Sayeret Matkal (Hebrew: סיירת מטכ"ל, translation: General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) is an elite special forces unit of the Israeli Defence Force. Its main roles are counter-terrorism, deep reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, but the unit is first and foremost a field intelligence-gathering unit, used to obtain strategic intelligence behind enemy lines. Sayeret Matkal is also’in charge of hostage rescue missions outside Israeli borders. The unit is modeled on the British SAS, and organizationally reports to the Directorate of Military Intelligence. Its IDF nickname is simply "The Unit". The unit's motto is "Who Dares Wins."
Operation (Shomron) Entebbe
The unit is best known for Operation Thunderbolt, commonly known as Operation Entebbe,’in which it rescued more than 100 Air France airline passengers hijacked and flown to Uganda by PLO terrorists, losing the assault element commander, Yonatan Netanyahu, and three hostages.
Sayeret Matkal was founded’in 1957 by Avraham Arnan (né Herling), a former yeshiva student and Palmach fighter, who served as its first commander. Originally it was part of the Aman Unit 157, but began to operate independently a year later as the General Staff's elite special operations force, modeled after the British Special Air Service. Members of the unit were trained by Bedouin trackers on the finer points of looking and thinking like an Arab. Sayeret Matkal was also formed one year after the IDF's first helicopter squadron became operational and close co-operation between the two allowed Sayeret Matkal to deploy for longer and deeper inside Arab territory than any unit before.
In 1959, a draftee named Ehud Barak was accepted into Sayeret Matkal. He later succeeded the Unit 101 commando Lt. Meir Har-Zion’in becoming Israel's most decorated soldier. Whilst with Sayeret Matkal, Ehud Barak participated’in many operations, including leading the Operation Isotope (airplane hostage rescue)’in 1972 and leading the 1973 Israeli raid on Lebanon. He later progressed’in his military career to become the IDF Chief of Staff’in 1991 and retired after the end of his tenure’in 1995. In 1999 Ehud Barak became the 10th Prime Minister of Israel.
Although a top-secret unit, Sayeret Matkal had a tremendous influence on the IDF. They were the original developers of helicopter infiltration techniques’in Israel. In addition, their heavy use of the Uzi led them to convince Israel Military Industries to produce an Uzi with a folding stock for increased accuracy while maintaining its small frame.
Sayeret Matkal has participated’in many anti- and counter-terrorist operations, including the storming of a Boeing 707 held by Black September terrorists’in 1972 (Operation Isotope), and the killing of a force of bus hijackers’in the Gaza Strip. They are probably best known for their actions’in the 1976 rescue of 106 passengers at Entebbe Airport’in Uganda (Operation Thunderbolt). There have been rumors linking them with several recent operations (see Operation Orchard) but these have never been confirmed by the IDF.
Recruitment and training
The unit was kept top-secret during its initial years. Fighters and commanders were selectively hand-picked, based on personal acquaintances and family members of existing members (all three Netanyahu brothers also served’in the unit, for example).
Since the 1970s, while still secretive, the unit opened to voluntary recruits. Twice a year it holds a notoriously grueling selection camp (Gibbush) for potential recruits lasting several sleepless days. The recruits are constantly monitored by doctors and psychologists. Those who make it through the end with passing evaluation marks are admitted.
During the 1990s, this selection camp practice was picked up by other IDF special forces (Sayeret). Former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz planned to unify all these camps to prevent recruit burn-outs and medical injury by over-enthusiastic youths.
Once admitted to the unit, recruits train for 20 months with heavy emphasis on small arms, martial arts, navigation, camouflage, reconnaissance and other skills important for survival behind enemy lines. They must also complete the 120-kilometer Beret March to receive their red beret. The training regime consists of the following:
○ 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, within the unit.
○ 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 dedicated to long-range reconnaissance patrol training, and especially to navigation/orienteering, which is of vast importance’in the unit. While most of the orienteering 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.
Although Sayeret Matkal has its own insignia, it is also one of the few units’in the IDF whose soldiers are not allowed to wear it’in public due to its classified nature.
Notable (former) Sayeret Matkal figures
Despite being a top-secret and relatively small army unit, former Sayeret Matkal veterans have a disproportionate influence on the army and public service. This may partly be due to the fact that rigorous screening and training ensures that only the most capable and motivated Israeli youths are accepted by the unit as fighters.
1. Uzi Yairi-Unit Commander, formerly head of the IDF Paratroopers Brigade, killed’in action while off-duty’in Savoy Operation.
2. Nechemiah Cohen-The Unit's and the IDF's most decorated soldier (with Barak). Killed’in action. Beit Nechemiah was built’in his memory by "the Unit".
3. Ehud Barak-unit commander, Stanford graduate, later IDF Chief of Staff and Israeli Prime Minister
4. Benjamin Netanyahu-unit team leader, MIT graduate, later Israeli Prime Minister
5. Yonatan Netanyahu-unit commander, killed’in Operation Thunderbolt (Entebbe, Uganda). Benjamin Netanyahu's older brother.
6. Shaul Mofaz-unit deputy commander, later IDF Chief of Staff and Israeli Defense Minister.
7. Moshe Yaalon-unit commander, later IDF Chief of Staff
8. Danny Yatom-unit deputy commander, later a General, head of MOSSAD and a Knesset member
9. Avi Dichter-unit fighter, later head of Israel's General Security Service (Shabak, aka Shin Bet), later the minister of internal security
10. Daniel M. Lewin-cofounder of Akamai Technologies, killed aboard American Airlines Flight 11 during the September 11 attacks.
Several other unit veterans who later became army generals and Knesset members
There is a widely held misconception that former Israeli Major General and former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also served’in Sayeret Matkal. He did (while a Major) create and command the IDF's first special-forces unit (Unit 101)’in 1953, which many people feel was the organizational parent of Sayeret Matkal. However, when Unit 101 was merged into the Paratroopers Brigade’in 1954, Sharon became brigade commander, and never served’in Sayeret Matkal.
Note: Until recently the Israeli army had an official policy of denying existence of this unit. Operations were generally attributed to "elite paratroopers". Sayeret Matkal operations are still kept secret to this day. However, due to the unit's successes’in daring operations, it soon became a very publicly-known secret’in Israeli society.
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-Operation Isotope-Foiling the Hijacking of Sabena Flight 572’in Tel Aviv, Israel (hostages rescue)
1972-Operation Crate 3-Kidnapping 5 Syrian intelligence officers
1973-Operation Spring of Youth-Killing Black September terrorist leaders’in Beirut, Lebanon (jointly with Shayetet 13)
1973-Yom Kippur War: Recapture of Mount Hermon from Syrian commandos (jointly with Golani Brigade); deep interdiction ambushes’in Egypt and Syria
1974-Ma'alot massacre-school hostages rescue
1975-Savoy Operation-hotel hostages rescue
1976-Operation Entebbe-Foiling an Air France aircraft hijacking’in Entebbe, Uganda (hostages rescue)
1978-Coastal Road Massacre-bus hostages rescue
1980-Misgav Am-Kibbutz hostages rescue
1984-Kav 300 affair-bus hostages rescue, see The Shabak's years of crisis
1988-Tunis Raid-assassination of Abu Jihad,’in Tunis, Tunisia (not acknowledged)
1989-Sheik Abdul-Karim Obeid kidnapping, Lebanon (see Ron Arad)
1994-Mustafa Dirani kidnapping, Lebanon (see Ron Arad)
1994-Nachshon Waxman-foiled hostage rescue
2006-Second Lebanon War: Operation Sharp and Smooth-disrupt weapons smuggling (jointly with the Shaldag Unit)
2007-Collecting soil samples’in Syria prior to Operation Orchard, the bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor.
Sayeret Mat'kal, also known as General Staff Reconnaissance unit, is the unit most people are referring to when discussing the Israeli war against terrorism. Operatives from this unit have led, or been an instrumental part of, almost every notable counterterrorist (and antiterrorist) operation conducted on behalf of Israel from 1957 to the present. It is also the primary unit dedicated to hostage rescue missions within Israel. Sayerot Mat'kal 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 most risky intelligence gathering operations, a function it has reportedly accomplished successfully on numerous occasions.
Operations of note include the following:
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, Sayerot 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.
Worth mentioning also are press reports that operatives from this unit were responsible for the assassination of Palestine Liberation Organization deputy commander and wanted terrorist, Abu Jihad’in 1988.
At approximately 1230 on Sunday, June 27, 1976, Air France flight number AF 139 was hijacked by four terrorists. The plane, of which nearly one-third of the passengers were Jewish, was flown to Benghazi. After a six and a half hour delay, the plane took off again and began flying east. It changed course and began flying south east; by 0300 the next morning it had arrived at Entebbe, Uganda.
Upon arrival, the four terrorists (two of which were members of the German Baader-Meinhof Gang) were joined by three others, bringing the total up to seven. The passengers were kept on the aircraft until 1200, at which point they were transported to the airfield's old terminal building.
Then President of Uganda, Idi Amin, visited the hostages’in the terminal and told them he was working to achieve their release, and that Ugandan soldiers would remain at the terminal to ensure their safety. The next day at 1530, the leader of the terrorists, a Palestine nick named the Peruvian released the specific demands the group of terrorists were seeking. 53 terrorists: thirteen held’in prisons’in France, W. Germany, Kenya, and Switzerland and 40’in Israeli prisons were to be released. If they were not, hostages would be executed starting at 1400 July 1.
Sayeret Matkal was placed on alert shortly after the Israeli government learned about the hijacking. Members of the Unit assembled at Lod Airport In Israel (The origin of flight 139), but were stood down temporarily when the aircraft landed’in Benghazi. Separately from Sayeret Mat'Kal, Lt. Col. Joshua Shani of the Israeli Air Force's only C-130 squadron began conducting basic flight planning for his aircraft to fly to and back from Uganda.
When the Peruvian announced the terms for release and impending execution if they were not met, Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, convened a group of cabinet ministers; one of them was IDF Chief of Staff Motta Gur. There were serious complications’in using military forces (Uganda was 2,200 miles away, the flight was from a French Company, and only 1/3 of the passengers were Jewish, and not all of these were from Israel) but the military began reviewing options.
Throughout Wednesday, June 30, intelligence information began to filter in. Idi Amin was not seeking the release of the hostages and was actually collaborating with the PFLP. This made an early plan requiring marine commandos to rescue the hostages and then surrender to Ugandan soldiers undesirable. Motta Gur reported that the IDF had no viable plan to rescue the hostages. On Thursday, July 1, Rabin's government agreed to release their prisoners.
Earlier that day, the PFLP terrorists had released 100 passengers, leaving only the Jewish population of the aircraft and the flight crew. Upon receiving word that Israel had agreed to the exchange, the terrorist moved the day of execution back, to Sunday July 4. Intelligence agents were told by the released passengers that the Ugandan soldiers were fully cooperating with the terrorists, and that the Jewish passengers were segregated from the rest. The real purpose of the hijacking was beginning to be made clear. Once again, the military was asked for options.
Jonathan Netanyahu, commander of Sayeret Mat'kal, was briefed on the roles and missions of the units’in the plan that was then under development. It called for three ground elements, The Unit, members of the Elite Golani Infantry, and paratroopers. Netanyahu and others argued for a smaller, more flexible force. Brigadier General Dan Shomron, who would ultimately command the raid, decided to go with Netanyahu's recommendation.
By Friday, July 2, a basic plan of attack had been created. Even though the military had not yet been given the mission to rescue the hostages, members of the Unit began to run through the mission. A pole and burlap mock-up of the terminal had been constructed at their base and members of the unit practiced entering and clearing it. Members of Mat'kal now new exactly how many terrorists there were and what they were armed with; a pregnant hostage who had been released had been debriefed and had given Israeli intelligence the information. 8mm film footage taken by a sergeant major formerly stationed’in Entebbe was shown to familiarize the commandos with the airport.
Drivers from the Unit met with crews from the Israeli Air Force to practice off-loading all of the vehicles that were to be brought along for the mission. As further intelligence and information came in, the plan was further refined and improved. Members of The Unit continued to practice all throughout Friday as the Israeli government pondered what to do. Friday evening, a full dress rehearsal was performed for IDF Chief of Staff Motta Gur. After witnessing a successful "operation", Motta Gur told the senior officers’in the unit he would recommend to the Prime Minister that the mission be approved. The Commandos, their practice session complete, attempted to rest for the mission the next day.
The members of Sayeret Mat'Kal participating’in the assault met at Lod Airport at 1130 on Saturday, July 3, six days after the terrorists had hijacked the aircraft and passengers. A final briefing was conducted and last minute details between the C-130 crews and commandos were addressed. At 1320 the aircraft took off (Heading’in different directions to fool potential spies) and headed south at low levels to avoid radar detection by Russian ships and Egyptian Radar.
The timing of the assault was critical;’in order to slip their large C-130 transports into the airport undetected by radar the force was to land closely behind a British Airways flight that was scheduled to land for refueling. The aircraft made a brief stop at Sharm-a-Sheikh to top off their fuel tanks and feed the troops before the four aircraft formation headed south on their 7.5 hour flight to Entebbe.
By 2230 the aircraft had reached Lake Victoria, just a short distance from Entebbe by air. The last three C-130s broke formation and circled as the lead aircraft made its approach. At 2300 on July 23 (Israeli time) the lead aircraft touched down. The commandos on board immediately sprang into action. Aircrew quickly undid the tie-downs and prepared to lower the ramp as the commandos started their vehicles. As the aircraft slowed, ten members from the elite Golani Infantry jumped out and set up landing beacons for the remaining aircraft. As the aircraft turned onto the taxiway leading to the old terminal, the rear cargo ramp was lowered and a black Mercedes and two land rovers drove out. Ugandan flags flew from the Mercedes and all 35 commandos were dressed’in Ugandan uniforms.
