Sayeret Matkal General Staff Reconnaissance Unit is an elite special forces unit of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). Its main roles are counter-terrorism, deep reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, but the unit is first and foremost a field intelligence-gathering unit, used to obtain strategic intelligence behind enemy lines. Sayeret Matkal is also in charge of hostage rescue missions outside Israeli borders. The unit is modeled on the British SAS, and organizationally reports to the Directorate of Military Intelligence. Its IDF nickname is simply “The Unit”. Borrowed from the SAS, the unit’s motto is “Who Dares Wins.”
The unit is best known for Operation Thunderbolt, commonly known as Operation Entebbe, in which it rescued more than 100 Air France airline passengers hijacked and flown to Uganda by PLO militants, and killed 52 enemy combatants while losing only the assault element commander, Yonatan Netanyahu, and three hostages.
Sayeret Matkal was founded in 1957 by Avraham Arnan (né Herling), a former yeshiva student and Palmach fighter, who served as its first commander. Originally it was part of the Aman Unit 157, but began to operate independently a year later as the General Staff’s elite special operations force, modeled after the British Special Air Service. Members of the unit were trained by Bedouin trackers in order to obtain a better understanding of their adversaries. Sayeret Matkal was also formed one year after the IDF’s first helicopter squadron became operational and close co-operation between the two allowed Sayeret Matkal to deploy for longer and deeper inside Arab territory than any unit before.
In 1959, a draftee named Ehud Barak was accepted into Sayeret Matkal. He later succeeded the Unit 101 commando Lt. Meir Har-Zion in becoming Israel’s most decorated soldier. Whilst with Sayeret Matkal, Ehud Barak participated in many operations, including leading the Operation Isotope (airplane hostage rescue) in 1972 and leading the 1973 Israeli raid on Lebanon. He later progressed in his military career to become the IDF Chief of Staff in 1991 and retired after the end of his tenure in 1995. In 1999 Ehud Barak became the 10th Prime Minister of Israel.
Although a top-secret unit, Sayeret Matkal had a tremendous influence on the IDF. They were the original developers of helicopter infiltration techniques in Israel. In addition, their heavy use of the Uzi led them to convince Israel Military Industries to produce an Uzi with a folding stock for increased accuracy while maintaining its small frame.
Sayeret Matkal has participated in many anti and counter-terrorist operations, of which their best known actions are the 1973 Israeli raid on Lebanon (Operation Spring of Youth) and the 1976 rescue of 106 passengers at Entebbe Airport in Uganda (Operation Thunderbolt). There have been rumors linking them with several recent operations (see Operation Orchard) but these have never been confirmed by the IDF.
Recruitment and training
The unit was kept top-secret during its initial years. Fighters and commanders were selectively hand-picked, based on personal acquaintances.
Since the 1970s, while still secretive, the unit opened to voluntary recruits. Twice a year it holds a notoriously grueling selection camp (Gibbush) for potential recruits lasting several sleepless days. The recruits are constantly monitored by doctors and psychologists. Those who make it through the end with passing evaluation marks are admitted.
During the 1990s, this selection camp practice was picked up by other IDF special forces (Sayeret). Former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz planned to unify all these camps to prevent recruit burn-outs and medical injury by over-enthusiastic youths.
Once admitted to the unit, recruits train for 20 months with heavy emphasis on small arms, martial arts, navigation, camouflage, reconnaissance and other skills important for survival behind enemy lines. They must also complete the 120-kilometre (75 mi) Beret March to receive their red beret. The training regime consists of the following:
Four months of basic infantry training, held in the Paratroopers basic training base; it is part of the regular Paratroopers basic training routine.
Two months advanced infantry training, within the unit.
Three weeks parachuting course in the IDF Parachuting School.
Five weeks counter-terror (CT) course in the IDF Counter-Terror Warfare School, followed by more inner-unit CT training.
The rest of the training is dedicated to long-range reconnaissance patrol training, and especially to navigation/orienteering, which is of vast importance in the unit. While most of the orienteering training is done in pairs for safety reasons, as in every other unit in the IDF, Sayeret Matkal is one of the handful of IDF elite units which conducts long-range solo navigation exercises.
Although Sayeret Matkal has its own insignia, it is also one of the few units in the IDF whose soldiers are not allowed to wear it in public due to its classified nature. Ironically, this lack of insignia often leads to Sayeret Matkal operators being recognized as such, as the fact that Matkal troopers don’t wear insignia is well-known.
Notable former Sayeret Matkal figures
Despite being a top-secret and relatively small army unit, former Sayeret Matkal veterans have a disproportionate influence on the army and public service. This may partly be due to the fact that rigorous screening and training ensures that only the most capable and motivated Israeli youths are accepted by the unit as fighters.
Uzi Yairi – Unit Commander, formerly head of the IDF Paratroopers Brigade, killed in action while off-duty in Savoy Operation.
Nechemya Cohen – The Unit’s and the IDF’s most decorated soldier (with Barak). Killed in action. Beit Nechemiah was built in his memory by “the Unit”.
Ehud Barak – unit commander, Stanford graduate, later IDF Chief of Staff and Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu – unit team leader, MIT graduate, current (also former) Israeli Prime Minister
Iddo Netanyahu – writer and radiologist. Benjamin Netanyahu’s younger brother.
