Israel’s First Special Operations Unit

The inception of Unit 101 within the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) marked a pivotal moment in the nation’s military history. Established in August 1953 by Ariel Sharon at the behest of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, its formation was a direct response to a wave of violence targeting Israeli citizens. Ben-Gurion’s mandate was clear: to impart a severe consequence for attacks on Israelis.

Unit 101, under Major Sharon and his second-in-command, Shlomo Baum, was revolutionary in its approach to special operations. It was the first of its kind to be assembled from the ground up instead of being an adaptation of an existing unit like the Golani Brigade’s Special Reconnaissance Platoon. Notably, it was also the first unit to be commanded directly by the IDF General Staff, bypassing lower levels of military hierarchy.

The unit’s strategic and tactical influence remains a touchstone in modern military training. Despite its controversial methods, Unit 101’s actions significantly reduced terrorist activities against Israel, thus achieving its political and security objectives. However, its tactics came under severe scrutiny following the tragic events in Qibya, where a large number of civilians perished.


Unit 101’s operational tenure was brief; it was dissolved in late 1955. Its mission scope encompassed direct action, strategic reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, and counterterrorism, with directives coming directly from the government.

Headquartered in Tel Aviv, the unit’s backstory is rooted in the early 1950s, a time when infiltrations from neighboring Arab territories led to numerous Israeli casualties. Previous retaliatory measures by existing forces, including the short-lived Unit 30, proved ineffective. This led to the creation of a specialized force, with Sharon at the helm, drawing members from elite backgrounds, including the disbanded Unit 30.

Unit 101 in 1954
Members of Unit 101 in 1954. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In its infancy, Unit 101 targeted the sources of infiltration aggressively, with operations that sometimes resulted in civilian casualties, such as the El-Bureij and Qibya incidents. These operations brought international condemnation and a subsequent shift in Israeli policy to avoid civilian targets. Remnants of these policies remain to this day.