The three vehicle convoy proceeded towards the old terminal with their lights on at a steady 40 Mph (64 KPH). The vehicles drove towards the terminal for a full minute before being challenged by two Ugandan sentries. Lieutenant Colonel Netanyahu slowed the vehicles as if to stop and, when the sentries were within range, ordered his men to fire. Israeli commandos opened fire with silenced Berettas, killing one sentry and missing another; who stumbled backwards and began to raise his rifle. An Israeli commando quickly opened fire, killing the sentry with his AK-47, but piercing the night with the weapon's loud report. Realizing that the element of surprise was lost, Netanyahu immediately ordered the drivers to head for the old terminal at full speed. As they approached, several soldiers and a terrorist could be seen milling about outside’in confusion.
The vehicles quickly parked by the control tower adjacent to the old terminal and the commandos jumped out and began their attack. The lone terrorist seen outside ran inside yelling, "The Ugandans have gone nuts--they're shooting at us!" The Israelis had truly achieved the element of surprise.
During the initial phase of the assault, Muki Betser's (the second’in command) element ran into a problem when a door that had been included’in the plans was not there. Netanyahu ran past him and resumed the assault while Betser's group found other entry to the building. A Ugandan guard jumped up from behind some wooden crates and began to fire but was cut down. Another fired from within the terminal, spraying glass and bullets about. He too, is killed by Mat'Kal commandos now entering the building. The Commandos began to clear the building. Some members were darting about independently while others were clumping together, but the basic plan was being followed. Somewhere’in this initial assault phase, Johnathan Netanyahu is shot and mortally wounded.
Within THREE minutes of landing, four of the seven terrorists had been killed. The troopers continued to clear the building. By this time, events have been happening so quickly that some of the Mat'kal soldiers are disoriented. Some men are out of position or’in the wrong hallways. A little girl suddenly jumped up’in on of the rooms they were clearing. The commandos were able to recognize’in time that she was not a terrorist and hold their fire, but two other passengers who also stood up were not so lucky and are badly wounded.
The team assigned to assault the 6P lounge’in the terminal found the outside door locked. One of them threw a grenade at the door; it bounced of and exploded, wounded one member slightly. They went inside the terminal and entered from an open door there. Inside were two men. As the members of the Unit entered, the two men stood up and began moving towards the commandos, hands raised. Unsure as to the two men's intentions, the commandos withheld their fire until one noticed a grenade belt around the waist of one of the men. Their commands to halt unheeded, they opened fire and killed the two men. As they did, one of the terrorist dropped a grenade he had been hiding’in his hand.
All the terrorists were now dead. Only the Ugandan soldiers stood’in the way of a safe escape. Several soldiers were held up’in the tower next to the old terminal and were firing at the Mat'kal soldiers remaining’in the landrovers. The mortally wounded Netanyahu was evacuated to a C-130 at this time. The second C-130 landed six minutes after the first and two armored personnel carriers offloaded and headed to the secured terminal. When they arrived they took it under fire and temporarily silenced it.
Two more APCs arrived on the third C-130 and joined the first two. One split off and destroyed eight MiGs stationed at the base. Members of Sayeret Golani arrived and set up a defensive perimeter. Within Fifteen minutes of the first C-130 landing, the hostages had been freed and the area secured.
Mat'kal commandos began evacuating the rescued civilians to a waiting C-130. They were hampered by passengers returning to the terminal to try and find lost property and darkness. Several of the passengers were also’in shock or hysterical. Getting an accurate headcount was difficult’in the darkened aircraft. At 2352, less than an hour after the first Hercules landed, the C-130 with 106 rescued hostages took off and flew into the night.
With the hostages safe, the rest of the force began to withdraw to their aircraft. Their movements were covered by smoke and timed explosives devices. The last C-130 left Entebbe at 2429, 99 minutes after the first one had landed. The cost, one commando killed (Netanyahu) and one hostage dead (she had been moved to a local hospital after a choking incident and was not present during the rescue. She was subsequently executed’in retribution for the raid).
The rescue at Entebbe is a classic example of a successful special operations. The Israelis used surprise and superior training to overcome their enemies and gain their objectives with a minimum loss of life. It was a logistically difficult mission. Thirty-five commandos’in two Landrovers and a Mercedes with four APCs for firepower had to be transported over 2,200 miles and back again with over 100 hostages. The building the hostages were kept’in was guarded by seven terrorists and an unknown number of Ugandan soldiers and was reported to be wired with explosives.
Originally, the Israeli military wanted to use a large force and secure the entire airfield. Netanyahu argued for, and got, a smaller force that would take only the terminal. Speed and surprise would be their main advantages. Using information about the old terminal, a mock-up was built allowing the commandos to practice beforehand, allowing them some familiarity with the terminal.
The Israeli assault of Entebbe achieved it's goals with stunning success. Any study of successful counter-terror operations would be remiss’in not including this operation.
 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sayeret_Matkal, (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
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