Elite Shayetet Unit Often Carries Army's Heaviest, Most Secretive Burdens

Yesterday's battle on the deck of the Mavi Marmara caused consternation in the elite naval unit Shayetet 13.

Upon their return, the naval commandos said they had been stunned by the passengers' violent resistance: They had expected a confrontation with largely peaceful demonstrators that would involve minimal violence.

Yesterday's incident occurred just a few months after Col. A., a Shayetet veteran, replaced D. as the unit's commander. D. was considered one of the best commanders the unit has had in recent decades, and A. was essentially the only candidate to replace him, after one contender was severely hurt in a car accident and another was disqualified for losing an army laptop containing classified information.

A few weeks ago, the Shayetet received two commendations from the chief of staff: one for continuous operational duty over a long period of time, and one for a specific operation whose details cannot be published.

In recent years, and especially since Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, the Shayetet has been kept busy with a long list of secret operations aimed at thwarting arms smuggling and terrorist operations from neighboring countries.

According to foreign reports, the commandos even operated as far away as Sudan, back when the air force bombed an arms convoy there en route from Iran to Gaza over a year ago.

Senior Israel Defense Forces officers have spoken publicly several times about the enormous burden placed on the Shayetet and about the great achievements of its ongoing clandestine operations.

In the Second Lebanon War, when the Shayetet was commanded by Col. N., the unit's performance was mixed. It conducted a daring operation in the city of Tyre, in which it succeeded in surprising Hezbollah, but the operation did not end in the death of the senior Hezbollah figure who was its target, and several Israeli fighters were seriously injured.

Other operations that N. proposed were either not approved by his superiors or aborted for various technical reasons.

That left the unit feeling frustrated: Civilians near the Shayetet base in Atlit were suffering rocket strikes, but the Shayetet - like other army units - had limited success in stopping the fire.

The unit's most traumatic incident of the past few decades was the Ansariya disaster, in which 12 commandos were killed by a Hezbollah bomb during a raid in Lebanon in 1997. Hezbollah also seized the body of one slain soldier, Itamar Ilya, which was returned only after lengthy negotiations.

During the second intifada, the Shayetet's commanders, Erez Zuckerman and Ram Rothberg, decided to involve it in counterterrorism operations in the West Bank and Gaza. This was not an obvious move, since the unit mostly focuses on seaborne actions, and there was some internal opposition.

Several commandos were killed in these operations. But the General Staff greatly appreciated the unit's willingness to share the heavy burden that the IDF was carrying at that time.