The Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) is modelled on the UK’s Special Air Service, or SAS, a special forces unit of the British army known for its daring operations during the first Gulf War in 1990–91 and the rescue of hostages from the Iranian embassy in London in 1980.
Sayeret Matkal, the unit, was set up in 1957 at the initiative of its first commander, Avraham Arnan. Lots of soldiers with prior experience in surveillance, explosives, intelligence, and special operations joined up, including ones who had operated with or in SAS.
It’s one of the most shadowy units in the Israeli military. Simply speaking, it’s a field intelligence-gathering unit tasked with conducting deep reconnaissance behind enemy lines to obtain strategic intelligence and, last but definitely not least, conducting black operations beyond the borders of territorial Israel.
Its existence wasn’t acknowledged for almost 30 years, and its personnel were selected purely based on their skills and referrals. Only since the 1980s have they started accepting volunteers. The volunteers are selected following a gruelling test.
The test lasts several days, and in this test, the volunteers are probed for any weakness, emotionally or physically, by doctors, psychologists, and special forces personnel. Only upon successful completion does one commence their training.
In 1976, Sayeret Matkal worked with other Israeli Defence Force units to free hostages from an Air France plane that had been hijacked by terrorists and flown to Entebbe in Uganda. As an innovative tactic, it used a black Mercedes automobile that was a perfect copy of the Ugandan leader’s personal car, and the ruse fooled the local troops. The force leader for the Entebbe landing operations was Lieutenant Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of the present PM, Mr. Benjamin Bibi Netanyahu.
Sayeret Matkal also engaged in many counterterror attacks and assassinations. Sayeret Matkal commando Ehud Barak (who would serve as Israel’s PM 1999–2001) led a raid called Operation Spring of Youth into Lebanon in the year 1973. He was dressed as a woman. Barak directed the unit to assassinate three enemy leaders. The operation destroyed terrorist command posts, killed 50–100 of them, including the three senior leaders. Ehud Barak, who had joined the unit while still in his late teens, rose to the leadership of Sayeret Matkal. Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu served under Barak in Sayeret Matkal.
Every recruit undergoes a two year training, including para trooper training, explosives, long-range (up to 150 km) marching, and much more.
At the end of the training, they are subjected to four days of captivity, where they are subjected to the harshest treatment.
Then they become the stuff of legends, just like our SF units. This unit is truly the stuff that legends are made of.