Hagana outfits - the Golany unit,
was turned into the IDF first infantry brigade in February 48 - the Golani infantry brigade.
When reassigned under the IDF command, the Golany infantry brigade formed
the Special Reconnaissance Platoon. This platoon was a Long Range Reconnaissance
Patrol (LRRP) Unit, acting as pathfinder for the infantry brigade. But
unlike the other reconnaissance platoons that existed in each of the
Golany brigade's battalions, the Special Reconnaissance Platoon
was also in charged on taking out key enemy strongholds, and execute
more complex missions such as demolition and intelligence gathering.
The Special Reconnaissance Platoon was in fact the
first official Israeli SF unit. Later, it evolved into Sayeret Golani,
which is today considered as one of the finest units in the IDF.
In June 1948 the IDF formed its Paratroopers airborne unit - the T'zanhanim
Company. The T'zanhanim Company was designed as an elite infantry unit
tasked with the most demanding missions.
In the early 1950's the Arabs (both terrorists and full fledged armies)
launched thousands of assaults against the Israeli borders, aimed mainly
at civilians. The IDF attacked in retaliation, but the regular infantry
units (including the T'zanhanim) were simply not up for the task. So
in 1951 the IDF formed Unit 30 - a classified Unit that belonged to
the IDF South command. Unit 30 was designed to execute retaliation missions
while operating in small and well-trained teams.
However, Unit 30 operatives lacked sufficient
and proper SF training, and performed poorly, so in 1952 the Unit was
In August 1953, the IDF tried again to form a dedicated new SF unit,
and created Unit 101 as a SF unit designed to perform complex missions
far behind Israeli borders. Unit 101 was composed of 20-25 men, most
of them former T'zanhanim and Unit 30 personnel.
The creation of Unit 101 was a major landmark in the
Israeli SF history. Unit 101 established small unit maneuvers, activation
and insertion tactics that are utilized even today. Beside Sayeret
MATKAL, Unit 101 is considered to be the unit with the most influence
on the Israeli infantry oriented units including both special and conventional
Apart from its tactical innovations,
Unit 101 was also unique in two ways:
- It was the first
time the IDF formed a brand new SF unit from scratch, rather then
modify a previously exiting infantry oriented unit, like with the
Golany brigade Special Reconnaissance Platoon.
- It was the first
time the IDF formed a unit that received its orders directly from
the IDF General Staff (the IDF High Command - MATKAL) and not by
a lower sub-command.
Unit 101 only existed for five months and
was disbanded after a raid in which the unit's members killed dozens
of unarmed enemy citizens in an infamous brutal retaliation act.
Once disbanded, Unit 101 was merged with T'zanhanim
company. After the merger the joint outfit turned into a brigade size
unit, composed of two battalions - 869 Battalion (made out of the original
T'zanhanim company personnel) and 101 Battalion (made out of former
Unit 101 personnel).
With the increase in manpower, the T'zanhanim
unit became an elite infantry brigade rather the elite infantry company
as it was before. This merger was actually quite ironic since the T'zanhanim
officers were originally the biggest opposition against the creation
of Unit 101 as simply didn't wanted another competitor for prestigious
retaliation missions that until the formation of Unit 101 where their
own bread and butter.
With the much larger personnel, Arik
Sharon, the former Commanding Officer (CO) of Unit 101 and then
the new CO of the T'zanhanim infantry brigade, was able to launch full
scale SF attacks against Arab terrorists, and the T'zanhanim infantry
brigade pretty much ruled all the Israeli SF operations in the rest
In the late 1950's the IDF noticed that since the T'zanhanim Unit had
turned into a infantry brigade rather then the SF unit it was before,
it was lacking a small SF unit. So in 1958 Abraham Arnan formed Sayeret
MATKAL, answering directly to the IDF High Command.
In many ways, in its formation, Sayeret MATKAL
combined the operational experience gathered by Unit 101 and the unit's
structure of the UK Special Air Service (SAS) - the role model for SF
Sayeret MATKAL was also formed one year after
the IDF first helicopter squadron became operational in 1957. With a
close cooperation between the two outfits, the unit was able to deploy
longer and deeper then any unit before.
After losing the prestigious SF title, the T'zanhanim brigade formed
it own SF unit - Sayeret T'zanhanim in October 1958, mainly as a response
to the creation of Sayeret MATKAL.
In the early 1970's and especially
throughout the 1960's there was a new trend in the IDF - the Regional
Command Sayerets. Israel is operationally divided into three commands
- South, North and Center. After witnessing the successful formation
of Sayeret MATKAL and Sayeret T'zanhanim in the late 1950's, each command
also wanted a SF unit of its own. So units like Sayeret Shaked (South
Command), Sayeret Shoualey Shimshon (South Command), Sayeret Harouv
(Center Command) and Sayeret Egoz (North Command) were formed.
While those units were supposed to be skilled
LRRP units, performing delicate intelligence gathering missions, most
of them soon became raids units competing with Sayeret MATKAL, S'13
and Sayeret T'zanhanim on the raids missions.
The command-level raids Sayerets were loose cannon
units, acting as autonomous outfits, with no discipline what so ever.
After those units ran wild for few years in the 1960's, they were all
disbanded once the IDF commands realized that they could get the same
level of performance from the infantry brigades Sayerets units already
existing in each of the infantry brigades, without maintaining several
very expensive independent SF units.
