Israel's Special-ops Units Are the Missing Element

The army’s recent war simulation envisioned Israel being attacked on several fronts. What the scenario left out was the essential ingredient of special-ops units.

Considering its grave consequences with more than 1,000 dead, disasters like the downing of a passenger plane, missile hits on hospitals and population centers, and the casting off of certain taboos (because chemical weapons were employed) it is surprising that the next war has come and gone without leaving any traces.

After conflict raged in the recent Israel Defense Forces’ Turning Point 5 war game, all that is left of it are summaries of the lessons learned by the National Emergency Authority, and photos of Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilnai taken at a site to which bombed inhabitants would be evacuated in the event of a real war.

IDF Spokesman’s Office

This week Vilnai was acting defense minister (Ehud Barak was on vacation abroad). Prior to the takeover of the ship Dignite al-Karame, he spoke with Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and approved the navy’s action plan. In a real war, not a simulation like Turning Point 5, Vilnai is supposed to guard Barak’s back, carrying the responsibility of the home front, because the defense minister will be busy fighting at the front.

According to the Turning Point scenario, the next war will start with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s attempt to distract attention from his movement’s responsibility for the assassination of Rafik Hariri, as was recently determined by a special UN tribunal in the Hague. The distraction is a terror attack on the Israeli Embassy in Argentina, nominally as retribution for the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh; in the (virtual) attack, which takes place while a Jewish holiday celebration is under way, 15 Israelis and 10 locals are killed.

In response, the IDF attacks Hezbollah targets.

After a week of what is described as relevant restraint, the scenario goes, Hezbollah fires rockets on IDF positions on the northern border, causing three fatalities. In the weeks that follow, Israel suffers additional bombardments, its patrols are fired on, and there are abduction attempts and other infiltrations. The result is 11 Israeli fatalities children, civilian adults and soldiers and two more in the south, from Qassam fire. In one of Israel’s aerial attacks inside Lebanon, three Syrian citizens are killed. “We will not remain silent,” declares Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Mass evacuations

And then come three difficult weeks of missile barrages on Be’er Sheva, Ashkelon and Ashdod, with five teenagers being killed. A suicide bomber sets out from Gaza to attack a mall in Be’er Sheva, with 16 more casualties. Iran expresses support for a Muslim-Arab campaign “to eliminate the occupying Zionist entity.” Some 1,000 civilians from the Gaza-border region are evacuated, as are tens of thousands from Be’er Sheva. A passenger plane on its way to Eilat is downed by a rocket. Two organizations separately claim credit for the attack one connected to Hezbollah and the other to Al-Qaida.

The government, in an emergency meeting, declares a special situation on the home front and a comprehensive call-up of the IDF reserves.

Later, fighting begins on three fronts (in addition to the home front): Lebanon, Gaza and Syria (which bombards the Golan Heights). There are terror attacks and disturbances of public order in the territories. Israel’s Arab citizens go out to demonstrate en masse and block traffic arteries. Tens of thousands of civilians rush from the north and the center of the country to the Arava and the Jordan Valley. At hotels hosting evacuees in Be’er Sheva and at the Dead Sea, and at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, scores of people are killed by direct hits and suicide attacks. Chemical missiles from Syria hit military and civilian targets on the Golan Heights. Infrastructure is also badly damaged the electricity grid, Haifa port, bank cash machines. Tent cities in the nature reserves, with no sewerage or electricity (a chilling shadow of real-life protests this week on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard) threaten to collapse under the burden of evacuees.

In Turning Point, however, the IDF offensive strategy is not taken into account. According to the home-front scenario, all the reserves are called up. The meaning of this is supposedly preparation for a large attack on the ground in order to silence the sources of fire debilitating the Israeli home front. What was presumably envisioned is a mix of air-force attacks, fire from land-based and sea-based artillery, and the crossing of lines by divisions in order to capture territory, destroy enemy forces and reach targets from which withdrawal would be conditional on a security agreement.

Capabilities of Entebbe

What is missing in this equation is something the IDF develops and nurtures between the wars: the activities of the elite special operations units like Military Intelligence’s Sayeret Matkal, the air force’s Shaldag, the navy’s Shayetet 13, maybe the Border Police’s Yamam counter-terrorism unit and the paratroops’ Magellan and Duvdevan.

Whereas June is the month for commemorating the Six-Day War and the first Lebanon War, in July we remember Operation Entebbe and the Second Lebanon War. The capabilities demonstrated at Entebbe 35 years ago have hardly been manifested in wartime since. In the rescue of the hostages from the airport in Uganda, for example, there was one command headquarters of the chief infantry and paratroops officer, which dealt with representatives mainly from the cadre, Golani and the paratroops. There was also a single special unit of Sayeret Matkal at the spearhead of the assault on the airport terminal, which acted without fear of complications in combat between two adjacent units. Had Operation Entebbe happened this year, there would have been pressure on its commanders to bring into it Shaldag, Shayetet 13, the Yamam and teams from the Nahal, Givati and Kfir brigades.

