One of the most secretive units in the whole of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), Shayetet 13 is the naval component of Israel’s special operations forces. Like the U.S. Navy SEALs, Shayetet 13 (or S13 for short) specializes in counter-terrorism, sabotage, intelligence gathering, hostage rescue and boarding ships at sea.
Unlike other units in the IDF, whose mandatory service requirements are the same 36 months required of every Israeli citizen, S13 volunteers must give at least four and half years to the unit.
The unit is almost as old as the modern state of Israel itself. It was founded by naval forces from the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization under the British Mandate of Palestine, which would later become the modern day IDF.
Like the U.S. Navy SEALs, the elite S13 unit had a rough start, with a few failures early on. Once they got going, however, they became the fighting force they were always meant to be. In a joint operation with Sayeret Matkal (think IDF Delta Force), the Israelis took out an Egyptian early warning radar system on Green Island, a base at the mouth of the Suez Canal, just to remind the Egyptian military that no one was safe from Israel.
During the War of Attrition, a yearlong series of artillery shelling, commando raids, and aerial combat between Israel and Egypt, Syria, Jordan, the Soviet Union, and Cuba, Shayetet 13 operators raided ports and destroyed boats in Egypt, destroyed training bases and units in Lebanon, as well as bases in Syria.
During Operation Wrath of God, the Israeli retaliation against terrorists who killed Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, S13 raided the Lebanese capital of Beirut. Called Operation Spring of Youth, this raid is depicted in the 2005 film Munich.
During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, S13 conducted ambushes and guerrilla raids in Lebanon and sunk many Egyptian ships in port during raids there. During the 1982 Israel-Lebanon War, they created beachheads for Israeli armor, captured high-value targets, and decimated Hezbollah fighter units.
The unit isn’t without controversy. They are the unit who raided the Mavi Marmara relief flotilla bound for Gaza from Turkey. The commando claimed they came under attack from activists who were armed, but the activists maintain there were no arms on board. Nine of the Mavi Marmara’s people were killed in the incident.
The training for S13 is as grueling as any elite force’s training. 20 months long, the selection process is held only twice every year and starts with intense physical and psychological testing. A six-month basic training and advanced infantry training phase follows before three months of advanced infantry and weapons training, parachute training, maritime warfare, boat operations, forced marches, and demolitions. The next phase includes combat diving and operating in high-risk environments.
All this leads to a yearlong phase of complete immersive training and counter-terrorism. Trainees raid oil rigs, ships, and coastal structures. They are then divided into three specialized unites based on their interests and skills.