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Israel’s Stealthy Killers Employ Mixture of Speed, Skill and Silence

August 26, 2003
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Abdullah Kawasme probably never thought that diaper deliverymen could be so lethal.

But when the Hamas mastermind stepped out of a Hebron mosque in June and came face to face with a group of men transporting diapers, he had no way of knowing that they were undercover Israeli agents, members of Israel’s crack SWAT team known as the Special Police Unit and known by its Hebrew acronym, Yamam.

According to witnesses, the men, who looked like Palestinian laborers, had been lounging around a van packed with diapers outside Kawasme’s mosque in Hebron.

When Kawasme, who was responsible for terrorist bombings that had killed 52 people in Israel, emerged amid a crowd of worshippers, the Yamam squad pulled out pistols and ordered him to stop.

Kawasme was shot in the leg but still tried to flee, so the gunmen shot to kill. After the hit, the assassins melted away into the night before dumbfounded onlookers realized what had happened.

Yamam has carried out more than 600 counterterrorist operations alongside Israel’s regular military forces during the intifada.

Part of the reason they’ve been so busy is that diplomatic considerations require that its anti-terror missions be carried out with pinpoint precision.

As recently as last Friday, Yamam snipers killed a gunman from Al-Aksa Brigade who had holed up atop a Nablus hospital. Two of the gunman’s comrades were wounded.

Earlier this summer, an Islamic Jihad chief blew himself up in his bomb lab after Yamam sent in attack dogs to flush him out. In July, unit commandos helped in the rescue of an abducted Israeli cab driver by tracking down and capturing the kidnapper’s fiancee for use in a tradeoff.

At no time were bystanders or friendly forces hurt — a rosy record compared to the casualties that often result from traditional military strikes.

“Yamam is a totally professional unit that can virtually guarantee clean kills or captures,” says a source in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office. “Avoiding collateral damage is always important — but especially so when there is delicate diplomacy afoot.”

Yamam’s clandestine warfare skills are a far cry from the group’s peacetime duties, which include storming drug dens in southern Tel Aviv and scaling tall buildings to save would-be suicides. But its team — around 120 men in all, according to sources — makes versatility a point of pride.

“Preparation is the key to Yamam’s success,” says Assaf Heffetz, who founded the unit in 1975 and went on to become Israel’s chief of police.

Yamam has its own intelligence apparatus, from spotters trained to set up clandestine rooftop perches within minutes of a “situation,” to wiretapping technicians, to Arabic-speaking Druse who intercept and quickly analyze enemy communications. Some of Yamam’s attack dogs even double as bomb sniffers.

“When the team goes in, it knows all that can be known about the site and the terrorists. After that, it comes down to fitness and fighting spirit,” Heffetz says. “Luck is not an option.”

Like many special forces, Yamam was born of tragedy, after a particularly bloody incident showed the need to upgrade Israel’s counterterrorist capabilities.

In May 1974, Palestinian gunmen based in Lebanon took over a school in the northern Israeli town of Ma’alot, demanding the release of comrades from Israeli jails in exchange for their hostages.

In line with Israel’s long-standing policy of not negotiating with terrorists, Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered in the military. In the resulting bedlam, 23 children and five adults were killed along with the hostage-takers. Many of the Israelis died from Israeli bullets.

Heffetz, an army special-forces commander, was tapped to set up a quick-response civilian unit that could specialize in hostage situations.

At first, Yamam suffered from a lack of funds and manpower.

Because it was formally part of the border police — a roughneck force that recruits youths from the working-class segments of Israeli society — Heffetz fought to recruit old friends from the military to form an officer core that would refine the team.

Heffetz also established warm ties with foreign counterparts — including the British SAS, German GSG-9, and various U.S. SWAT teams — leading to discreet training exchanges.

Then came the mission that sealed Yamam’s reputation for excellence.

In March 1988, three terrorists seized a bus carrying employees of the Israeli nuclear plant of Dimona. Yamam got to the scene first and took operational command before its main military competitor — the Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s Delta Force — arrived.

When the terrorists broke off negotiations and turned their guns on the passengers, Yamam launched a three-pronged assault.

Each squad rushed a different section of the bus. The men who arrived first gave their comrades a hoist to shoot through the windows. Snipers kept the terrorists’ heads down until the Uzi-wielding entry team killed them.

In all, the “Mothers Bus” operation took slightly more than a minute, with only three Israeli fatalities — hostages shot by the terrorists.

Yamam rose further into favor six years later when Matkal botched the rescue of abducted Israeli soldier Nachshon Wachsman. Wachsman and the Matkal team commander were killed in the operation.

After the failure, Heffetz arranged a demonstration to show that Yamam could have succeeded where Matkal failed.

“It was important for me to prove, once and for all, that we were a life-saving asset beyond compare,” Heffetz says. “But by then we had established our prominence and had won the necessary resources, and pretty much had our pick of the top talent.”

Out of 12,000 potential recruits every year, only a dozen or so make it through the grueling six-month course to wear Yamam’s signature gray jumpsuits and insignia pin — a medieval citadel with a superimposed Star of David, surrounded by a laurel wreath and paratrooper wings.

Candidates must have completed three years’ mandatory military service in a combat unit and have earned high- security clearance.

Yamam is an excellent springboard for a police career, but many veterans go freelance after a few years. The best Israeli security schools are run by Yamam men. The more adventurous Yamam veterans end up in darker areas of the globe, training bodyguard squads and hit teams.

A select few within Yamam are tapped for so-called “black operations” on behalf of the Shin Bet security service and the Mossad. A foreign passport or language skills are an advantage in these missions, but they not crucial: Yamam’s professional planning, independent thinking and utter ruthlessness are enough, veterans says.

“When it comes to neutralizing the enemy, we know extreme measures are an option,” one Yamam veteran says. “Sometimes it is ideal to get the guy alive — that makes for valuable intelligence. But if there is any sign of him getting away or posing a threat, we put him down.”

Some Yamam operatives go undercover in Palestinian territory, disguising themselves as veiled matrons or elderly sheikhs, donning traditional Arab garb, darkening their faces with soot and cosmetics and even going on week-long hummus-and-kebab binges in order not to be betrayed by a “Western” smell to their sweat.

Then they go into Palestinian casabas and refugee camps, stalking their quarry. Miniature microphones installed in sleeves allow for quick communication, and pistols or Uzis are used for maximum compactness.

When the intifada began, Yamam suffered one of its worst failures when unit snipers opened fire on a crowd of Israeli Arab rioters, killing 13. Israel assigned an investigating team to head an inquiry into the episode. Yamam snipers had to testify a special commission — albeit behind screens to protect their identity.

But it did not take long for Yamam to bounce back, taking the lead in Israeli countermeasures against what became a bloody campaign by Palestinian terrorist groups.

In late 2000, Israel began a new policy of track-and-kill operations against prominent terrorists it said were “ticking bombs” en route to attacks. The kind of helicopter missile strikes used in the Gaza Strip were limited in the West Bank by Israeli settlements and traffic, putting a premium on Yamam’s skills.

Sometimes, Yamam strikes without taking credit. Its demolition experts are adept at “tainting” bomb-making materials so that they explode upon assembly. The parts are then passed on to unsuspecting terrorists by way of Palestinian collaborators.

The resulting premature blasts — commonly referred to as “work accidents” — have the double benefit of ridding Israel of a few more terrorists and strategically sowing uncertainty among Palestinians as to whether they can trust their own bomb-makers.

The future of peace in the Middle East may be in doubt, but the continuation of terrorism in the region seems certain. Given that unfortunate likelihood, Yamam helps make terrorists’ lives a little less certain.

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