Yonatan Netanyahu – unit commander, killed in Operation Thunderbolt (Entebbe, Uganda). Benjamin Netanyahu’s older brother.
Shaul Mofaz – unit deputy commander, later IDF Chief of Staff and Israeli Defense Minister.
Moshe Yaalon – unit commander, later IDF Chief of Staff and Strategic Affairs Minister of Israel.
Danny Yatom – unit deputy commander, later a General, head of Mossad and a Knesset member
Avi Dichter – unit fighter, later head of Israel’s General Security Service (Shabak, aka Shin Bet), later the minister of internal security
Daniel M. Lewin – cofounder of Akamai Technologies, killed aboard American Airlines Flight 11 during the September 11 attacks.
Several other unit veterans who later became army generals and Knesset members
There is a widely held misconception that former Israeli Major General and former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also served in Sayeret Matkal. He did (while a Major) found and command the IDF’s first special-forces unit (Unit 101) in 1953, which many people feel was the organizational parent of Sayeret Matkal. However, when Unit 101 was merged into the Paratroopers Brigade in 1954, Sharon became brigade commander, and never served in Sayeret Matkal.
Note: Until recently the Israeli army had an official policy of denying existence of this unit. Operations were generally attributed to “elite paratroopers”. Sayeret Matkal operations are still kept secret to this day. However, due to the unit’s successes in daring operations, it soon became a very publicly-known secret in Israeli society.
1963 – Operation Halutz – first heliborne commando operation using Sikorsky H-34 helicopters in the Sinai desert. This was reconnaissance for Operation ShrakRak to follow. The operation was prompted by information that Egypt had moved an armored division and three infantry brigades into the Sinai desert.
1964 – Operation Shrakrak – the operation for which Halutz was a preparation, very likely the planting of listening or warning devices. This operation was credited with aiding greatly in the victory of the Six-Day War. Ehud Barak commanded Sayeret Matkal forces in the field in Operations Halutz and Shrakrak.
1968 – Operation Shock – sabotage of power plant and Nile bridges in Egypt (jointly with Israeli Air Force).
1968 – Operation Gift – sabotage of 14 Arab airliners in Beirut International Airport, Lebanon.
1969 – Operations Orchard 22, Orchard 37 – assaults on high voltage wires and a control antenna in Egypt.
1969 – Operation Bulmus 6 – assault on fortified Green Island, Egypt (jointly with Shayetet 13).
1969 – Operation Rooster 53 – seizing an entire Egyptian radar installation (jointly with Israeli Air Force).
1970 – Operation Rhodes – assault on fortified Shadwan Island, Egypt (jointly with Shayetet 13).
1972 – Operation Isotope – foiling the hijacking of Sabena Flight 571 in Tel Aviv, Israel (hostages rescue).
1972 – Operation Crate 3 – kidnapping 5 Syrian intelligence officers.
1973 – Operation Spring of Youth – killing Black September terrorist leaders in Beirut, Lebanon (jointly with Shayetet 13).
1973 – Yom Kippur War – recapture of Mount Hermon from Syrian commandos (jointly with Golani Brigade); deep interdiction ambushes in Egypt and Syria.
1974 – Ma’alot massacre – school hostages rescue.
1975 – Savoy Operation – hotel hostages rescue.
1976 – Operation Entebbe – foiling an Air France aircraft hijacking in Entebbe, Uganda.
1978 – Coastal Road Massacre – bus hostages rescue.
1980 – Misgav Am – Kibbutz hostages rescue.
1984 – Kav 300 affair – bus hostages rescue, see the Shabak’s years of crisis.
1988 – Tunis Raid – assassination of Abu Jihad, in Tunis, Tunisia (not acknowledged).
1989 – Sheik Abdul-Karim Obeid kidnapping, Lebanon (see Ron Arad).
1990 – Overcame terrorists who arrived in a boat to Nitzanim (Nadav Padan was decorated for this operation).
1992 – Operation Bramble Bush – plan to assassinate Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
1994 – Mustafa Dirani kidnapping, Lebanon (see Ron Arad).
1994 – Nachshon Wachsman – failed hostage rescue.
2006 – Second Lebanon War: Operation Sharp and Smooth – disrupt weapons smuggling (jointly with the Shaldag Unit); other operations to disrupt weapons smuggling (in one of them the force was discovered and Lieutenant Colonel Emmanuel Moreno was killed and two others were wounded in the ensuing gun battle).
2007 – Collecting soil samples in Syria prior to Operation Orchard, the bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor.
The 2003 dissidents
On December 21, 2003 thirteen Sayeret Matkal reservists—the most senior being an officer at the rank of Rav Seren (Major)—presented to the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem a letter declaring their refusal to perform military service in the Occupied Territories:
“We have come to tell you, Mr. Prime Minister, that we will no longer be accomplices to the reign of oppression in the Territories and the denial of the most elementary human rights of millions of Palestinians, nor shall we be the shield of settlements erected on confiscated land”.
The letter aroused a strong controversy, due to Sayeret Matkal having a high prestige in the Israeli society. It was especially strongly denounced by mainstream political figures who had their origin in the ranks of the unit, such as former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu.
In the event, none of the signatories was tried, but they were all expelled from the ranks of Sayeret Matkal. In what was described as “an effort to stem the tide”, the unit’s commander circulated among his soldiers and officers a letter condemning the refusers for having “abused their membership in Sayeret Matkal for political aims”.