Ehud Barak Lifts the Lid on Israeli Army’s Most Elite Unit’s Special Ops

And some other hair-raising operations that did not get the green light

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Ehud Barak (third from left) with friends from Sayeret Matkal.
Ehud Barak (standing third from left) with friends from Sayeret Matkal.Credit: Eyal Toueg / Reproduction
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

All the attention a week and a half ago was on the lifting of the military censor’s gag order on the official record of Israel’s September 2007 attack on Syria’s nuclear reactor. But the event that spurred the decision to let the Israeli media report on the strike – the publication in Israel of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s memoirs last week and the release of Ehud Barak’s autobiography in the United States this May – heralds the unveiling of other key Israeli operations, some that have remained under wraps for over 50 years.

We have former Prime Minister Barak’s new book, “My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace” (St. Martin’s Press), to thank for that. The members of the ministerial committee chaired by Benjamin Netanyahu that vets books by former senior officials seems to have let their former colleague Barak go where no Israeli author was allowed before.

It wasn’t favoritism, though. The story of Israel’s most secret intelligence-gathering operations, which laid the ground for victory in the Six-Day War and could possibly have prevented the disaster of the Yom Kippur War, is also Barak’s personal story. As one of the first officers of the Sayeret Matkal, he led those first operations deep within Syria and Egypt. In his book, Barak offers for the first time a firsthand and detailed account of the intelligence operations he participated in.

For many years, the most famous operations involving the Sayeret Matkal were the “noisy” ones, those that made headlines immediately after they took place – like the rescue of the hostages at Entebbe in 1976 and the assassination of PLO leaders in Beirut in 1973.

Ehud Barak (second from left) after storming the hijacked Sabena airliner that landed in Ben Gurion Airport, 1972.Credit: Ron Ilan / REUTERS

But Israel’s most elite unit was not founded originally to carry out hostage rescues and counterterror operations. The intelligence operations that Barak participated in remained top secret for decades. And while some of the details have been published in the past – in the Israeli media and “from foreign sources” – Barak’s is the first full version of what the Sayeret Matkal did in its early years.

It was almost a freelance initiative of a handful of veteran officers to train a small group of special-forces operatives capable of placing and maintaining listening devices deep behind enemy lines. While these commandos were of course rigorously trained in all manner of combat scenarios, most of their training was focused on carrying out their mission without being detected and leaving no trace.

Ehud Brog (he would Hebraize his name to Barak over a decade later), a scrawny kibbutznik with an aversion to authority, was drafted into the unit in 1960 when its original nucleus included less than 20 men. He had originally been intended to serve in an armored infantry battalion, but was plucked out of it when the unit’s officers heard a rumor about a kid who had made his own lock-picking tools that let him steal ammunition from his kibbutz’s weapons bunker, and who had an uncanny knack for long-range navigation.

Two traumas had preceded the awarding of the Sayeret Matkal its first mission. The first was in 1954, when a small team of paratroopers and soldiers from the Golani Brigade were captured by the Syrian army in the Golan Heights trying to replace the batteries of a listening device. They were released only a year and a half later after one of them, Uri Ilan, had taken his life in jail. Ilan’s death was a national trauma in young Israel and David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, forbade the Israel Defense Forces to carry out any more cross-border operations.

Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu as soldiers in Sayeret Matkal.Credit: GPO
Barak and Maj. Amnon Lipkin Shahak, another future IDF chief of staff.Credit: GPO

The second trauma came in February 1960, a few months after the unit had been formed but long before it had the capabilities or the green light to launch operations. Almost comically, at a cocktail reception, Israel’s Military Intelligence chief learned from the CIA station chief that Egypt had moved two entire divisions into the Sinai Peninsula.

