The best of the best

An overview of some of the IDF's most elite special forces units and their specialties.

alpinistim 88 (photo credit: )
alpinistim 88
(photo credit: )
The General Staff Reconnaissance Unit The General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal), known as "The Unit," is generally considered the IDF's most elite special forces unit. Established in 1957 and modeled after the British SAS, the unit's primary mission is gathering field intelligence, often venturing deep into enemy territory. As the unit responsible for hostage situations outside of Israel, Sayeret Matkal is most notably known for its role in Operation Thunderbolt in 1976, when it helped rescue 103 Air France passengers who were being held hostage in Entebbe, Uganda. IDF soldiers entered the Entebbe airport at night, killed eight terrorists and recovered all but two hostages. The only soldier lost that night was the mission's commander, Lt.-Col. Yonatan Netanyahu. In 1972, four PLO terrorists hijacked a Sabena airliner carrying 99 passengers and 10 crew members on route from Brussels to Tel Aviv. In an mission entitled Operation Isotope, 16 members of Sayeret Matkal posed as refueling and technical personnel and stormed the plane, killing the terrorists and releasing the passengers. In 1973, Sayeret Matkal, along with other special forces, participated in Operation Spring of Youth. "The Unit" attacked PLO buildings in Beirut and other locations throughout Lebanon in response to the Munich Olympic massacre. Led by future prime minister Ehud Barak, Sayeret Matkal killed three PLO leaders and numerous other terrorists. In October 1994, Cpl. Nachson Wachsman, a member of a Golani Brigade commando unit - the Orev Golani - was kidnapped by Hamas terrorists disguised as haredim. The kidnappers threatened to kill Wachsman unless dozens of terrorists were released. Just one hour before the deadline was set to expire, a group of Sayeret Matkal personnel tried to free him. The terrorists killed Wachsman along with one member of Sayeret Matkal before being killed themselves. Samoor The name samoor, a Hebrew acronym for "tunnels and caches," also translates as weasel. This unit is charged with locating and exploring the hidden tunnels frequently encountered in Lebanon and the territories. These secret bunker systems, such as the one used by Hamas to capture Cpl. Gilad Shalit on June 25, are usually used to transport and protect gunmen and weapons. Tunnels in the southern Gaza Strip, however, are often used to smuggle prostitutes, drugs and explosives from Egypt into Gaza. Among other gadgets, Samoor employs remote controlled robots that move underground, transmitting video to their operator above ground. Sayeret Egoz Sayeret Egoz was originally formed in 1956 and twice disbanded. It was reestablished in 1995 to fight guerrillas in southern Lebanon as part of the Golani infantry brigade. Its duties were broadened in 2000 when it was used as a counterterrorism outfit in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It has returned to its old stomping ground during the current fighting in Lebanon. Alpinistim The Alpine unit is the extreme weather force that defends the electronic intelligence-gathering center on Mount Hermon - a major source of intelligence on the border with Syria. Its members are drawn primarily from another special forces unit - Palsar Golani - but also includes immigrants with experience in snow warfare in their native countries. Skills acquired in the unit include snow combat maneuvers, skiing and fast roping. During training, members spend many nights in snow caves, having to huddle together to stay warm. Oketz Oketz, the K-9 special forces unit, was created to train train dogs to attack kidnappers. Each dog is now trained to have a particular specialty. Attack dogs are mostly used in cities, although have proven effective in rural, bushy areas like in Lebanon. Tracking and chasing dogs are used for manhunts and detecting breaches at the borders; weapons and ammunition dogs search for their namesakes, as do explosive dogs, and search and rescue dogs are used to find people in collapsed buildings. Belgian Shepherds are the preferred breed for two reasons: they're the perfect size to be picked up by their handler while still being able to attack an enemy, and their fair coats make them less prone to heatstroke. Like the rest of the IDF, the dogs are trained to be tech-savy - they carry microphones and receive orders from their handlers at a distance.