Mum’s the Word – The IDF’s Special Forces Units

Video published on Aug 7, 2016 by the Arutz Sheva TV YouTube

Article published on March 16, 2018 by

Mum’s the word

by Yoav Limor

The IDF’s special forces units may carry out their missions under the radar, but their reputation is legendary. Israel Hayom offers an exclusive glimpse into the inner workings of units responsible for hundreds of daring and clandestine operations.

Intelligence operations are best kept secrets. Their details remain clandestine, at times for years and at times forever. That is the way every defense apparatus operates, and the Israel Defense Forces are no different.

If information is power, which is the premise of the digital age, information leaks spell the loss of power and may cost lives. This is why the secrecy surrounding such intelligence operations – inside and outside of the military – is so fiercely protected.

This is also the nature of the covert operations carried out near Israel’s borders, let alone deep in enemy territory, which is why the world of special operations is out of bounds not only for the general public but also for many in the defense establishment itself.

The Mossad intelligence agency and the Shin Bet security agency both keep classified operational activity on a need-to-know basis with respect to other units in the organizations; the Police Counterterrorism Unit operates separately from other units in the force, and only a few are privy to the secrets harbored by the military’s special forces.

Information about covert operations or special forces units usually becomes public only when something goes wrong and an operation goes awry or results in casualties. The success stories remain clandestine and for the most part, go unnoticed by the public.

This is why the rare glimpse afforded to Israel Hayom’s readers into the inner working of these units is such an unusual event. No journalist, let alone photographer, has ever had such unmitigated access to the IDF’s top reconnaissance and commando units. Convincing the officers and soldiers to step into the spotlight was no easy feat, as most of them feel more comfortable facing off an enemy agent than they do meeting a reporter.

Moreover, many of them believe that not only does any media exposure go against their training, it could potentially compromise them operationally.

One could argue that the “special unit” designation has been eroded in recent years, as it seems it is handed out far more frequently than in the past, but the Israeli military numbers only four elite units: Sayeret Matkal, its top special forces unit; Shaldag (“Kingfisher”), the Israeli Air Force commando unit; the Shayetet 13 naval commandos; and Unit 669, which carries out heliborne search, rescue and extraction missions.

While the former three are combat units, the latter is a specialized unit whose troops undergo unique professional training. Unlike the commandos, Unit 669 troops do not conduct raids or engage enemy combatants. They do, however, come to the rescue – any rescue, anywhere, anytime, including under fire in enemy territory.

Tip of the spear

The origins of Sayeret Matkal are traced back to 1954 and the founding of Unit 101, the IDF’s first special forces unit. Sayeret Matkal is akin to the United States Army’s Delta Force and the British Army SAS Force, after which it was modeled. The aura surrounding Sayeret Matkal is nothing short of legendary, and while what little the public knows about its operations has to do with its rare failures, in reality, the ground forces’ elite commando unit has marked numerous successes.

Unlike most other units, Sayeret Matkal’s operations are never improvised, but rather are carried out only following meticulous planning based on extensive intelligence gathering. Reconnaissance is also one of its primary objectives and according to foreign media, it also plants measures – some of which are developed exclusively for its use – that help various Military Intelligence branches gather the information they need.

Missions sometimes require weeks of preparations and every detail and contingency are accounted for and drilled via simulations. When the unit prepares for a particularly complex mission, its simulations are scrutinized by the top military echelon and at times, the political echelon as well. The lieutenant colonel who commands Sayeret Matkal also frequently meets with the defense minister and prime minister – a testament to the sensitivity of the unit’s work.

The commandos’ training is extensive, but the unit does not engage in routine operational activity. Sayeret Matkal, whose operations are usually carried out in the enemy’s rear, is called in only when its troops’ unique skill set is required or in times of war. For example, it was called in during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, to sweep the terror tunnel used by Hamas to abduct the remains of Givati Brigade Lt. Hadar Goldin.

Unlike the IAF and naval commandos, Sayeret Matkal is not a strike force. The quality of its troops allows it to carry out any mission, but its true prowess lies in counterterrorism, and it is credited with world-renowned counterterrorism operations, such as Operation Entebbe in 1976; Operation Isotope in 1972, better known as the Sabena Flight 571 hostage crisis; and the 1975 Savoy Hotel hostage crisis.

While in recent years the Police Counterterrorism Unit has taken center stage, no one doubts that if need be, Sayeret Matkal will be there and no one doubts it will continue to cement its iconic status.

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