What became known as the Rotem Alert did not lead to war, but it highlighted Israeli intelligence’s blind spots. Barak details in his book how the handful of first recruits to the Sayeret Matkal spent over two years trekking through Israel on grueling nighttime navigations with only a compass and the stars for guidance. He details how they trained endlessly and evaded Israel’s desert scouts until they were deemed by their officers ready. Barak himself had time to become the first of the original recruits to go for officer training, sign on for two additional years of service and return to the unit. And they were still waiting for the go-ahead.

The authorization for the first operation came only in August 1963, when Barak was ordered to plan and command an incursion at the head of a five-man team that three weeks later would climb up the Golan and install a listening device on a Syrian army communications line. In what would become standard practice for many Sayeret Matkal operations, before receiving the final green light to risk five men in enemy territory, the young lieutenant was sent to brief the IDF chief of staff, Tzvi Tzur.

Teaching Barak a lesson

In his book, Barak gives the first detailed account of the operation that would lead to a historic and strategic breakthrough for Israeli intelligence. Each carrying an Uzi and two grenades, the members of the team crossed the border after nightfall north of Kibbutz Dan. They had orders to return by 1:15 A.M., but on the way they had to traverse three sleeping Syrian soldiers and the Banias River, still swollen from the winter’s rainfall. It was deeper and wider than expected at the spot Barak had chosen to cross. When the order came over the radio to return, he told his men to switch the thing off.

Once they installed the device at the top of a telephone pole, they returned to Israeli territory undetected, but three hours late. They were greeted at the border by the Military Intelligence chief, Meir Amit. The next day, a crate of French champagne arrived at the Sayeret Matkal’s base compliments of Chief of Staff Tzur – two bottles had been removed “to teach Ehud Brog not to shut off his field radio.”

Lessons were learned – such as the need to draw a wider berth around Syrian bases and pay more attention to seasonal events such as swollen rivers, but the initial operation served as a template for further Sayeret Matkal missions over the following months in the Golan. The intelligence that would be gathered by the devices planted would be a key factor less than four years later when the IDF captured the Golan Heights in the last 36 hours of the Six-Day War.

But the Syrian front wasn’t the main one Israel was concerned about in the 1960s. To the south in Egypt was the largest Arab army and a president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, intent on unifying the Arab world against Israel. Tapping into the communications of the Egyptian army deep in Sinai would take a much larger and more powerful device, not one that could be carried on the backs of commandos. At the time, the Israel Air Force was acquiring its first large transport helicopters, Sikorsky S-58s, and it was decided that Barak would lead the Sayeret Matkal’s first major helicopter-borne mission.

Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, July 1986.Credit: AFP

“Even now,” he writes, “most of the details of how we planned to tap into the Egyptians’ communications remain classified.” But he still gives a good deal of new details, including the fact that geologists were consulted to help work out the best locations and methods were developed to hide the tapping devices from Egyptian desert scouts. Also, on the test run of the operation, unbeknown to the Israeli telephone company, Matkal had tapped into Israel’s phone networks and, due to the use of insufficiently waterproofed components, put thousands of phones in southern Israel out of action.

To transport the device from the helicopter’s landing spot to the place where it was installed, a rickshaw made from airline-standard tubing was devised, which could be pulled over the desert floor by two men. Barak will still not say how the device was connected to the Egyptian communication line and hidden in early 1964, but he does reveal that it took all five men on the team to make sure it was installed before they had to rendezvous with the helicopter. The rendezvous almost failed, as thick fog had descended over the desert and the helicopter nearly crashed when it drifted just before landing.

This was Barak’s first mission that was approved by the new chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin, and would be followed by similar operations. The devices gave Israeli intelligence such a clear picture of the Egyptian military movements that, after the Six-Day War, a cover story had to be concocted of an Israeli agent in the Egyptian army to explain how the IDF ground forces in 1967 had complete knowledge of the enemy’s movements.

The third secret operation to install listening devices Barak described in detail took place in early 1970, after the Six-Day War in which Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula; the listening devices the Sayeret Matkal had planted there before the war were useless. This operation would need larger helicopters and include diversionary attacks on Egyptian installations to hide the true mission.

