No country has mastered covert operations as much as the Israelis. The Jewish State’s special forces are made up of highly specialized units that operate domestically, regionally and overseas. The scope of Israeli special forces units ranges from intelligence gathering to counterterrorism operations, rescue missions, and more. Typically, special forces are tasked with maintaining Israel’s security by plotting how to prevent adversaries and nearby terrorist organizations from gaining ground. While the Israel Defense Forces operate primarily to conduct combat operations in times of war or in firefights, the Special Forces never stop working, even in peaceful interludes.
Israel Special Forces – What we know
The history of Israel’s special forces dates back to before the founding of the country in 1948. At the end of World War I, the Allied powers placed Israel under British mandate. Throughout the 1920s, clashes between Jewish and Arab citizens in Palestine led to violence, which British forces were unwilling to confront. During a particularly bloody riot in 1921, in the old town, the British troops are accused of having withdrawn from the scene and of not having ceased the violence. At this point, Jewish citizens recognized that the British would not protect them, which spurred the creation of underground resistance movements. The most effective militia that operated after the riots was the Haganah. In 1941, the organization formed Israel’s first underground special forces units, called Smash Companies. Conducting covert operations to acquire and transfer weapons, the Smash Companies helped protect Jewish citizens until the formal formation of the Israeli state.
Israel’s first Prime Minister Ben-Gurion transformed the haganah in the Israeli army in 1948. Without the need for underground and secret defense forces, the Smash Companies disbanded soon after. However, in 1953, Ben-Gurion created Israel’s first special forces unit – Commando Unit 101. The following year, the unit was merged into Israel’s 890.e Parachute Battalion. Unit 101 has had a significant impact on Israel’s infantry-oriented forces over the years, with its legacy still alive in the IDF today. Shortly after its creation, however, Unit 101 was disbanded following a series of operational failures. Sayeret Matkal, the reconnaissance unit of the General Staff, became the next special forces unit of the Jewish State. Inspired in part by the British Special Air Service, this elite unit carried out dangerous operations in enemy territory. The unit conducted successful missions in the 1960s and early 1970s. Following the 1967 Six Day WarSayeret Matkal has adapted to execute counterterrorism capabilities in light of the rise of Arab terrorism in the region.
Israel’s position surrounded by hostile adversaries led the country to adopt a unique hierarchy of special forces. Unlike other national defense organizations, the Jewish state does not have a centralized organization. Special Operations Force. Israel’s ground forces, air force, navy, northern command and military intelligence directorate form the umbrella of the IDF. Each of these command forces has its own special forces units that operate independently of each other. Four special forces units report to the Israeli ground forces – Duvdevan, Maglan, Egoz and Rimon. Operational units include Oketz, Unit 669, Shayetet 13 and Sayeret Matkal. In addition, the IDF has other specialized forces within its ground, air and naval forces. These include Shaldag, YALTAM, Alpinist, Yahalom, and Skylark & Moran units.
Sayeret Matkal is perhaps the most recognizable special forces unit in Israel’s hideout. Tasked with carrying out counterterrorism and hostage rescue missions beyond Israel’s border, Sayeret Matkal is behind some of the Jewish state’s most daring operations. One of his most notorious assignments was at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport in Uganda in 1976. Nicknamed Operation Thunderbolt (also known as Operation Entebbe), Sayeret Matkal helped challenge more than 100 Air France passengers whose plane had been hijacked by terrorists. In the end, 52 enemy combatants were killed, in addition to only three hostages and the commander of the assault element. The flight originated in Tel Aviv and the hijackers targeted Jewish and Israeli passengers, resulting in by Sayeret Matkal participation. The details of the heroic mission were described by the IDF.
A second special forces unit known for its clandestine operations is Duvdevan. The Netlix drama “Fauda” is based on the complex and high-risk operations this special forces unit is tasked with carrying out. A former member of the unit, Garret Machine, detailed how Duvdevan operates: “Duvdevan is a special forces unit within the Israel Defense Forces, directly subordinate to the West Bank Division. Duvdevan is particularly known for carrying out undercover operations against Palestinian militants in urban areas of the PA-controlled West Bank. During these operations, Duvdevan soldiers usually drive modified civilian vehicles and wear Arab civilian clothes as a disguise. The unit can perform high-risk arrests, raids, targeted assassinations, kidnappings, and a range of other urban warfare operations.
Israel’s high level depot of special forces units retains a vital role in preserving the country’s security. While much of the inner workings of these units remain classified, the public details conveying their significant contributions to Israel’s missions are truly heroic.
Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst at the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has lines in numerous publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post and Times of Israel.