Open Mind & Out-of-the-Box Thinking

In most cases they operate clandestinely, their successes and sometimes even their failures are not always known to the public, but the contribution they make to national security is first rate. The Israeli special operations forces – an exclusive review

Any attempt to rate the special operations units of the IDF of 2015 is always a complex and unfair undertaking. The operations of specialist units are not the Hit Parade. We never know everything, and of what we do know, not everything may be publicized. Nevertheless, I will attempt to review the special operations units of the IDF and Israeli defense establishment, and their contribution to national security. The background for this attempt is provided by the discourse and discussions headed by IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot regarding the need to establish a separate special operations command, similar to the US JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command of the US Army, operating out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Lt. Gen. Eizenkot has already demonstrated that it is his intention to introduce changes and attempt to adapt IDF to the challenges of 2015 by establishing the cyber warfare arm (another idea that follows USCYBERCOM – the US Cyber Command).

Sayeret Matkal (GHQ Reconnaissance Unit)

After everything has been said and done, this unit remains the number one special operations unit of the IDF. The unit was established in late 1957 by Avraham Arnan, in order to collect tactical and strategic intelligence behind enemy lines (and since then credited with much of the SigInt available to the State of Israel, according to foreign reports).

In the summer of 2014, the unit demonstrated that the best specialist unit of IDF does not shy away from leaving the ivory tower of the special operations forces.

Throughout last summer, Sayeret Matkal shared the primary efforts of the IDF: initially, it was Operation Brother's Keeper, in which the unit's men, both regular conscripts and reservists, stood by waiting for the "golden nugget report" from the ISA regarding the whereabouts of the abductors and abductees with the intention of planning a rescue operation. Then, through the deterioration into Operation Protective Edge, which IDF entered unprepared in terms of combat doctrine and technical resources for dealing with the subterranean tunnel challenge. Sayeret Matkal warfighters even went down into the tunnels, including the infamous Rafah tunnel through which Hadar Goldin, RIP, was kidnapped, in order to participate in the effort to find and deliver the proof that Goldin was no longer alive.

It's no wonder that Sayeret Matkal has produced prime ministers and defense ministers (including those currently in office) and many other leaders within Israeli society. The open mind approach, the initiative, resourcefulness and creativity, are pumped into the minds of the warfighters of this unit from the very first moment.

The motto "Who Dares Wins", borrowed from the British SAS, still influences the vision of Sayeret Matkal in 2015. The upheavals in the Arab world and the disintegration of the nation states provide the unit with numerous operational opportunities to operate under the noise threshold.

Like the commanders of other special forces units, the last few commanders of Sayeret Matkal left the unit to pursue careers in other units of IDF: Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon as Head of the IDF Operations Division, Maj. Gen. Hertzi HaLevi as Head of the IDF Intelligence Directorate, Colonel Oded Raor, who died unexpectedly at the age of 46, and Colonel Uri Gordin, who commanded the Nahal Infantry Brigade during Operation Protective Edge.

In 2014, Sayeret Matkal received a commendation from the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, for a successful sequence of operations behind enemy lines. For its activity during Operation Protective Edge, the unit won the Chief of Staff's commendation, and in the eyes of many, this is the true commendation that should position it, as always, at the top of the list of Israel's special operations units.

IDF Navy 13th Flotilla (Naval Commandos)

Identifying a 13th Flotilla officer is easy: he has the shoulder span of a refrigerator and wears his watch on his right wrist. The naval commando unit of the IDF Navy, established originally in order to deal with enemy naval forces in their own bases, evolved over the last few years into the long arm of the State of Israel in connection with the attempts to smuggle arms into our region in the context of the "war between wars". This activity compels the 13th Flotilla to operate farther away and under more risky circumstances, using helicopters and the IDF Navy Saar frigates, as part of joint teams with the IDF Intelligence Directorate. By 2014, the 13th Flotilla was awarded five commendations for its operations. Five years after the takeover of the ship Mavi Marmara, that affair still gives senior 13th Flotilla officers stomach aches. That event had not been properly understood and the warfighters of the 13th Flotilla were thrown into it without proper preparation. Additionally, the men of the Flotilla did not really like the Israeli self-victimization campaign that followed the operation in the style of "We were beaten up, we were attacked" vis-à-vis the Turkish accusations.

On July 12, 2014, the 13th Flotilla departed on one of the few special operations conducted in the context of Operation Protective Edge. A naval commando force raided a Hamas locality in Sudaniya, out of which long-range rockets had been launched into Israel's rear area. Four commandos were slightly injured in the exchange of short-range fire with armed Hamas terrorists. This operation demonstrated the difficulties facing special unit operations in a place like Gaza in the course of a war, when the other side is alert and ready for IDF attacks to begin with.

In October 2014, the 13th Flotilla was awarded the Chief of Staff's commendation for a sequence of clandestine operations behind enemy lines.

The commanders of the 13th Flotilla, like their brothers-in-arms from Sayeret Matkal, learned that both them and their unit should go out and become a part of the general IDF. Colonel Rafi Milo, who commanded the 13th Flotilla at the time of the capture of the Iranian arms ship Klos C and during Operation Brother's Keeper went on to command the Reconnaissance Unit of the Golani Infantry Brigade and the IDF 300th Brigade along the Lebanese border. He will soon be appointed as commander of the IDF 80th Division along the Egyptian border. The former deputy commander of the 13th Flotilla, Colonel Dan, went on to command a different unit.

