Israel Sayeret Matkal

Posted by David Burnell on

General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, or Unit 269, more commonly known as Sayeret Matkal (Hebrew: סיירת מטכ״ל‎), special reconnaissance unit (sayeret) of the General Staff (matkal), or simply "The Unit", is the prime special forces unit of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

First and foremost a field intelligence-gathering unit, conducting deep reconnaissance behind enemy lines to obtain strategic intelligence, Sayeret Matkal is also tasked with counter-terrorism and hostage rescue beyond Israel's borders. The unit is modeled after the British Army's Special Air Service (SAS), taking the unit's motto "Who Dares, Wins". The unit is the Israeli equivalent of the U.S. Army's 1st SFOD-D (Delta Force). It is directly subordinate to the Special Operations Branch of the IDF's Directorate of Military Intelligence.


In 1954, Israel's first special operations unit—Unit 101—was disbanded following the outcry provoked by the Qibya massacre. This left the IDF without a dedicated special-forces unit other than the Navy's Shayetet 13, a naval commando unit that could not fully replace Unit 101. In 1957, Major Avraham Arnan (né Herling), a former yeshiva student and Palmach fighter, petitioned the IDF General Staff to create a unit that could be dispatched to enemy-held territory to carry out top secret intelligence-gathering missions. Arnan's idea (backed by David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin) was to create a unit that would recruit only the best and the brightest of Israeli youth. Prospective fighters were to be hand-picked, being physically and intellectually the best soldiers available. Originally part of Aman's Unit 157, Sayeret Matkal began to operate independently a year later as the General Staff's 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. Established a year after the formation of Israel's first helicopter squadron, the close co-operation between the two units allowed Sayeret Matkal to deploy longer and deeper inside Arab territory than its predecessor. Arnan's vision for Sayeret Matkal (of which he was the first commander) was of a unit that would carry out strategic intelligence-gathering and other operations; as such it would receive its missions only from the General Staff. Sayeret Matkal would also evaluate new weapons and doctrines that could influence the entire IDF.

Its first operational activity was carried out in a dedicated assignment in Lebanon in May 1962. The success of this mission paved the way for the unit's second operation five months later in Syria. In the early 1960s, Sayeret Matkal conducted several intelligence-gathering operations in the Sinai Peninsula—the last of which was launched just four months before the outbreak of the Six-Day War. But, due to the extensive training, planning and preparation that had to be undertaken before its missions, Sayeret Matkal ended up not seeing any action during the war itself. It was however engaged extensively in the following War of Attrition. After 1967, with the rise of Arab terrorism perpetrated by groups such as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Sayeret Matkal began developing the first hostage-rescue and counter-terrorism techniques in the world. Beginning with Operation Isotope, the unit carried out several high-profile operations that thrust it into the limelight as an "elite paratroopers" unit (Sayeret Matkal's existence was classified at the time). In 1972, before the Munich massacre, Sayeret Matkal's operatives were sent to West Germany to co-operate with German authorities and, if necessary, perform the hostage-rescue themselves. Their advice though, was not heeded. In the subsequent Operation Wrath of God, Sayeret Matkal struck the PLO in Beirut.

The Yom Kippur War in 1973 brought a profound change to the unit. With Israel fighting on two fronts and the General Staff busy with managing the war, Sayeret Matkal found itself without missions to perform. Sayeret Matkal officers then split into two camps: those who believed that the unit should be kept in reserve and not be lightly sent to missions where it could endure heavy casualties, and those that wanted to go into action, even if that meant missions with little planning and more akin to a commando force than to the strategic-oriented Sayeret Matkal. The latter prevailed and Sayeret Matkal was tasked with operations on both fronts. After the war, Sayeret Matkal began developing plans for wartime in advance, so that when war came, the unit could go into action immediately, without waiting for the General Staff's orders and missions. A reserve company of Sayeret Matkal was also designated specifically for cooperation with the Israeli Air Force, shown by the war to be lacking. This would later evolve into Shaldag Unit.

In 1974, Sayeret Matkal suffered a heavy blow when a failed rescue attempt resulted in the Ma'alot massacre. The debacle led to the creation of the Yamam to deal with domestic counter-terrorism/hostage-rescue missions, while Sayeret Matkal would focus on foreign counter-terrorism/hostage-rescue. Two years later, on the 4 July 1976, came the unit's most famous mission when it spearheaded Operation Entebbe to rescue hostages held in Uganda by at least six Palestinians and two German terrorists supported by regular Ugandan soldiers. The mission was a resounding success, although there were three hostages killed, as well as the commander of the unit, Lieutenant Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu.

Although a top-secret unit, Sayeret Matkal had tremendous influence on the IDF. It was the original developer of helicopter infiltration techniques in Israel. In addition, their extensive 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.

In 2015, the unit received an honorable mention for its activities during Operation Protective Edge.

Recruitment and training

A Sayeret Matkal soldier

The unit was kept top-secret during its initial years and its mere existence was never officially acknowledged until the 1980s. Most of its operations and capabilities are considered classified to this day. Fighters and commanders were selectively hand-picked, based on personal acquaintances and referrals. 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 with a passing grade are admitted. During the 1990s, this selection practice was picked up by other IDF special forces (Sayeret).

The basic requirements for being considered to serve in the unit are a medical profile of 97 (with no disqualifying clauses) a quality category ("kaba") of 52 or more and an initial psychotechnic grading ("dapar") of 50 or more. Once admitted to the unit, the recruits' training lasts for about two years, with heavy emphasis on small arms, martial arts, navigation, camouflage, reconnaissance, and other skills required for survival behind enemy lines. They must also complete the 120–150-kilometre (75–93 mi) Beret March in the final four days to receive their red beret. The training regime consists of the following:

  • Four months of basic infantry training
  • 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
  • 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 units which conducts long-range solo navigation exercises.

Toward the end of their training, Sayeret Matkal recruits, along with recruits for other special forces units and pilot cadets, undergo a two-week course in enduring captivity. After a surprise mock kidnapping, they are held in prison-like conditions and subjected to interrogation, threats, and physical violence, and forced to perform demeaning activities.

Today, all the soldiers in the unit undergo officer's course at the end of their training and move on to hold positions in the unit as well as other IDF units. The combat soldiers are required to sign on for an additional 36 months in addition to their mandatory service term. Most of the combat soldiers will commence an undergraduate university degree towards the end of their service.

Although Sayeret Matkal has its own insignia, it is also one of only two units in the IDF, the other being Duvdevan, whose soldiers are not allowed to wear it in public due to its classified nature. 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.

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