The Israeli General Staff’s Reconnaissance Unit, also recognized by its previous designations Unit 269 or Unit 262 and more popularly known as Sayeret Matkal (Hebrew: סיירת מטכ”ל), holds a most distinguished position within Israel’s special forces community. One could argue that they are the Delta Force of the Israeli armed forces.
Primarily, this unit is devoted to executing field intelligence collection, venturing behind enemy lines to acquire vital strategic intelligence. However, the scope of Sayeret Matkal extends to a broad range of largely covert special operations. These encompass black operations, combat search and rescue missions, counterterrorism activities, hostage rescue operations, human intelligence (HUMINT) gathering, irregular warfare tactics, long-distance penetration into hostile territories, manhunts, and specialized reconnaissance and operations beyond the national boundaries of Israel.
Drawing its inspiration and operational ethos from the UK’s Special Air Service (SAS), Sayeret Matkal adopted the motto “Who Dares Wins,” symbolizing a shared legacy of daring and precision in special operations. This alignment signifies Sayeret Matkal’s position as Israel’s counterpart to the SAS. Operational control of Sayeret Matkal is vested under the Special Operations Division within the Military Intelligence Directorate of the Israel Defense Forces, reflecting its integral role in intelligence collection and special operations execution.
Filling a Void
In 1954, the dissolution of Israel’s initial special ops unit, Unit 101, left a gap in its military apparatus, with Shayetet 13 being the only special-forces unit, albeit with a naval focus. In 1957, Major Avraham Arnan, inspired by his diverse background, proposed to the IDF General Staff the establishment of a unit capable of executing covert intelligence missions in enemy territories. Supported by prominent figures like David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin, Arnan envisioned a unit composed of Israel’s most capable youth selected for their physical and intellectual prowess.
Initially, this unit was a part of Aman’s Unit 154 (later known as Unit 504). However, it soon started functioning independently as the General Staff’s special operations force, taking cues from the British Special Air Service. Training included learning from Bedouin trackers to understand adversaries better. The unit, Sayeret Matkal, was conceived to execute strategic intel-gathering and other critical operations, with its directives coming solely from the General Staff. It also took on the role of assessing new military weaponry and strategies, impacting the IDF at large.
Sayeret Matkal first sprung into action in Lebanon in May 1962, undertaking its first operation. Its success laid the foundation for subsequent missions, including in Syria later that year. In the lead-up to the Six-Day War, the unit undertook various intel-gathering missions in Sinai. However, it didn’t participate in the war due to extensive prep requirements for its operations. However, it played a significant role in the subsequent War of Attrition.
The rise of Arab terrorism post-1967 led Sayeret Matkal to pioneer counterterrorism and hostage rescue techniques. Notable operations included Operation Isotope and, later, following the Munich massacre, Operation Wrath of God pitting them against the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon.