Sayeret Matkal: A Israel’s Equivalent to the Delta Force

Sayeret Matkal operators training at undisclosed location
Sayeret Matkal operators training at undisclosed location (Photo: IDF)

Sayeret Matkal is one of the most elite Special Force units on the planet. They are believed to be on par with Delta Force in terms of skill and have demonstrated this skill with their impressive military history.

The Sayeret Matkal, also known as General Staff Reconnaissance Unit 269, is the unit most people are referring to when discussing the Israeli war against terrorism. Also referred to only as The Unit, they have been in on the first line of defense for years. Highly motivated, trained, and experienced operatives from Sayeret Matkal have led or been an instrumental part of, almost every notable counterterrorism (and antiterrorist) operation conducted on behalf of Israel from 1957 to the present day.

Sayeret Matkal: A Israel's Equivalent to the Delta Force
Sayeret Matkal: A Israel’s Equivalent to the Delta Force (Photo: IDF)

Introduction

Sayeret Matkal is also the primary unit dedicated to hostage rescue missions within Israeli soil. Sayeret Matkal has been assisted on occasion by other Israeli units such as the elite Sayeret Tzanhanim, Flotilla 13, and Sayeret Golani. During periods of war, this unit is tasked with the riskiest intelligence-gathering operations, a function it has reportedly accomplished successfully on numerous occasions. It is directly subordinate to the IDF’s Directorate of Military Intelligence.

Mission

The unit is most famous for Operation Thunderbolt, where they rescued more than 100 Air France passengers hijacked and flown to Uganda by terrorists, killing 52 enemy combatants while losing only the assault element commander and three hostages.

Operators from the IDF's Tier 1 unit Sayeret Matkal during the training
Operators from the IDF’s Tier 1 unit Sayeret Matkal during the training (Photo: IDF)

This unit is trained to conduct operations involving:

  • Special Reconnaissance
  • Direct Action
  • Hostage Rescue
  • Counter-Terrorism

History

Sayeret Matkal was officially formed in 1957 by Avraham Arnan, an Israeli military officer. He petitioned the IDF General Staff to create a special purpose unit that could be dispatched to the enemy-held territory to carry out top-secret intelligence-gathering missions.

The Sayeret Matkal is created on the model of the British Army’s Special Air Service (SAS), and they also have taken their motto “Who Dares, Wins”. Besides British SAS, the unit’s equivalent in the United States is probably the famous Delta Force. Sayeret Matkal is directly subordinate to the Israeli Defense Force’s Directorate of Military Intelligence.

Ehud Barak, a commander of Sayeret Matkal during the Operation Spring of Youth (1973)
Ehud Barak, a commander of Sayeret Matkal during the Operation Spring of Youth in 1973 (Photo: IDF)

Selection and training

The unit selection course and regular training were kept top-secret during its initial years. The first candidates for the units were solely fighters and commanders which were selectively hand-picked by other members, based on personal acquaintances. During the 1970s, while still secretive, the unit finally opened to voluntary recruits.

Twice a year it holds a notoriously grueling selection camp (Gibbush) for potential recruits lasting several sleepless days (similar to the Navy SEALs Hell Week during BUD/S). The candidates are constantly monitored by doctors and psychologists. Those who make it through with a passing grade are admitted to join the basic training.

Navy SEALs during BUD/s training in the pool
Navy SEALs during BUD/s training (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Those who make it to the basic training are subjected to the 20 monthly training plan. The course of the training relays with a heavy emphasis on small arms, martial arts, orienteering, camouflage, reconnaissance, and other skills important for survival behind enemy lines. The training regime consists of the following:

  • Four months of basic infantry training.
  • Two months of advanced infantry training.
  • Three weeks parachuting 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 rest of the training is devoted to long-range reconnaissance patrols, and especially to navigation, which is of vast value in the unit. While most of the navigation training is done in pairs, like in every other unit in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), Sayeret Matkal is one of a handful of IDF elite units that conducts long-range solo navigation exercises.

Missions

They have taken part in dozens, probably hundreds or even thousands of operations in their history. Sayeret Matkal is best known for Operation Thunderbolt, more commonly but mistakenly known as Operation Entebbe. That operation is described in the books as one of the world’s most successful counter-terrorism operations in modern history. On that day, Sayeret Matkal operators rescued more than 100 Air France airline passengers hijacked to Uganda by PLO terrorists. They had only one casualty, the unit commander, Jonathan Netanyahu, who was killed by enemy gunfire.

But, not all of them were so successful, in 1994, they failed to save Israeli soldier Nachshon Wachsman who was held hostage. He was killed by his captors during the failed rescue attempt.

Operation Isotope

On May 8-9, 1972, Sayeret commandos disguised themselves as Lod Airport maintenance personnel before storming a Sebena Belgian Airlines jetliner that had been hijacked by Black September terrorists. Operation Crate 3 – In June of 1972, concern was mounting over the fate of three Israeli airmen who had been taken captured by Syrian authorities. The decision was made that in order to be in a position to negotiate their release, Israel would need bargaining chips of their own. In response, Sayeret operatives, in an operation that has become their trademark, kidnapped five Syrian intelligence officers who were conducting a border tour with Palestinian terrorists at the time.

Operation Spring of Youth

On the night of April 9-10, 1973, Sayeret commandos, one disguised as a woman, conducted the assassinations of Black September leaders. What was remarkable about this operation was that the targets were in three separate locations and all in West Beirut, which was at the time enemy-held territory. The Operation Spring of Youth was part of the bigger operation Operation Wrath of God which was a retaliation for the 1972 Munich Massacre.

Operation Thunderbolt, commonly known as Operation Entebbe

In 1974, Sayeret Matkal performed one of the most famous hostage rescue missions in the world’s history. They stormed an Air France airplane in Uganda, at the Entebbe airport after it was hijacked by PFLP-EO terrorists. Despite they lost the commander of the Unit, Lieutenant Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu, which led the assault and three hostages, the mission was successful.

Worth mentioning also is press reports that operatives from this unit were responsible for the assassination of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) deputy commander and wanted terrorist Abu Jihad in 1988.

sayeret matkal patch logo insignia
Sayeret Matkal Insignia: The only unit whose operators are not allowed to wear it in public (Photo: IDF)

The members of the Sayeret Matkal are among the most secretive and deadliest special operations units in the world. That is best described by the rule created by IDF, especially for Sayeret Matkal. Although the unit has its own insignia, it is the only unit in the force whose operators are not allowed to wear it in public due to its classified nature.

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