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IDF Infantry Corps: Paratroopers Infantry Brigade

History & Overview

Kfir Insignia
Paratrooper Brigade Logo

The antecedent of the paratroopers group was a group of Palestinian Jewish volunteers who parachuted into Nazi-Europe in 1943, five years prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. These soldiers, who fought in the ranks of the British army, helped organize Jewish resistance in Europe. Of the initial 32, twelve were captured and did not return. The most celebrated of this group were Hannah Senesh, who was captured and executed in Nazi-occupied Hungary, and Yoel Palgi, who escaped from Nazi captivity and returned to lead resistance in Budapest.

Five years later, in the midst of Israel's War of Independence, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion summoned Palgi to form the first Paratroop unit. At his disposal were an unsuitable commando aircraft and 4,000 second-hand parachutes purchased as scrap material. Palgi's unit consisted of an assortment of Israeli veterans of the British army and Palmach, graduates of the jump group in Czechoslovakia, resistance veterans, ghetto survivors and a number of plain adventurers. The unit improvised equipment and training was inadequate - jumps were regularly made without reserve chutes and often ended in tragedy. Though a number of operational plans called for paratroop drops, the war ended without the unit actually seeing action. In the summer of 1949, Yehuda Harari took command of the paratroop unit and set to work reorganizing it and infusing new blood. He weeded out the unfit, moved the paratroopers to a more suitable base, acquired proper equipment, and organized the first jumpmasters course.

The IDF paratroopers have earned a hard-won reputation for strict discipline, courage, initiative, dedication to duty and the highest standards of performance. They have consistently been at the forefront of the IDF and have set behavioral and operational norms for others to emulate.

Infantry, and paratroopers in particular, provide flexibility and maneuverability to the modern battlefield. They are capable of operating under any field and weather conditions, day or night, combining rapid movement and firepower.

IDF paratroopers are trained to overcome obstacles and minefields, to fight alone, or jointly with other forces and services in integrated combat. They can be transported by helicopter or dropped behind enemy lines, or be landed from amphibious landing craft. They can fight mounted on jeeps, or on APC's and can operate against armor, attack helicopters and infantry. IDF paratroopers are a major component in maintaining Israel's security, and have played important roles in special and regular operations in Israel's war against terrorism.

The Paratroop Brigade is one of the four regular brigades of the Infantry Corps. The Brigade is composed of infantry battalions, as well as reconnaissance, engineering, signals and anti-tank companies. The Infantry Corps is responsible for training and coordinating infantry operations with other forces. The corps is overseen by the Ground Corps Command which is responsible for unifying and streamlining infantry, armor, artillery and engineering forces, training doctrine matters, planning and R&D.

The history of this elite unit is replete with operations which have made front-page headlines over the world. The daring reprisal raids of the 50's, the Mitla Pass jump and battles of the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the Conquest of Rafah and the historic unification of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War, the airlifting of a Soviet radar station out of Egypt in 1969, the 1972 rescue, the 1973 commando raid against terrorist headquarters in the heart of Beirut, the bridgehead over the Suez and the bloody battle of the Chinese Farm during the Yom Kippur War, the unprecedented rescue of the passengers and crew of the hijacked Air France Airbus in “Operation Jonathan” at Entebbe. These are just a few of the operations which have made this unit legendary.

Paratroop officers and enlisted men have indeed become legends in their time. Many have acceded to the highest-level military positions and have gone on to make distinguished contributions to Israeli political life.

Training and Spirit

Every year, the Paratrooper Brigade receives as many as five times as many applicants as it can accept. Most candidates are screened out by rigorous acceptance criteria and the arduous training regimen that follows. Paratroop training, which is tough and unrelenting, reflects the versatile role which this force will have to play on present and future battlefields. This includes massive doses of physical fitness, topography, mastery of a wide array of weapons as well as training in mobile, airborne, heliborne and amphibious operations, as well as integrated operations with armor and artillery, day and night assaults against different types of objectives, and the famous IDF Jump School. All paratroopers go through NCO school before being trained in a military specialty. Those destined to become platoon leaders are sent to Officers' School. Personal qualities required of an IDF Paratrooper are courage, professional knowledge, ability to decide, capacity to improvise solutions when faced with difficult or unexpected situations, and leadership ability. Officers must serve as personal examples to their men. Ties between officers and enlisted men are direct and long-lasting, with no artificial barrier separating them.

Women serve in the Infantry and Paratroop Corps as instructors (in such fields as marksmanship, anti-tank missiles, etc.), educators, administrative and technical personnel. At the Paratrooper Training Base, women likewise serve as parachute riggers and inspectors. They undergo a jump course to increase their identification with the paratroopers whose lives are literally in their hands.

IDF paratroopers are a family, whose members (both living and deceased) are bound together by a bond of shared experiences and blood shed in battle. A union cemented by camaraderie, which transcends and blurs formal distinctions: an aristocracy of individual merit. Paratroopers continue to serve in their units after their discharge from compulsory service, either in the career army or the reserves (retaining their red berets). They remain part of the paratrooper family, even after they pass beyond the stringently observed cut-off age for reserve duty, and are transferred to other units.

