The Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) is the principal SOF unit for Israel. Sayeret Matkal is also tasked with counter terrorism and hostage rescue beyond Israel’s borders. The unit is modeled after the British SAS. In the IDF it is known as “the Unit.”
The Israeli Army’s Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Commando Unit) began life in 1957 as part of Aman (Military Intelligence Unit 154), designed to operate deep behind enemy lines. Masters of disguise, they originally consisted of Jews who spoke Arabic as a native language along with paratroopers, intelligence personnel and other experienced hands from the military. They adopted the British Special Air service motto of “Who Dares Wins,” and often operated in Arab lands gathering vital intelligence for the nation.
In the 1960′s Sayeret Matkal was transformed from a reconnaissance unit to a commando force. They began setting standards of excellence for the world’s elite units and influenced combat tactics in the Israeli Defense Forces, along with a central role in some of the world’s most famous Special Forces missions.
Chief among these was Operation Thunderbolt (later renamed Operation Jonatan) where they stormed the airport terminal in Entebbe, Uganda on July 4, 1976 to rescue 106 Jewish and French hostages of an Air France flight hijacked by Palestinian and German terrorists.
Another notable operation occurred in 1988, when the Unit dispatched P.L.O terrorist mastermind Abu Jihad after uncovering a plot to kidnap soldiers in the Israeli Defense Ministry. In the dead of night, the strike team eliminated Jihad’s guards and entered his bedroom, shooting him dozens of times as he roused from sleep before making their getaway.
It was near this time the unit was first acknowledged to the world by Israel.
More recently, they are believed to have been involved in reconnaissance in Syria as an asset to Operation Orchard, the bombing of Syria’s nuclear facilities.
Candidates wanting to join the unit are selected on “Yom Hasayarot” or commando day. Then they begin the Gibbush or “crystallization” day. Here begins evaluations for the next six days as they undergo grueling physical and mental challenges. Those who pass are invited to continue training. This will incur an additional twenty months consisting of the following:
- Four months of Paratrooper training.
- Two months of advanced infantry training.
- Three week parachutists course.
- Five week Counter Terrorism course.
Woven among all of these are daily exercises of physical and mental conditioning, marksmanship, weapons knowledge, navigation, martial arts, and commando tactics and skills.
In the final months of the course, candidates must undergo tests in long range navigation, in pairs and alone, before graduation.
The final four days are the infamous 120 kilometer “Beret March” across harsh terrain. This brings all who complete the final exercise to the mountain fortress of Masada. to be greeted by cheering veterans of the unit, as well as receiving a visit by helicopter from the Chief of Staff. Now wearing maroon berets they become part of Israel’s most elite unit, although due to its secrecy, no member is allowed to wear its emblem of a sword and wings in public.
Size of Sayeret Matkal remains classified, but is believed to number about 200.