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Is IDF gearing up to fight the Islamic State?

An Israeli special forces member looks on during a visit by US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (not pictured) to a training site at an army base near Tel Aviv, April 23, 2013. (photo by REUTERS/Jim Watson)

Barely five months into his new job, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot has already made two significant strategic decisions. The first, announced June 15 and discussed in Al-Monitor, involved the establishment of a “cyber branch.” The second, announced July 6, concerns the establishment of a commando brigade to be headed by a colonel. This latter decision is said to be designed to bring the IDF up to speed with the modern battlefield — which no longer consists of clashes between two large armored forces, but a struggle between asymmetrical forces — with an emphasis on anti-terror warfare in densely populated areas.

The IDF has evolved as an unplanned military, formed on the go, with units established to address ad hoc needs. Its first commando units — the venerated Unit 101, founded by the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and the 890th battalion of paratroopers — were set up in the 1950s. They were designed to address infiltration from Egypt, Jordan and Syria by Palestinian fedayeen and their attempts to commit acts of terror. This impromptu approach remained the norm for years. During that time, the IDF never created a commando unit the size of a brigade.

The IDF’s special units are dispersed among the various corps and military branches. The most famous elite reconnaissance unit, Sayeret Matkal, operates under Military Intelligence. The elite commando unit Shayetet 13 falls under the navy’s purview. Each infantry brigade has its own reconnaissance unit, which is also considered to be a special commando unit. There are also other commando units in the various corps.

With the passage of time, the number of special warfare and commando units has grown. For example, after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, during which the IDF sustained heavy tank losses from anti-tank missiles fired by Egyptian infantry, the Magellan and Moran reconnaissance units were formed with the purpose of hunting down missiles behind enemy lines. Such units expanded over the years.

The new brigade will consolidate under one large commando branch a number of the existing commando units: the Duvdevan, the IDF’s undercover unit; the Golani Brigade’s Egoz recon unit; the Magellan unit, specialized in destroying targets deep behind enemy lines and providing intelligence; and the Rimon unit, a commando outfit specialized in desert warfare. The remaining IDF commando units — Sayeret Matkal, Shayetet 13, etc. — will remain independent.

One assessment in the IDF is that the consolidated commando brigade is the military’s response to the Islamic State (IS). One of the brigade’s immediate tasks will be to draw up a new warfare doctrine against entities similar to IS. These are essentially scattered forces specializing in terrorist warfare in populated areas. They blend in well on the ground and have a relatively low profile, namely, staying off the radar.




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