Yaltam: The leading IDF unit you’ve never heard of

While most of the details of Yaltam operations are confidential, what we do know is that the 100-member unit of female and male soldiers is responsible for disabling bombs underwater and more.

 Probing the deep sea: The Yaltam Unit (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE)
Probing the deep sea: The Yaltam Unit
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE)

Not many people know about the IDF’s Yaltam Unit, an underwater force specializing in diving and special missions in the deep sea. Last month, the unit celebrated 40 years of operations, with the participation of former and current commanders.

Much of the discussion centered on the great danger the unit’s soldiers face when carrying out heroic rescue missions.

“We should all be very proud of the fact that Yaltam is still improving, and is one of the IDF’s leading and most professional units that utilizes innovative technologies and has integrated women,” said Maj.-Gen. Yaron Mor, 65, a former commander of the Yaltam Sabotage Unit.

While most of the details of Yaltam operations are confidential, what we do know is that the 100-member unit of female and male soldiers is responsible for evacuating rockets, disabling bombs underwater, locating and neutralizing explosives near Israel’s beaches, operating advanced naval equipment and carrying out rescue missions for missing persons.

 Probing the deep sea: The Yaltam unit (credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT) Probing the deep sea: The Yaltam unit (credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)

YALTAM WAS founded in 1963, known then as Unit 707. In 1976, the unit was merged with Shayetet 13 (Navy Special Forces), and continued to function as the unit’s sabotage arm. Later it became clear the units required different skills, so they were separated and became independent units once again in 1981. Yaltam often carries out joint missions with other naval units, such as Shayetet 13 and Shayetet 7 (the submarine unit).

“In the 1980s, two armed terrorist boats infiltrated Nitzanim Beach,” recalls Mor. “We were all at our respective homes enjoying the Shavuot holiday when we received the urgent message to return immediately to our unit’s headquarters. A helicopter picked me up, along with Itai, another sapper. From the helicopter, we were lowered down onto an IDF missile boat, and from there we jumped from one boat to another. 

“We were able to overtake the terrorists’ boats, which were loaded with 30-mm. cannons. These cannons are now on display at the Israeli National Maritime Museum. There were also RPGs, anti-tank missiles and lots of explosives on the boats.”

What’s the protocol for approaching a vessel that is most likely booby-trapped?

 Past Yaltam mission (credit: IDF SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE) Past Yaltam mission (credit: IDF SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE)

“The first thing we do is look for a timer or electronic cables,” continues Mor. “We work extremely slowly until we’ve disabled everything. In this case, we were extra careful since there were bullets in the barrel and the RPG was connected to the projectile. We were using tweezer-like tools. And of course, everything is much more complicated when you’re doing all of this underneath the water.

“In the late 1980s, a terrorist riding a jet ski attempted to disembark on the beach at Rosh Hanikra. He had a vest full of explosives strapped to his body. He was neutralized by a Dabur patrol boat, and we were brought in to disable the explosive vest. I put on my scuba gear and swam underneath him all by myself to carry out the initial check. That way, if something happened, none of the other members from our unit would be harmed by the explosives.

“There are many decisions we need to make on the spot, so we operate by assessing the level of danger and the effectiveness of each option. First, I checked to see if the vest was connected to any electronic devices. Then I very carefully dismantled the explosives in the vest, as a surgeon does during an operation. Back in the day, we didn’t have any underwater robots with cameras that could assist us to dismantle explosives, so we had to do everything ourselves.”

While the Arrow Missile was being developed, Yaltam members were constantly being brought in to test out new functions. This made it much easier for engineers to know what was going to work best. “I dove down 36 m. to attach the missile to the helicopter so we could bring it up to the beach and dismantle the electronic system. It was important for the engineers to figure out why the missile had malfunctioned,” explains Mor. “Another time, they shot the missile from inside the water, and I needed to neutralize it before they could dissect it. And it was not a small missile.”

 Past Yaltam operation (credit: IDF SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE) Past Yaltam operation (credit: IDF SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE)

MOR WAS one of the soldiers injured in the Kishon affair; he was released from his military service at the age of 38. These days, he continues to carry out reserve duty in Yaltam whenever he’s needed, though he is still critical about the way the IDF has treated the Israel Navy divers.

“The searches for Israel’s Dakar submarine, which continued for decades and cost a lot of money, were carried out by Yaltam,” continues Mor. “With regard to the soldiers from the Kishon who developed cancer, the country unfortunately has forgotten them. These soldiers gave their heart and soul to their country, yet they are still not receiving proper medical treatment. 

“This does not, however, affect the way we carry out our work in Yaltam. We are all willing to do everything we need to do to carry out each operation to the absolute best of our ability without any hesitation. Yet I expect the IDF to do the right thing and take care of the families that need help.”

Every descent into the depths of the sea poses a danger to the Yaltam soldiers. “When I joined the unit, we were working in Sharm e-Sheikh,” explains Lt.-Col. Moti Keren, who served as commander of the unit from 1996 through 2002, and served a total of 25 years in Yaltam. “Our job there was to dismantle the base’s underwater fence. You need to love doing this type of professional work underwater.

“In the 1980s, we were part of the team that pulled out an Israeli missile boat that had ended up near the coast of Saudi Arabia,” recounts Keren. “We were often called upon to carry out operations like retrieving a helicopter that had crashed and fallen to a depth of 800 m. below sea level near Achziv Beach. Every single time you dive down to such depths you are risking your life. Another time, we participated in an operation in which our navy destroyed a motorcycle being driven by two terrorists in Lebanon. We dove down to retrieve their weapons. It was very close to the coast. Every single time you approach a mine underwater, you are putting yourself in danger.”

 Yaltam today (credit: IDF SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE) Yaltam today (credit: IDF SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE)

Nowadays Yaltam uses extremely advanced technological devices, but in the early days, this was not the case. “We used to dive with life vests, and we didn’t have any buoyancy control devices. In addition, we didn’t have any sonars or cameras. When we were done with our dive, we would come back up and tell the team what we had seen. Today, everything is filmed in real time.”

What qualifications are needed to get into Yaltam?

“Young people need to first pass an Israel Navy course, and only afterward they can try out for Yaltam or the Snapir unit,” explains Maj. Matan Bar, the current Yaltam diving commander. “If you pass, then you begin a long and strenuous year-long training course. There are many female soldiers now in Yaltam, which is great. Every position is completely integrated. 

“All of our work is underneath the water, so of course, you have to love the sea. No previous diving experience is required.”

Last June, Yaltam carried out a joint training exercise with teams from the US, UK, France and Canada, which was deemed a great success. “We practiced a number of scenarios involving sabotage of complex vessels, which was very successful,” Bar states. “The goal of the joint training exercise was to share knowledge and strengthen our relationships. Some of our activities are highly confidential. Another essential part of our job is to search for missing people.

“We recently found a pilot who’d crashed over the Kinneret in the 1960s. Searches had continued on a monthly basis for two decades until we finally located his body. That was a very exciting moment.”

What are your hopes for Yaltam following the 40th-anniversary celebrations?

“That the unit continues to remain a vital and influential part of the Israeli military, and that it maintains its exceptional feeling of being a family.” 

Translated by Hannah Hochner.