Shaldag was established one month after Entebbe, and based on a reserve Sayeret Matkal battalion commanded by Muki Betser and the special operations units of the regional commands, which had been disbanded (Shaked in the Southern Command, Haruv in the Central Command and Egoz in the Northern Command). Initially, it was subordinate to the chief infantry and paratroops officer, and after that officer was subsumed into the field commands, to the air force.

This was the embodiment of the vision of the commander of the air force in the Six-Day War, Benny Peled. Peled, and after him David Ivry and Amos Lapidot, wanted a ground force of their own, which would help the air force help the ground forces.

Thanks to the personalities of those in charge, and in the absence of anyone else, the chief infantry and paratroops officers had professional responsibility for special operations, by means of helicopters and sea craft, deep in the territory behind the confrontation lines with the enemy. The first chief infantry and paratroops officer was Rafael Eitan, Raful, who also commanded the operation at the airport in Beirut in December of 1968. After him came Emanuel (Mano) Shaked, who in that capacity commanded the Sayeret Matkal and a select team from the Nahal paratroop unit and the Mossad in Operation Spring of Youth. At the end of the Yom Kippur War, Dan Shomron was appointed chief infantry and paratroops officer and in that capacity commanded Operation Entebbe. The chief infantry and paratroops officer after Entebbe was former Egoz commander and Golani Brigade commander Uri Simhoni.

Sayeret Matkal was originally intended for secret operations aimed at obtaining intelligence; the more violent and “noisy” actions of the 1960s were carried out by the paratroops and the Golani Brigade. Sayeret Matkal commander Dov Tamari, who came from the paratroops, knew how to obtain for the operational teams combat assignments for the small (blowing up a gas station near Qalqilyah) and medium-sized (Samua) operations of those times. In the Six-Day War, due to the alacrity of the air force in destroying Arab aerial forces at their bases, nearly all its brilliant plans were shelved. Apart from one operation against the Egyptian army, and even that without encountering the enemy, Sayeret Matkal did not influence the war. At the same time, Shayetet 13 concentrated without any great success on operations to benefit the navy.

Post-’67 improvement

In the War of Attrition, following 1967, the activity of Sayeret Matkal and Shayetet 13 improved together (the Green Island raid) and individually. At that time the other units also improved, especially Shaked under Danny Wolf and Amatzia Chen, and Egoz. In June 1982, with Ariel Sharon, formerly of Unit 101 and then minister of defense, and Rafael Eitan as chief of staff, spectacular plans for operations were put in the deep freeze.

The current chief infantry and paratroops officer, Brig. Gen. Miki Edelstein, is one of the most experienced commanders in the IDF today; next summer he will become commander of the Gaza Division. Edelstein “grew up” in Shaldag, was commander of Duvdevan and just before he was appointed commander of Shaldag, he was asked to become commander of the other air force special operations unit as well.

Thanks to the movement of officers from unit to unit, from Shayetet 13 to infantry brigades (and especially to Golani and Nahal), from Shaldag to Givati, from the paratroops to Sayeret Matkal and back, to some extent, the prideful walls have fallen. Lt. Col. S., the current commander of Sayeret Matkal, is the first to have reached that post after serving first in Shaldag.

One barrier that has not yet come down at all is the one between the army units and the Yamam, two of whose commanders Alik Ron and the current head, Commander B. came to it from commanding Shaldag. Though the Yamam’s professionalism in the area of rescuing abductees is superior to that of the IDF’s commando units, twice in a single decade (in the Bus 300 affair in 1984 and in the attempt to rescue Nachshon Wachsman in 1994), Sayeret Matkal was preferred, and failed.

As the commander of Sayeret Matkal and head of MI, Ehud Barak upgraded the special-ops system. Vilnai was commander of the paratroops’ special-ops unit, commander of the Nag Hammadi operation deep inside Egypt and the person who established the anti-tank weapons unit in the paratroops reserves, as a result of lessons learned from the Yom Kippur War. Chief of Staff Gantz was commander of Shaldag.

One can certainly expect that they will make the IDF more efficient and effective with regard to building and deploying special-ops units, though they have not yet done this. The double problem that the chief of staff and the defense minister prefer to sweep under the rug is how to build a unified combat doctrine for elite units whose commanders do not want to give up control, on the one hand, and on the other, how to deploy them in a war like cardiac stents, when it would be unnecessary and dangerous to undertake open-heart surgery. Special ops should have a commander within the General Staff in charge of operations far beyond the borders, perhaps under the air force, as part of a depth command, which some are suggesting be called a “corps” or a “group.”

To shorten the bleak days of the Turning Point scenario in real life, the IDF needs a format that will eliminate the difference between Entebbe-style operations and large wars. Thus far, this has not happened: The staff work is still going on and as usual no one wants a change. It is thus necessary for an echelon superior to it to come along and impose a change.