The "101st Airborne"

The 1950's were marked by infiltration of Arab terrorists across Israel's borders. The infiltrators would carry out acts of murder, pillage, and sabotage. In the year 1952 alone there were 3,000 infiltrations. In order to curb these attacks it was decided to form a small unit of superlative fighting men who would carry out reprisal operations. This unit called itself the “101st.”

The 101St. took on many difficult assignments behind enemy lines. The 101St. gained quick recognition for being able to accomplish the “impossible,” for dedication to the mission, and for exemplary courage and daring. Among the outstanding members of the unit were the legendary Meir Har-Zion, known for his initiative, knowledge of the countryside and courage, and Ariel Sharon.

Moshe Dayan, Chief of Operations and later Chief of Staff, envisaged the need for a large-scale Paratroop force. The merger of the 101St. with the paratroopers became inevitable. The 101St. breathed new life into the paratroopers. Performance standards rose.

In the mean time, Arab Fedayoun (terror units) were established as adjuncts to the Egyptian army in April 1955, and soon similar units were organized in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Reprisal operations took the form of actions against regular enemy forces. In one such assault against a 200-man Egyptian brigade headquarters and security complex in Khan-Yunis, Mordechai “Motta” Gur was badly wounded. In operation Kinneret, (11 December 1955), undertaken after continued Syrian shelling of Israeli fishing vessels, a brigade-strength force of Paratroopers augmented by other elements, crossed the Sea of Galilee and destroyed Syrian positions. Casualties in the operation included Rafael Eitan (wounded in his stomach) and Yitzhak Ben Menachem (surnamed “Gulliver” because of his height), an Independence War hero who had replaced Motta Gur as Company Commander.

The paratroopers were expanded to brigade strength and placed under the command of “Arik” Sharon. “Raful” Eitan commanded a veteran battalion. Retaliation operations against enemy fortifications succeeded one another: Rahwa, Jarandal, Husan, Kalkilya. During 1955-56 there were 10 major reprisal operations which brought temporary remissions in terrorist activity and gave valuable combat experience to the young brigade. Lessons drawn from each operation were promptly incorporated into the unit's doctrine.

Battles & Operations

The Sinai Campaign (1956):
The operational advantage of a large-scale paratroop force was demonstrated in the Sinai Campaign. The war began with a drop of an entire paratroop battalion (under Raful's command) over the eastern approaches to the Mitla Pass. The remaining members of the brigade force were to travel along a 300 km route (200 km. within enemy territory) and link up with the battalion. This break-through took 28 hours, during which the column swept through the deserted Kuntilla and fought two short but fierce battles against Egyptian forces in Thamad and Nakhl. The major Paratroop action during the campaign was the battle for Mitla Pass. A paratroop reconnaissance patrol entering the pass found itself trapped by an overwhelming enemy force. The Egyptians enjoyed topographical advantage, fighting from positions and niches in superior terrain. Outnumbered reinforcements who entered the fray fought desperately with great personal sacrifice to rescue their comrades. After nightfall, the Egyptians were finally routed but at a tremendous cost: 38 paratroopers dead and over 100 wounded. Enemy losses were 260.

The paratroopers jumped once again during the Sinai Campaign—at At-Tur, on the south-eastern shore of the Gulf of Suez. The rest of the brigade proceeded by land to conquer Ras Sudar and link up with their comrades at At-Tur. They then moved southeastward to Sharm-el-Sheik at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula—which they conquered in a classic pincers move in coordination with the 9th brigade which had been moving southwestward.

After the war's end, the paratroopers concentrated on reorganization and training (with emphasis on helicopter operations). (Commanders succeeded one another: Menachem Aviran, Eliyahu Zeira, Yithak Hufi, Rafael Eitan). When Fatah terrorist activities began in 1965, the Paratroopers became the chief retaliatory force, reinstituting the policy of reprisal raids most notably in the Samua operation against the Jordan legion and Fatah. (When, during this operation, the senior commander of one of the paratroop forces was killed or wounded, junior officers took over and successfully completed the mission).

The Six Day War (1967):
During the Six Day War, the paratroopers, whose ORBAT had now increased greatly, fought on all fronts: the Sinai peninsula, Judea, Samaria, and the Golan Heights. paratroopers and armor under Raful's command broke through the Rafah positions (heavily defended by the crack Egyptian 7th Division) from behind. However, in doing so the unit suffered heavy losses. Many troops were killed in the process of evacuating comrades. The following day, the unit entered Gaza. Paratroop forces under the command of Danny Matt (who later attained the rank of Major General) made a helicopter landing at the Um Katef artillery positions in the enemy's rear line. Raful's battalion raced against the 7th (Israeli) Armored Division for the honor of being the first to reach the Suez Canal. Though Raful was wounded 25 kilometers from the canal, his men under the command of veteran paratrooper Aharon Davidi arrived first at the banks of the Suez. During the Six Day War, paratroopers reached Sharm-el-Sheikh and likewise participated in the attack on the Golan. Perhaps, the Paratroopers' finest hour came on June 7, when a paratroop force under Col. Motta Gur captured the Old City of Jerusalem and restored the Western Wall, the holiest of Judaism's shrines, to Jewish control after almost 2,000 years. During the conquest of Jerusalem, considerable care was taken to protect and avoid damaging the holy places of the three religions. For this the Paratroopers paid a heavy price in dead and wounded.

