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Background & History of Israel's Special Forces Units

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 rescue capabilities.

Activation of SF Units Before Israel's Independence

During 1920-1945, Israel was under the British 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 terrorist attacks, and eventually to force the British out of Israel.

The largest and most powerful of those underground movements was the Defense (“Haganah”). In 1941, the Haganah formed the Smash Companies (“Plugot Hamachat’z”– Palmach), which were the SF Units of their time. Among the Palmach were the undercover Mista’arvim 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 began, the Israeli security services (the IDF, the Israeli Border Guard – Magav and the Israeli Police – IP) that were inspired by the success of Palmach Mista’arvim teams, formed new units of Mista’arvim.

While the Palmach handled land-based assignments well, the Haganah also needed a dedicated maritime special unit. So, in 1943, the Palmach’s Sea Company (“Plugat Hayam” – Palyam) was formed. As their name suggests, the Palyam oversaw underwater demolition and maritime activity units. Most of its activities involved escorting ships carrying illegal immigrants (while the Exodus became the most famous, there were altogether 66 of them), and arms vital for the war that began after its Arab neighbors invaded on May 14, 1948.

The Palyam were also involved in preparing the ships and the immigrants (ma’apilim) in Italy, France, Romania, Bulgaria, Sweden, French Algeria, Greece, and Yugoslavia. In this role, the Palyam members were working under the operational command of the Mossad Le’aliya Bet, and special envoys of the Haganah for arms 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 formed the Shayetet-13, the IDF Naval Commando unit.

1948-1974: Establishment of SF Units

In 1948, the resistance movements joined to form the IDF. One of the Haganah outfits – the Golani unit, was turned into the IDF’s first infantry brigade – the Golani infantry brigade.

Photo from the terror attack during the 1972 Munich Olympics. The helicopter that was supposed to carry the kidnappers and hostages to safety burned after a terrorist tossed a grenade into it during a police raid.

When reassigned under the IDF command, the Golani formed the Special Reconnaissance Platoon. This platoon was a Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) Unit, acting as pathfinder for the infantry brigade. Unlike other reconnaissance platoons that existed in each of the Golani brigade’s battalions, the Special Reconnaissance Platoon was in charge of taking out key enemy strongholds, and executing more complex missions such as demolition and intelligence gathering.

The Special Reconnaissance Platoon was 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 airborne unit of paratroopers – the T’zanhanim – an elite infantry unit tasked with the most demanding missions.

In the early 1950’s, the Arabs (both terrorists and conventional armies) launched thousands of assaults aimed mainly at Israeli civilians. The IDF retaliated, 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. Unit 30 operatives lacked sufficient training, however, and performed poorly. It was disbanded in 1952.

In August 1953, the IDF tried again to form a dedicated new special force. Unit 101 was designed to perform complex missions behind enemy lines. Unit 101 was composed of 20-25 men, most of them former T’zanhanim and Unit 30 personnel.

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 (1972).

The creation of Unit 101 was a landmark in Israeli SF history. It established small unit maneuvers, and activation and insertion tactics that are still utilized today. Beside Sayeret Matkal, Unit 101 has the most influence on the Israeli infantry-oriented forces, including both special and conventional units.

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 than modify a previously exiting infantry-oriented unit, like with the Golani 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 from a lower sub-command.

Unit 101 was commanded by Ariel Sharon, but only existed for five months. It was disbanded after a raid in which the unit’s members killed dozens of unarmed civilians in an infamous act of retaliation on Qibya following a number of attacks on Israeli citizens by Jordanian terrorists.

Once disbanded, Unit 101 was merged with T’zanhanim and turned into a brigade-size unit, composed of two battalions – 869 Battalion (incorporating the original T’zanhanim personnel) and 101 Battalion (adding the 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 ironic since T’zanhanim officers were the most vocal opponents of the creation of Unit 101 because they did not want to compete for retaliation missions.

With more personnel, Sharon, now CO of the T’zanhanim, could launch large-scale attacks against Arab terrorists. For the remainder of the decade, the T’zanhanim was responsible for most special forces operations.

In the late 1950’s the IDF noticed that since the T’zanhanim had turned into an infantry brigade rather than the SF unit it was before, there was a need for a small SF unit. So, in 1958, Abraham Arnan formed Sayeret Matkal, answering directly to the IDF High Command.

Sayeret Matkal combined the operational experience gathered by Unit 101 and the structure of the UK Special Air Service (SAS) – the role model for SF units worldwide. Sayeret Matkal was also formed one year after the IDF first helicopter squadron became operational in 1957. With close cooperation between the two outfits, Sayeret Matkal could deploy longer and deeper than any unit before.

After losing the prestigious SF title, the T’zanhanim brigade formed its own SF unit – Sayeret T’zanhanim in October 1958, mainly as a response to the creation of Sayeret Matkal.

Throughout the 1960’s and early 1970’s, a new trend emerged 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, each command wanted their own SF unit. Consequently, 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 began to compete with Sayeret Matkal, S’13 and Sayeret T’zanhanim for raids against terrorists.  The command-level Sayerets acted as autonomous outfits with no discipline and were disbanded once the IDF brass realized they could get the same level of performance from the Sayeret units within each of the infantry brigades, and at lower cost.

1974-Present: Acquiring Counter Terrorism & Hostage Rescue Capabilities

Up until the 1970’s, the Israeli SF units (including Sayeret Matkal) had a very limited Counter Terror (CT) capability and no training in hostage rescue. The IDF SF units were mainly hard-core infantry LRRP units, which focused their training on the missions they were originally designed to perform such as intelligence gathering and open field combat.

There were no civilian SF units and the IDF was the sole security organization responsible for the nation’s security. The Israeli Police at the time handled only domestic criminal matters and the Israeli Border Guard (Magav) protected Israel’s border areas.

Today, most Israeli SF (both military and civilian) have advanced CT and hostage rescue capabilities. Many new civilian SF units were created while the Israeli Police and the Magav remained in charge of domestic security.

Operators from Yamam during bus hostage rescue training in the late 1970's.

The change occurred following several traumatic incidents in the 1970’s, when Israel, and the rest of the world had witnessed a rise in brutal and sophisticated acts of terrorism. Israel was frequently the target of the attacks.

One of the worst attacks was the Ma’alot Massacre. On May 15, 1974, three heavily armed terrorists took over the Ma’alot High School in northern Israel and held teachers and students as hostages. Sayeret Matkal, then the Israeli unit with the most advanced CT capability (together with Sayeret Golani) was selected to carry out the rescue attempt.

At the beginning of the raid, a Sayeret Matkal sniper was supposed to kill the terrorist who was guarding the room in which most of the hostages were held. The sniper, who was equipped with a World War II Mauser 98, and not used to short-range headshot sniping, only wounded the terrorist who then started throwing grenades and shooting at the hostages.

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.

Sayeret Golani prepares for the hostage rescue operation in Kibbutz Misgav Ham in 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.

More mistakes were made, both in the planning and execution of the operation. In the end, all three terrorists were dead, but so were 21 children and four adults. At least two civilians were killed by friendly fire because the Sayeret Matkal entry team was under-trained in CQB pinpoint shooting and hit some hostages who were standing close to the terrorists.

After the fiasco in Ma’alot, the government, with the IDF General Staff, made three important decisions in part because of public outrage:

  • 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.
  • Sayeret Matkal and S’13 would form one team in each Unit to specialize in CT scenarios with access to the best personnel and weapons. The model was the U.S. Navy SEALs and the Development Group (DEVGRU).

After the government made its decisions, the Israeli units began an intensive training regime, both alone and with foreign instructors. The instructors were mainly from the SAS, the SEALs and, later, the American Delta Force. Because of the accelerated training and the massive amount of field experience gathered, the Israeli units soon developed 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. All the units received the same training and used the same tactics, which helped facilitate joint operations.

In 1985, the Special Training Installation was established with the CT Warfare School (Unit 707) and Snipers School.

Between 1980 and 1990, although all units were fully CT qualified and operational ready, the responsibilities of each units were still unclear. Every time a CT scenario occurred, the nearest units to the area arrived and started arguing over who should respond. This sometimes resulted in operations being conducted by units that were not necessarily the best suited for the job.

To solve this problem a new plan was written in 1990. The “Army of the Sky” plan (T’zva Shamayim – T’zavach”) stated which unit does what and when. This plan dictates how Israel fights terrorism.

In 1987, the intifada broke out and several Israeli undercover CT units were formed in the IDF, Magav and in the Israeli Police. - The Israeli Special Forces Database; The PALYAM.