Israeli Special Forces History

Israel has a long and complex history of SF deployment, dating even before the official declaration of the Israeli state and the forming of the IDF in 1948.

- 1948: SF units deployment prior to the declaration of the Israel

During 1920-1945, Israel was under a British regime (Mandate). Jews and Arabs living in Israel frequently engaged each other over territorial disputes, with the British regime mostly siding with the Arabs. 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 the main purpose of protecting fellow Jews from Arab attacks, and eventually to force the British out of Israel. The largest and most powerful of those underground movements was the "Hagana". 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", which dressed as Arabs and used to covertly transport weapons and equipment). When Israel was formed, and the IDF could freely and openly transport its equipment, there was no longer a need for these teams and they were disbanded. But in 1987 when the Intifada broke out, the Israeli security services (the IDF, the Israeli Border Guard MAGAV and the Israeli Police) were inspired by the success of PALMACH Mistaravim teams and formed new Mistaravim units .

While the PALMACH handled land-based assignments well, the Hagana also needed a dedicated maritime special unit. So, in 1943 the Hagana formed the Sea Companies ("Plugot Hayam" - PALYAM", in Hebrew). As their name suggests, the PALYAM focused on underwater demolition and other maritime activity. Eventually, after the IDF formation, the PALYAM evolved into Shayetet 13.

1948-1974: Establishment of SF units after the declaration of the Israel

In 1948 all the resistance movements were joined together in order to form the IDF. One of the Hagana outfits - the Golani unit, turned into the IDF first infantry brigade in February 1948 - the Golani infantry brigade. When reassigned under IDF command, the Golani infantry brigade formed the Special Reconnaissance Platoon, a LRRP Unit, acting as pathfinder for the infantry brigade. But unlike the other reconnaissance platoons that existed in each of the Golani brigade's battalions, the Special Reconnaissance Platoon was also in charged on direct actions such as taking out key enemy strongholds, and execute complex missions such as demolition and intelligence gathering. The Special Reconnaissance Platoon was in fact the first official Israeli SF unit, and have later evolved into PALSAR Golani.

In June 1948 the IDF formed its Paratroopers airborne unit - the Tzanhanim  Company, designed as an elite infantry unit tasked with the most challenging 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 infantry units (including the Tzanhanim ) were not up for the task. So in 1951 the IDF formed Unit 30 - a classified Unit that belonged to the IDF Southern 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, performed poorly, and was eventually disbanded in 1952. In August 1953, the IDF tried again to form a dedicated stand alone SF unit, and created Unit 101 as a SF unit designed to perform complex missions deep behind Israeli borders. Unit 101 was comprised of 20-25 men, mostly former Tzanhanim  and Unit 30 personnel. The creation of Unit 101 was a major landmark in the Israeli SF history as the unit established small unit maneuvers, deployment and insertion tactics that were the base of many tactics used today, and it was likely one of the most influential units in the IDF infantry history.

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 retaliation act. Once disbanded, Unit 101 was merged with the Tzanhanim  company. After the merger the joint outfit turned into a brigade size unit, comprised of two battalions - 869 (made out of the original Tzanhanim  company personnel) and 101 (made out of former Unit 101 personnel). With the increase in manpower, the Tzanhanim  unit became an elite infantry brigade rather the elite infantry company it was before. This merger was actually quite ironic since the Tzanhanim  officers were originally the biggest opposition against the creation of Unit 101 as they didn't want another unit to compete for missions with. With larger manpower personnel, Arik Sharon, Unit 101 former CO and the new CO of the Tzanhanim  infantry brigade, was able to launch full scale SF attacks against Arab terrorists, and the Tzanhanim  infantry brigade handled the lion share of Israeli SF operations in the rest of 1950's. In the late 1950's the IDF noticed that since the Tzanhanim  Unit had turned into a infantry brigade rather then the SF unit it was before, and that it was lacking a stand alone independent 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 leveraged the operational experience gathered by Unit 101 and was also heavily inspired by the UK SAS - the role model for SF units worldwide. Sayeret MATKAL was also formed one year after the IDF first helicopter squadron became operational, leading to a close cooperation between the two outfits, and allowing Sayeret MATKAL to perform longer and deeper insertions then any unit before. After loosing the prestigious SF title, the Tzanhanim  brigade formed it own SF unit - PALSAR Tzanhanim  in October 1958, mainly as a response to the creation of Sayeret MATKAL.

From the early 1960's until the early 1970's there was a new trend in the IDF - the Regional Command Sayerets. The IDF is operationally divided into three commands - South, North and Center. After witnessing the successful formation of Sayeret MATKAL and PALSAR Tzanhanim  in the late 1950's, each command wanted a SF unit of its own. So units like Shaked (Southern Command), Shoualey Shimshon (Southern Command), Harouv (Central Command) and Egoz (Northern Command) were formed. While those units were supposed to be skilled LRRP units, performing delicate intelligence gathering missions, they soon evolved into direct action units competing with Sayeret MATKAL, S'13 and PALSAR Tzanhanim  on raids missions. Eventually, the Commands-level unit were disbanded in the early 1970's once the IDF realized that they could get the same results from the infantry brigades PALSAR, without maintaining standalone expensive SF units.

1974: Acquiring Hostage Rescue Capabilities

Up until the mid 1970's the Israeli SF units (including Sayeret MATKAL) had a limited hostage rescue capabilities. The IDF SF units were mainly 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 Law Enforcement SF units and the IDF was the sole security organization in charge on the security of Israeli state, both domestic and overseas. Back then the Israeli Police handled only crime, and the MAGAV handled primarily border protection. However, in the 1970's Israel, and the rest of the world, had witnessed a rise in brutal and sophisticated terrorism acts, with Israel being the victim to many of them.

The worst of the terror acts was the infamous 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 PALSAR Golani), was selected to carry out the rescue attempt.

At the beginning of the raid, a Sayeret MATKAL sniper was suppose to take out the terrorist guarding the room in which most of the hostages were being held. The sniper, who was equipped with then standard issue IDF sniper rifle - Mauser K98 - and was not trained for short range headshot sniping, failed to kill the target and only wounded him. The injured terrorist started throwing grenades and auto-firing at the hostages. More mistakes were made, both in planning and in execution, and at the end of the raid all three terrorists were dead, but 21 children and four adults, all of which civilians, were killed as well. Moreover, at least two civilians were killed by friendly fire from Sayeret MATKAL entry team, which was under trained in CQB.

After the fiasco in Mahalot, the Israeli government made two key decisions:

  • An all-new Law Enforcement CT Unit would be created under MAGAV, much like the German domestic CT unit - GSG9. This unit was later named YAMAM.

  • Most of Israel's SF units would acquire advanced CT capabilities.

After the government decisions, the Israeli units began an extensive training regime, both alone and with foreign instructors, mainly from Britain's SAS, the U.S. Navy SEALs and later from the U.S. Delta Force. Because of the accelerated training and the massive amount of field experience gathered, the Israeli units soon gained a tremendous CT capability.

In 1985 another important step was made. The Mitkan Adam army base, the IDF Special Training Facility, was formed including the IDF Counter Terror School and the IDF Sniper School. The new school, allowed the IDF SF a more structural and organized training instead of independent training as before. Soon all units shared similar training and tactics, which greatly helped in case of joint-unit operations.

The terror attack in the Munich Olympics, 1972. Left - a terrorist seen in the Israeli team building; Right - the helicopter that was supposed to carry the kidnappers and hostages to safety burned after a terrorist toss a grenade into to it during a police raid.

Ehud Barak, the former Israeli Prime Minister, leading Sayeret MATKAL entry team (disguised as refueling personnel) during the Sabena air plane raid, 1972. This mission, officially known as Operation Isotope, was the first successful airplane raid in history. Same as in buses' hostage rescue tactics, the airplane raid techniques developed in the 1970's and in 1980's by Sayeret MATKAL and YAMAM, are used globally even today.

Sayeret MATKAL personnel looking at a dead terrorist after the raid in the Mahalot High School, May 15, 1974.

YAMAM operators during bus hostage rescue training in the late 1970's. All operators are armed with M16A1, then a rare item in Israel.

PALSAR Golani during training for their failed hostage rescue operation in the Misgav Ham Kibbutz, 1980. This operation was a land mark in the Israeli SF tactical history since it was the first time in which Oketz CT dogs were deployed against terrorists. Note the basic gear carried by the operators - Uzi SMG, and bullet proof vests.

Introduction Guide