1974-Present: Acquiring Counter Terrorism
& Hostage Rescue Capabilities
Photos from the terror attack
in the Munich Olympics, 1972. The helicopter that was supposed to carry the
kidnappers and sponges to safety burned after a terrorist toss a grenade
into to it during a police raid.
Up until the 1970's, the Israeli SF units
(including Sayeret MATKAL) had a very limited Counter Terror (CT) capability
and no hostage rescue capability whatsoever. The IDF SF units were mainly
hard core infantry LRRP units, which focused their training on the missions
they were originally design to perform such as intelligence gathering
and open field infantry combat, and didn't train on CT because
of budget problems and lack of awareness.
There were no civilian SF units and the IDF
was the sole security organization in charge on the security of Israeli
state, both domestic and foreign. Back then the Israeli Police handled
only criminal nature crimes, and the Israeli Border Guard (MAGAV) handled
only borders protection.
Today the situation is completely different as most of the Israeli SF
(both military and civilian) have a very advanced CT and hostage rescue
capabilities. Many new civilians SF units were created, and the Israeli
Police and the MAGAV are in charge on the Israeli state domestic security.
1972 - In this photo Ehud
Barak leads Sayeret Matkal
entry team (disguised as refueling personnel) during the Sabena airplane raid. This mission, known as Operation Isotope,
was the first successful airplane raid in history.
The change occurred happened due to the severe
Israeli security situation over the years and several traumatic incidents
in the 1970's, when Israel, and the rest of the world, had witnessed
a rise in brutal and sophisticated terrorism acts, which Israel was
the victim of many such acts.
The very worst and painful of
those acts from an Israeli point of view was the Mahalot Massacre incident.
In May 15, 1974, three heavily armed terrorists took over the Mahalot
High School in north of Israel, taking several dozens teachers and students
as hostages in the process. Sayeret MATKAL, then the Israeli unit with
the most advanced CT capability (together with Sayeret Golany) was selected
to carry out the rescue attempt.
At the beginning of the raid, Sayeret MATKAL
sniper was suppose to take out the terrorist who was guarding the room
in which most of the hostages were being held. The sniper, who was equipped
with World War 2 Mauser 98 and not used to short range headshot sniping,
failed to kill the target and only wounded him.
The injured terrorist started throwing grenades
and began auto-firing at the hostages. More mistakes were made, both
in planning and in execution and at the end of the Sayeret MATKAL raid
all three terrorists were dead, but 21 children and four adults, all
of which civilians, were killed. Moreover, at least two civilians were
killed by friendly fire since Sayeret MATKAL entry team was under-trained
in CQB pinpoint shooting and hit some hostages who were standing close
to the terrorists.
Operators from YAMAM during bus hostage
rescue training in the late 1970's.
After this fiasco in Mahalot, the Israeli
government, with the IDF General Staff, made three important decisions
(mainly because of the outraged public opinion):
- An all-new civilian
CT Unit would be created under MAGAV, much like the German domestic
CT unit - GSG9. This unit was later
named Unit YAMAM.
- Most of Israel's
SF units would acquire advanced CT capabilities, with Sayeret MATKAL
and S'13 in the cutting edge.
- Sayeret MATKAL and
S'13 would form one team in each Unit that will specialize In CT
scenarios. These two teams are in fact sub units within the Takeover
units and have access to best personnel and weapons available to
the units, quite similar to the U.S. Navy SEALs and the Development
After the government made its decisions, the
Israeli units began a very extensive and intensive training regime,
both alone and with foreign instructors. The instructors were mainly
from Britain's SAS, the American Navy SEALs and later from the American
Because of the accelerated training and the
massive amount of field experience gathered, the Israeli units soon
had a tremendous CT capability. In 1980 Sayeret MATKAL and S'13 were
fully CT operational and the rest of the units were not far behind.
Sayeret Golani prepares
for the ultimately failed hostage rescue operation in Kibbutz Misgav Ham,
1980. This operation was a landmark in tactical history
since it was the first mission in which dogs from the Oket'z unit were
deployed against terrorists.
In 1985 another important step
was made. The Mitkan Adam army base, the IDF Special Training Installation,
was formed including the IDF CT Warfare School (Unit 707) and the IDF
The CT units began structural
and organized training instead independent training as was before. Soon
all units had the same training and used the same tactics, which much
helped in the case of joint unit operations.
Between 1980 and 1990, although all units were fully CT qualified and
operational ready, the responsibilities of each units were not clear
since there was no operational plan stating that. Every time a CT scenario
happened, the nearest units to the area arrived and started arguing
on who would execute the raid. This often led to the fact that the unit,
which was finally selected for the job, was not necessarily the best
fitted one but rather the one who arrived to the scene first, or the
one who had the biggest influence in senior officer ranks.
In order to solve this problem
a new plan was written in 1990. The "Army of the Sky" plan
(T'zva Shamayim - T'ZAVACH", in Hebrew) stated which unit does
what and when. T'ZAVACH is basically the plan by which Israel fights
terrorism both domestic and foreign, until this very day.
In 1987 the intifada broke out and several Israeli undercover CT units were formed in the
IDF, MAGAV and in the Israeli Police.
Sources: Israeli Special Forces isayeret.com; The