The helicopters flew over the Suez Canal – therefore into mainland Egypt on the African continent – and, as in the previous missions, Barak’s team found installing and hiding the device much more difficult than expected; the mission was nearly aborted midway.

But the generals in the command post radioed that more time was available, and the work was completed before sunrise. “For the first time since we’d captured Sinai, Israel was again receiving real-time communications from inside Egypt,” Barak wrote. These devices and others installed following operations were the “special sources” that Israel used sparingly to minimize the risk of detection. On the eve of the Yom Kippur War, they were switched on for only a very short period, denying the IDF what could have been crucial intelligence of the Egyptian-Syrian plan to attack in October 1973.

Operations not taken

In April 1971, Barak became Sayeret Matkal’s commander and despite some opposition from the General Staff, began broadening the unit’s portfolio beyond cross-border intelligence-gathering into more offensive commando, sabotage and counterterror operations.

Barak as a young commander during an army inspection.Credit: GPO

In his book, he provides no more details on the “silent” missions, but these new noisy operations could not be hidden – though the unit, whose very existence was not formally acknowledged in the Israeli media until the early 1990s, was never referred to by name at the time.

While Barak provides some new details of these missions that are already well-known, he also writes about operations that were planned but not given the go-ahead. One of these was a plan to rescue Israeli pilots who had been shot down during the 1967-70 War of Attrition from prisons in Damascus and Cairo. The plan he details in the book was to land helicopters near Damascus and abduct Syrian officers from an officers’ club on the city’s outskirts, in order to exchange them for the prisoners.

In Moshe Zonder’s 2000 book “Sayeret Matkal,” which remains the most complete history of the unit, a similar mission is described, one prepared in mid-1973 – this time to rescue Israeli prisoners from Abbasiya prison in Cairo. The mission was to be led by Barak’s deputy, Yoni Netanyahu. A team was assembled from the Sayeret Matkal and other special units, but after three months of training the plans had not yet been finalized when the Yom Kippur War broke out and the team was disbanded.

Nearly 20 years later, Barak – by this time deputy chief of staff – was in charge of preparing Israel’s contingency plans for attacking Iraq’s Scud missile launchers during the 1991 Gulf War. Barak once again gives new details, saying that in addition to airstrikes, the IDF planned to land “500 to 600 soldiers” from Israel’s airborne units who “would take control of key areas and road junctions in western Iraq and start hunting and destroying” the Scud launchers.

Barak also flew to London with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to secretly meet with Jordan’s King Hussein. In the meetings, in which a small number of senior officials took part, Hussein refused to allow Israeli planes to fly over Jordan. The two leaders finally met on their own, and afterward Shamir refused to say what agreement if at all had been reached.

Another intriguing mention of a Sayeret Matkal operation that never came about regards the aftermath of the February 1994 massacre at Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs, where settler Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Muslim worshippers. Rabin, now prime minister, considered evicting the settlers from Tel Rumeida, one of the enclaves within Hebron. He asked Barak, now IDF chief of staff, whether this was operationally possible to do quickly. Barak’s plan was to send in a Matkal team in the middle of the night to seal off the area and allow a speedy eviction. Rabin hesitated and the order was never given. The settlers still live in Tel Rumeida.

While many of these details were already known to Israeli military historians and journalists, and some have appeared on unauthorized websites, no Israeli has previously been allowed to go into such detail on the Sayeret Matkal’s missions. There is some historical justice in Barak, the commander and planner of these missions, being the first to shed light on them. But his account, just as that of his role as defense minister during the attack on the Syrian reactor in 2007, is naturally self-serving. Now that he has opened the door, it remains to be seen whether more objective writers will be allowed to furnish a more complete version for history.

Barak’s office sent this response: "The article, on the details level, does not accurately reflect what will be published next month in the printed book. Barak recommends to all to wait patiently for the book itself. The book passed the Israeli Censorship and does not include any untold secrets or any material which might hurt our security."

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