After the war, paratroopers participated in pursuit and retaliation operations against terrorist infiltration and were caught up in the War of Attrition on the Egyptian front. On December 23, 1969, paratroopers airlifted an entire Soviet radar station out of Egypt and transported it back to Israel.

War of Attrition (1968-73):
On March 21, 1968, paratroopers and armor raided terrorist headquarters in Karame, Jordan, killing 250 enemy troops. On December 12, 1968, a heliborne paratroop force raided Beirut Airport and destroyed Arab aircraft, taking precautions to avoid physically harming anyone. The raid came in response to repeated terrorist attacks on Israeli aircraft. When, on 12 May 1972, a hijacked Sabena airliner landed at Israel's Lod Airport, oaratroopers disguised as El-Al flight technicians broke in and rescued the passengers.

On the night of April 10, 1973, a select force of paratroopers headed by current Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak landed in different sites in and around Beirut, where according to published foreign reports, they linked up with waiting cars hired by Mossad agents. According to these sources, the soldiers drove through Beirut with utmost precision and without arousing suspicion. They simultaneously attacked the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine's headquarters and the residences of three high-ranking terrorist leaders (among them the man responsible for the Fatah-Black September foreign terrorist operations including the 1972 massacre of the 9 Israeli sportsmen at the Munich Olympics). Surprise was total, and despite resistance in the headquarters, all teams succeeded in carrying out their missions and making a clean getaway.

The Yom Kippur War (1973):
The Yom Kippur War saw the paratroopers fighting in some of the most difficult battles. In the Sinai, paratroopers assigned to armored units rescued the beleaguered 'Budapest' outpost and destroyed the Egyptian commando forces. Paratroopers armed with LAW missiles helped contain an Egyptian armored thrust. Paratroopers of Danny Matt's brigade crossed the canal, as the spearhead of General Sharon's divisions, and established a bridgehead. Others, attempting to break open a route for them, ran up against the massive “Chinese Farm” fortifications. For three days, paratroopers and armored corps of General Sharon's and General Adan's divisions made repeated attempts until they finally succeeded in making the break-through and rescuing their comrades. During the bitter fighting, IDF soldiers ran over open ground to evacuate fallen comrades, and often fell victim to enemy fire in the process. The battles for the “Chinese Farm” prevented the Egyptians from closing in on the bridgehead and eventually succeeded in opening an access to it. On the West Bank of the Suez, paratroopers fought in the city of Suez and advanced on the city of Ismailia. On the Syrian front, paratroopers captured the peaks of Mt. Hermon in a heliborne operation. Others conquered Kuneitra and Tel Shams and acted as armored infantry in the thrust into Syrian territory.

After the The Yom Kippur War the paratroopers and other infantry units were placed under the command of a chief Paratroop and Infantry Officer.

Entebbe Rescue Operation (1974):
On the morning of the fourth of July 1976, a team of crack Israeli troops headed by Chief Infantry and Paratroop Officer Dan Shomron succeeded in rescuing the 87 passengers and crew of a hijacked Air France airbus at Entebbe, Uganda. The force, transported in four Hercules aircraft, succeeded in landing undetected at Entebbe's airport, and in taking the 13 terrorists and their Ugandan collaborators by surprise. In the operation, Lt. Col. “Yoni” Netanyahu was killed by a Ugandan sniper bullet.

Operation Litani (1978):
Paratroopers have played an active role in Israel's protracted war against terror, undertaken to keep Israel's northern towns and villages safe from terrorist attacks. In this context, paratroopers participated in the 1978 Operation Litani (executed after the infamous “Coastal Road Massacre” in which terrorists murdered 37 civilians and wounded a further 80) which temporarily purged Southern Lebanon of terrorists.

After the IDF withdrawal and the return of sporadic terrorist attacks, the Paratroopers participated in preventive raids against terrorist bases in Lebanon. These raids are designed to keep the terrorists off balance and “on the run,” thereby preventing them from carrying out their murderous operations within Israel.

First Lebanon War (1982):
The paratroopers were an important component of the Lebanon War. The war in Lebanon proved the IDF's fighting ability and tested Paratroop combat doctrine, which had been revised as a result of the lessons of the Yom Kippur War, Operation Litani and other operations.

Paratroopers fought in every sector of the war against Syrian troops and paratroops, and against terrorist concentrations in both built-up and mountainous areas. They operated efficiently and in full coordination with other corps, the Navy and the Air Force.

One of the better known operations was the amphibious landing at the mouth of the Awali river, north of Sidon, from where the paratroopers advanced to the outskirts of Beirut through the mountains. In their advance, they engaged terrorist and Syrian commando forces.

Following the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon, the paratroopers were integral in the ongoing security operations conducted in the Territories, along Israel's northern border in the Lebanese Security Zone, and have made invaluable contributions to Israel's war against terror.

Sources: Israel Defense Forces