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Sayeret Matkal

Sayeret Matkal  (Hebrew: ", translation: General Staff Commando or recon Unit) is also known as "hayehida" - and variously as Unit 262 and 269. It is the  best known and most prestigious (among the publicly known commandos) of several elite IDF military units, including Shayetet 13  (the Israeli Seals) Shaldag, Sayeret Tsanchanim (Paratoopers Commando), Sayeret Golani (Golani Commandos), Duvdevan and others. These were formed for carrying out various intelligence gathering and covert operations tasks including rescue, sabotage and assassination missions.

Sayeret Matkal Insignia

Sayeret Matkal was founded in 1957 as the brainchild of  Avraham Arnan a former yeshiva student and Palmach fighter, with the backing of General David Elazar, who was a friend of Arnan and of others.  It was a part of Aman (military intelligence "unit 154") and was conceived as a unit that could provide intelligence from deep in enemy territory and carry out surveillance tasks. Many of its members were originally Aman "mista'arvim" - experts at disguising themselves as Arabs, often Mizrachi (Eastern) Jews who spoke Arabic as a mother tongue. Others were young paratroopers and kibbutzniks, old hands in the intelligence service and veterans of Ariel Sharon's Unit 101.    

Within a year, the unit began to operate independently. The introduction of helicopters into the IDF as that time allowed the Sayeret Matkal to obtain greater mobility and penetration into enemy territory. The Palmach had a tradition of excellence, of informal command relationships, "bending the rules," daring and innovation that many Palmach veterans found lacking in the IDF. Sayeret Matkal and units like it tried to revive this approach in the IDF. The motto of Sayeret Matkal is "He who dares, wins," borrowed from the British SAS. 

Ehud Barak joined the Sayeret Matkal in 1959 and rose through its ranks. In the 60s, Yitzhak Rabin helped to transform Sayeret Matkal from an information gathering unit into a fighting commando. Barak went on to become Israel's most decorated soldier, commander of the Sayeret Matkal, Chief of Staff and Prime Minister of Israel. He is not the only Israeli politician whose political career began in this elite unit.

Sayeret Matkal had an important influence on the IDF, setting standards for other commandos and providing an image of daring that became the emblem of one of the world's most respected armies. They had important input on development of tactics and weapons, including heliborne infiltration and the production of an Uzi submachine gun with a folding stock.

Sayeret Matkal Recruitment and Training

At first, the unit was super-secret. Its members were hand-picked, and were often personal acquaintances of commanders or family members of existing commandos. Thus,  Benjamin Netanyahu served along with both of his brothers, for example.  Since the 1970s, Sayeret Matkal became open to volunteers. "Officially" it did not exist until the late 1980s, but by that time, everyone in Israel certainly knew of its existence as well as the foreign press. 

Recruits are selected on "Yom Hasayarot" - commando day, and then evaluated  in a grueling selection camp (Gibbush - "crystalization")  lasting six days. Under constant physical and mental pressure, the recruits are monitored by doctors and psychologists.  They also undergo a complete and stringent physical and psychological examination. Those who complete the Gibbush and get a satisfactory evaluation and pass the medical exam  are admitted.

During the 1990s, the "selection camp" idea was copied by other commando units.

Training lasts 20 months with heavy emphasis on small arms, martial arts, navigation, camouflage, reconnaissance and other commando skills. Recruits complete a 120 kilometer "Beret March."

The training regime includes:

* Four months of basic infantry training, held in the Paratroopers basic training base; it is part of the regular Paratroopers basic training routine.

* Two months advanced infantry training.

* Three week parachutists course in the IDF Parachuting School.

* Five weeks counter-terror (CT) course in the IDF Counter-Terror Warfare School, followed by more inner-unit CT training. .

The remainder of the training is dedicated to long-range reconnaissance patrol training, and especially to navigation/orientation, which is of vast importance in the unit. While most of the navigation  training is done in pairs for safety reasons, as in every other unit in the IDF, Sayeret Matkal is one of the handful of IDF elite units which conducts long-range solo navigation exercises.

Following the above there is a 4-5 month training period within the Sayeret Matkal and 12 months of mandatory professional army service (Sherut Keva).

