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The Evolution of Israeli Special Forces

Owing to the size of the country the Israel Defense Force (IDF), has always had to improvise and employ special tactics to allow it to punch above its weight. To that end the genesis of the Israeli Special Forces began before the state of Israel even existed.

Special Night Squads

During the days of the British mandate the governing British administration found itself understaffed, their need for manpower became desperate during the Arab uprising of 1936. In this uprising both Jewish and British civilians found themselves under threat from bands of guerrillas working from Arab towns and villages.

An eccentric British Captain named Orde Wingate thought he had the answer and received permission to train a group of Jews in small unit tactics. The unit he trained was called the Special Night Squads. In his training Wingate emphasised aggression and speed. Soldiers serving in the Special Night Squads included former Chief of Staff of the IDF and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. Though Wingate was quickly transferred out of Palestine the lessons he taught Dayan were maintained and used to great effect by the fledgling IDF during in the years to come.

Unit 101

In the wake of Israel’s successes during the War of Independence the new Jewish state found it didn’t have the ability to curb the infiltration of Israeli borders by Arab guerrillas. These small units of fedayeen were trained by hostile states and sent into Israel to kill civilians, lay traps and gather intelligence. Moshe Dayan tasked a young officer called Ariel Sharon with establishing a new unit with the goal of creating a deterrent effect among Israel’s enemies. According to historian Benny Morris Unit 101:

“was characterized by exacting training, which included regular forays into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and efficient and brutal performance.”

The unit was called upon to respond to terror attacks within the state of Israel. It operated in both Gaza and Jordan to great success as well as some controversy. There was concern in Israel that the unit was causing too many casualties, after just five months it was folded into the newly created Israeli Paratroops with Sharon promoted Paratrooper commander.

Sayeret Tzanhanim

With Ariel Sharon commanding them the Paratroopers were the main tool used for Israeli counter terror operations. The Paratroopers had a reconnaissance unit led by a legendary commando called Meir Har Zion. A graduate of Unit 101. Sharon wrote in his autobiography of Har Zion that;

“At the age of sixteen he had trekked by himself across the Jordanian Desert to the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, traditionally considered the place where Moses hit the rock. He had also crossed by foot from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, another trip likely to be fatal to any Jew caught by the Bedouin or the Jordanians. The man had an almost preternatural feel for terrain and direction. He also seemed possessed by the need to court danger.”

It was at this time that the IDF gained more professional standards. A selection procedure was put in place to pick potential Paratroopers before they could start their training and another for the reconnaissance unit.

Sayeret Matkal

This secretive unit was founded in the 1950s by Avraham Arnan to fill a need for Military Intelligence. They needed a field unit that could slip into enemy territory to plant various types of listening and information collection devices. Over time the unit developed various other capabilities and became a unit reporting directly to the IDF Chief of Staff.

The unit was based on the British SAS and until today soldiers of the unit are presented with a copy of the book written by the founder of the SAS when they complete their training. The unit has become famous for the numbers of politicians and generals it has produced; these include Ehud Barak who rose to Chief of Staff of the IDF and eventually Prime Minister, Uzi Dayan who went on to become deputy Chief of Staff of the IDF and a Parliamentarian and Binyamin Netanyahu current Prime Minister of Israel.

Operations the unit is best known for include Operation Thunderbolt (later renamed operation Yonatan), the famous raid on Entebbe airport Uganda in 1976 to free 106 hostages taken by terrorists and held captive. During the operation the unit lost its commander Yoni Netanyahu (older brother to Binyamin Netanyahu) who was the only fatality suffered by the unit.

In Operation Spring of Youth in 1973 members of the unit landed in Beirut and assassinated senior members of the PLO.

In 1972 they launched Operation Isotope where they stormed a civilian airliner at Tel Aviv airport whose passengers were being held hostage by terrorists. It was the first operation of its kind and showed other special forces the way forward in counter terror operations.


The Mistaravim are Israeli soldiers who can blend in with Arabs, be they Palestinians or in countries further afield. There are several IDF units that can do this to a greater or lesser extent. They have been made famous with the success of the Netflix television show Fauda.

One of these units is called Duvduvan (Hebrew for Cherry). The soldiers are chosen after a stringent selection process and their training last approximately 14 months. During this time they learn Arabic, martial arts and how to blend into their surroundings. This is in addition to the top notch training in soldiering they undertake. The unit has proven itself adept in the field and is responsible for multiple high profile arrests.

In addition to Duvduvan there are several other units working in this field. The Border Guard’s unit Yamas is staffed mainly by Israeli Arabs and is able to work to a greater depth than Duvduvan.

Shayatet 13

There have been Israeli naval commandos since before there was a state of Israel. The frogmen of the Navy’s Shayatet (flotilla) 13 are some of the most respected commandos in the world. Very much like the US Navy’s SEAL Teams the commandos are versatile enough to fight in any environment and considered the tip of the spear. Their training regime is said to be the toughest physically in the IDF and lasts for 20 months.

One of their best known missions was an attack on an Egyptian intelligence base located on an island in the Gulf of Suez in 1969. During this operation the Naval Commandos, working in concert with Sayeret Matkal, destroyed the entire Egyptian installation for the loss of six dead and eleven wounded. The Egyptians suffered over 70 fatalities and lost their most prestigious intelligence stations.


The IDF has a number of special units and has a policy of creating specialist units rather than general Special Forces units. This means each infantry brigade has its own reconnaissance company, the engineering brigades have an SF unit catering to specific explosives and there are units designed to operated behind enemy lines in a war. The number of units at this level ensures that motivated recruits to the IDF have an excellent chance of serving in an SF unit if they should so desire.