The Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) is the principal SOF unit of Israel. Within the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) it is known simply as “the Unit.”
Sayeret Matkal began life in 1957 as part of Aman (Military Intelligence Unit 154). It was designed to operate deep behind enemy lines. Masters of disguise, its soldiers originally consisted of Jews who spoke Arabic as their native language. They were joined by paratroopers, intelligence personnel, and other experienced hands from the military. The unit is modeled after the British SAS and adopted the British Special Air service motto of “Who Dares Wins.”
The Unit often operated in Arab lands gathering vital intelligence for Israel. Another of its principal tasks has been counterterrorism and hostage rescue beyond Israel’s borders.
In the 1960′s Sayeret Matkal was transformed from a reconnaissance unit to a commando force. It began setting standards of excellence for the world’s elite units and influenced combat tactics in the Israeli Defense Forces. It played a central role in some of the world’s most famous Special Forces missions.
Chief among these was Operation Thunderbolt (later renamed Operation Jonatan) that took place on July 4, 1976, in Entebbe, Uganda. The Unit stormed the airport terminal 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 PLO terrorist mastermind Abu Jihad after uncovering a plot to kidnap soldiers from 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 that the Unit was first acknowledged to the world by Israel.
More recently, the Unit is believed to have been involved in reconnaissance in Syria as an asset to Operation Orchard, the bombing of Syria’s nuclear facilities.
Needless to say, joining Sayeret Matkal is very difficult. Candidates wanting to join are selected on “Yom Hasayarot” or commando day. Then they begin the Gibbush or “crystallization” day. For the next six days, they undergo grueling physical and mental challenges and evaluations. Those who pass are invited to continue training.
Training takes place over an additional 20 months. It consists of the following: Four months of paratrooper training; two months of advanced infantry training; a three-week parachutist course; and a five-week counterterrorism 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.
The final four days are the infamous 120 kilometers “Beret March” across harsh terrain. Those who pass through training are brought to the mountain fortress of Masada. There, they are greeted by cheering veterans of the unit and receive a helicopter visit from the Israeli Chief of Staff.
Finally, wearing their maroon berets, they become part of Israel’s most elite unit. (Yet, due to secrecy, no member is allowed to wear the Unit’s emblem of a sword and wings in public.)
The size of Sayeret Matkal remains classified but it is believed to be about 200 men.
This article was originally published in 2019. It has been edited for republication.