Summary of Major Sayeret Matkal Operations

Sayeret Matkal has played a leading role in numerous critical commando operations, including the storming of a Sabena Boeing 707 held by Black September terrorists in 1972 (Operation Isotope); Operation Aviv Neurim ("Spring of Youth) in April 1973 in Beirut, to kill terrorists responsible for the Munich Olympics massacre; the 1976 rescue of 106 passengers at Entebbe Airport in Uganda (Operation Yonatan); 1984 rescue of passengers from the hijacked #300 bus. The 1988 killing of terror terrorist Abu Jihad in Tunis is attributed to them and to the IN Shayetet 13  commandos, and they were very likely involved in reconnaissance prior to the bombing of the Syrian nuclear installation (Operation Orchard).

Major Operations of Sayeret Matkal

Following is a list of known or suspected major operations of Sayeret Matkal. Many others remain secret.

1963- August 10-11 - Operation Halutz - First Heliborne commando operation using Sikorsky 58 helicopters in the Sinai desert. This was reconnaissance for Operation ShrakRak to follow. The operation was prompted by information that Egypt had moved an armored division and three infantry brigades into the Sinai desert.

1964 - March 4-5 - Operation Shrakrak - The operation for which Halutz was a preparation, very likely the planting of listening or warning devices. This operation was credited with aiding greatly in the victory of the Six day war. Ehud Barak commanded Sayeret Matkal forces in the field in Operations Halutz and Shrakrak. ref 

During War of Attrition:

1968 - Operation Shock - Sabotage of power plant and Nile bridges in Egypt (jointly with Israeli Air Force)

1968 - Operation Gift - Sabotage of 14 Arab airliners in Beirut International Airport, Lebanon

1969 - Operations Orchard 22, Orchard 37 - Assaults on high voltage wires and a control antenna in Egypt

1969 - Operation Bulmus 6 - Assault on fortified Green Island, Egypt (jointly with Shayetet 13)

1969 - Operation Rooster 53 - Seizing an entire Egyptian radar installation (jointly with Israeli Air Force)

1970 - Operation Rhodes - Assault on fortified Shadwan Island, Egypt (jointly with Shayetet 13)

1972 - May 9 - Operation Isotope - Foiled the hijacking of Sabena Flight 572 in Tel Aviv, Israel (hostage rescue)

1972 - June 21 - Operation Crate 3 (Argaz) - Kidnapping 5 Syrian intelligence officers in Lebanon

1973 - April 9-10 Operation Aviv Neurim (Spring of Youth) - Killing Black September terrorist leaders in Beirut, Lebanon (jointly with Shayetet 13, Sayeret Tzanchanim (Paratroopers commando and Unit 707 (originally naval support unit)) . The most famous part of this multi force operation was conducted by the Sayeret as part of "Force Aviva." They landed at Beirut and attacked a building in the heart of Beirut, some disguised as women, to kill three of the planners of Munich massacre of Israeli athletes, including Muhamad Nag'ar (Abu Yousef) who had earlier been wounded in operation Bardas 20 by Shayetet 13

1973 - Yom Kippur War.: Recapture of Mount Hermon from Syrian commandos (jointly with Golani Brigade), including rescue of Lieut. Col. Yosi Ben Chanan; deep interdiction ambushes in Egypt and Syria including killing of over 40 Syrian commandos.

1974 - Ma'alot massacre - failed school hostage rescue.

1975 - March 5 -  Savoy Operation - hotel hostage rescue; Lieut Col. Uzi Yairi was killed in this operation.

1976 - July 3 - Operation Yonatan (AKA operation Thunderbolt AKA Operation Yonatan) - Ending an Air France aircraft hijacking in Entebbe, Uganda (hostage rescue)

1978 - Coastal Road Massacre - bus hostage rescue

1980 - Misgav Am - Kibbutz hostage rescue

1984 - April 12-  Bus 300 affair - bus hostage rescue

1988 - Tunis Raid - assassination of Abu Jihad, in Tunis, Tunisia (probable). Abu Jihad was assassinated after Israel uncovered and stopped an ingenious plot he had concocted to infiltrate the Israeli Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv and kidnap soldiers. The Palestinian naval commandos were intercepted on the high seas and the decision was made to eliminate Abu Jihad, a dangerous, if respected, adversary.

1989 - July 27 -  Sheik Abdul-Karim Obeid kidnapping, Lebanon

1990 - 30 May - Overcame terrorists who arrived in a boat to Nitzanim. Nadav Padan was decorated for this operation.

1994 - Mustafa Dirani kidnapping, Lebanon

1994 - Nachshon Waxman - foiled hostage rescue; Sayeret Matkal had unexpected difficulty blasting open a door. They lost the element of surprise and the Hamas kidnappers killed Waxman. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin  took personal responsibility for the failure. 