Shaldag (Kingfisher)

The warfighters of the Shaldag unit also arrived at the border with the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge. I met them wearing shorts, stomping their feet and demanding to be assigned special operations in the Gaza Strip, but the general sense was that the IDF authorities were having difficulties using them in a situation of an overt war in a small and dense area.

Nevertheless, after the war the Shaldag unit received a letter of appreciation from the IAF and Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, the first commander of that unit who advanced all the way to the Chief of Staff's position, for their activity during the Operation: assistance to the uncovering of tunnel shafts and support for the ground ingress maneuver. During Operation Brother's Keeper, the unit's commander, Lt. Col. A., insisted that his warfighters participate in the search for the kidnapped youngsters and in the arrests of senior Hamas operatives in the West Bank. "In the last two operations, it was important for us to place our shoulders under the stretcher and assist wherever the advantages of the unit could be utilized," said Lt. Col. A. For example, a team of Shaldag snipers supported the Nahal infantry forces that fought in the northern part of the Gaza Strip.

Shaldag (kingfisher), the commando unit of the IAF, was established in 1974 pursuant to the lessons learned by the IDF from the Yom-Kippur War of 1973, by Muki Betzer of Sayeret Matkal, in order to provide the IAF with commando and intelligence capabilities. According to foreign publications, the Shaldag unit provides ground support to the IAF and assists in the designation of targets to be attacked from the air.

YAMAM (Special Police Unit)

The elite counterterrorism unit of the Israel Police is regarded as the stepson among the IDF elite units. This designation is because it belongs to a significantly smaller, weaker and less wealthy organization: the Israel Police.

However, during the last summer it was demonstrated, once again, that when the situation involves a kidnapping and a close running engagement with terrorists in the territories, the YAMAM is the unit best qualified to handle it. If an operation for the release of the three kidnapped youngsters (who, as it turned out, had been murdered immediately after being abducted) had matured and materialized, based on all of the estimates of the heads of the defense establishment, the past mistakes made in connection with the failed attempt to rescue the late Nachshon Wachsman in 1994 would not have been repeated. The task would have been assigned to the unit whose function it is – the Israel Police Specialist Counterterrorism Unit, YAMAM.

YAMAM has recently been recognized as the national takeover/intervention unit. It possesses an extensive range of breaching/break-in capabilities while using dogs, snipers, rappelling specialists and explosives experts.

YAMAM was established in 1974 pursuant to the lessons learned in the Ma'alot massacre – the failed hostage rescue attempt by Sayeret Matkal, when the Israeli defense establishment realized that a new specialist unit should be established whose sole function would be counterterrorism.

It took the unit years to establish itself, until in 1988 they led a hostage rescue operation for the first time, having been preferred over Sayeret Matkal: the rescue of the hijacked "Mothers Bus". During the second Intifada, YAMAM established itself as the foremost counterterrorism unit in countless running engagements with armed wanted terrorists in the West Bank.

Last summer, the specialist warfighters of YAMAM proved their superiority as far as combatting terrorism in the territories is concerned, demonstrating, once again, why they were nicknamed "the operations branch of ISA".

The arrest of Hussam Kawasme, the commander of the terrorist detail that kidnapped the three Jewish youngsters, the elimination of their murderers as part of the "pressure cooker" procedure and the elimination of the assassin who tried to kill Jewish right-wing activist Yehuda Gluck were all operations performed by YAMAM.

Magallan (Ibis)

The Magallan unit specializes in securing a territory behind enemy lines and destroying high-value enemy targets using a dedicated weapon system. The Magallan unit was established in 1986 pursuant to lessons learned from the Yom-Kippur War (1973) according to which IDF should use antitank missiles much more intensively. The formative years of the unit were the years during which IDF operated in the security cordon in southern Lebanon against Hezbollah details. The ambush operations performed by the Magallan unit and the unique ways in which they implemented their new combat doctrine and used their new missiles led to the elimination of numerous terrorists.

During the Second Lebanon War (2006), the Magallan unit destroyed more than 150 enemy targets, including more than 40 rocket launchers, and was awarded a unit commendation by the general commanding IDF Central Command.

The Magallan unit was fully mobilized last summer for Operation Brother's Keeper and Operation Protective Edge, under command of Lt. Col. Yuval, who had come from the IDF Paratroopers Brigade. Magallan warfighters eventually uncovered the bodies of the kidnapped and murdered youngsters after the unit had stopped all of its training and operational activities to join the searches.

In the context of Operation Protective Edge, the Magallan unit entered the Gaza Strip as a full battalion-size force. The Efron team of the unit handled a tunnel shaft which turned out to be booby-trapped near Khan Yunis, in an incident which evolved into a fierce battle in which three Magallan warfighters were killed.

In the Gaza Strip, the men of the Magallan unit dealt with the uncovering of subterranean tunnels and were involved in built-up area warfare operations, but also performed their unit's traditional assignment – engaging selected enemy targets using high-precision missiles. The Magallan unit was awarded the Chief of Staff's commendation for its activities during Operation Protective Edge. 

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Photo: Nir Ben-Yosef / IAF website

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