2006 - Second Lebanon War:

August 2, Operation Sharp and Smooth ("Had vehahlak") (jointly with the Shaldag Commando) - operation in the Hezbollah HQ in a hospital in Baalbeq. 19 terrorists killed and hostages and weapons taken. This was a daring operation but the purpose of the operation was possibly to take a relative of Hassan Nasrallah hostage. A man named Nasrallah was kidnapped, but evidently he was not a relative of Nasrallah.

August 19- Operation to disrupt weapons smuggling. In the course of the operation, the force was discovered and  Lieutenant Colonel Emanuel Morano was killed and two others were wounded in the ensuing gun battle.

2007 - Collection of soil samples and other reconnaissance in Syria prior to Operation Orchard, the bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor (probable)

Failed Missions of Sayeret Matkal

Some of the known failures of the Sayeret Matkal include:

Failed attempt to rescue a pilot whose plane was downed during the Yom Kippur War. The pilot was already captured by the Egyptians, and one commando was killed in the operation.

Maalot Massacre resulted when an attempt to free schoolchildren being held hostage failed in 1974.

Failed to rescue Nachshon Waxman, kidnapped by Hamas in 1994. 

Training Accidents of Sayeret Matkal

Tse'elim Bet Accident - November 5, 1992 - Five killed and five wounded when a soldier launched live rockets against a building that was occupied, because he had misunderstood the orders. Sayeret Matkal was training for the assassination of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Two trainees died of sunstroke near Eilat in 1992. Commander Amos Ben Avraham resigned.

On January 1, trainee Tamir Nevoani, the first Druze soldier to enter the Sayeret Matkal, fell 15 meters from a cliff during navigational training in the Negev. 

Famous Israelis in Sayeret Matkal

Many soldiers who served in the Sayeret Matkal have gone on to make prominent careers, generally in the IDF and in politics. Some of the best known among the Sayeret Matkal graduates include:

Benjamin Netanyahu - currently Israel's Prime Minister

Ehud Barak - Currently Israel's Defense Minister, Prime Minister from 1999-2000 and formerly chief of staff of the IDF.

Shaul Mofaz - Formerly Minister of Defence and Chief of Staff of the IDF.

Moshe ("boogie") Yaalon - Formerly Chief of Staff of the  IDF, currently Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Strategic Affairs

Uzi Dayan - Deputy Chief of Staff, head of the Israel National Security Council.

Amiram Levin - Head of the Northern Command and deputy commander of the Mossad.

Avi Dichter - Kadima MK and former Minster of Internal Security.

Danny Yatom - Later head of the Mossad

Matan Vilnai - MK, Former Minister of Science and Technology and later Deputy Minister of Defense. 

Avshalom Vilan - Meretz MK.

Commanders of Sayeret Matkal

Following is a list of known commanders of the Sayeret Matkal

1957 - 1961 Avraham Arnan
1961 - 1962 Yoseph Castel
1962 - 1964 Avraham Arnan
1964 - 1967 Dov Tamari
1967 - 1969 Uzi Yairi
1969 - 1971 Menachem Digli
1971 - 1973 Ehud Barak
1973 - 1975 Giora Zoreah
1975 - 1976 Yonatan Netanyahu
1976 - 1978 Amriram Levin
1978 - 1980 Nechemia Tamari
1980 - 1982 Uzi Dayan
1982 - 1984 Shai Avital
1984 - 1987 Omer Bar Lev
1987 - 1989 Moshe Yaalon
1989 - 1991 Ran Shachor
1991 - 1992 Amos Ben Avraham
1992 - 1994 Doron Avital
1994 - 1996 "Shachar" ref
1996 - 1998 Lieutenant Colonel Yovel ref
1998 - 2001 Nitsan Alon  ref
2001 - 2004 Hertzi Halevi
2004 - 2007 Lieutenant Colonel Ayin  ref
2007 - Lieutenant Colonel Aleph  ref

Ami Isseroff

May 25, 2009


Synonyms and alternate spellings:  Unit 269, Unit 262

Further Information:  Colonel Muki Betser - Secret Soldier: The Incredible True Story of Israel's Greatest Commando:  Ian Black and Benny Morris - Israel's Secret Wars: A History of Israel's Intelligence Services

Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:

'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.

ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.

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This work and individual entries are copyright 2005 by Ami Isseroff and Zionism and Israel Information Center and may not reproduced in any form without permission unless explicitly noted otherwise. Individual entries may be cited with credit to The Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Zionism and Israel


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