Infiltration, Insurgency and Counter Measures in the Arab-Israeli Wars

Infiltration of national borders has been a component of the Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, during 1949-53 the Arabs organised over 3,000 infiltrations and in 1949-56 over two hundred Israelis were killed by mistanenim. The general name for this conflict is the Terrorist War, however, the War of Attrition (1968-70) also saw many infiltrations. I have grouped them together as the military operations were very similar.

I don’t have a lot of information on the Arab forces used in this undercover war, but there is some on their Israeli opponents. Over time various Israeli units were used to counter Arab infiltration and to conduct infiltration operations in the reverse direction.

1951-52 Unit 30

An elite unit of two platoons formed to secure Israel’s borders from Arab infiltrators. It comprised conscript ‘volunteers’, plus Bedouin and Circassian scouts.

1953 Unit 101

A highly trained special forces unit of 40 men. Their purpose was to operate across national borders against the home bases of Arab infiltrators. It was commanded by Major Ariel Sharon. Because their mission was politically unsound in the eyes of the west the men of Unit 101 could not look like IDF troops so wore no uniforms or insignia. They specialised in silent infiltration, night-fighting and fieldcraft. The men used whatever weapons they wished (for example, Tommy-guns, MP-40s, Hand grenades, Molotov cocktails). In their short existance (Aug 1953 – Jan 1954) they conducted many raids across Israel national borders, predominantly into Egypt and Jordan. Many of these raids were against civilian targets. In Jan 1954 the unit was combined with the paratroopers to form 890th the Paratroop battalion.

1954-56 Paratroopers

After Unit 101 was disbanded the responsibility for cross border retaliation passed to the paratroopers (along with Ariel Sharon and most of the Unit 101 men). In 1954 there was one paratrooper battalion (the 890th). Subsequently the 88th Nahal Battalion was redesignated a paratroop battalion, and in 1956 Unit 202 was formed (was renamed the 202nd Airborne Brigade in 1957). Unit 202 comprised:

  • 890th Paratroop Battalion (Major Rafael Eitan)
  • 88th Nahal Paratroop Battalion
  • 771th Reserve Paratroop Battalion
  • Reconnaissance Unit

During 1955-56 the paratroopers conducted nine major cross border raids. Their equipment varied in each case. On at least one occasion they operated as a mechanised force in M3 half-tracks.

At least one battalion, the 890th, had a reconnaissance company, but they probably all did.

1956 saw the first use of the Uzi sub-machingun.

Mishmar Ha-gvul (Frontier Guard)

A specialist Police unit to combat infiltrators. They took volunteers who had already completed military service, and many of their members were from minority groups such as Bedouin, Druze and Circassians. Largely identical to IDF units, the main difference was that the Frontier Guard were not supposed to conduct cross border raids.

1957 – 1967 Sayeret Tzanhanim

Sayeret Tzanhanim was the Paratroop Reconnaissance Battalion and were involved in cross border intelligence gathering operations.

1967 – 1970 Chativa HaBikaa

Men of Chativa HaBikaa (“Valley Brigade”) were recruited from paratroop and elite infantry units by Rafael Eitan. They were formed to counter large scale Palestinian infiltrations in the Jordan Valley. Their activities were known as the Pursuits. Each Pursuit involved between a platoon to a battalion, but the Pursuit was always commanded by senior officers.

Cross border attacks and ambushes were also organised. The largest being Operation Tofet on 21 March 1968. The 202nd Airborne Brigade along with elements of the 7th Armoured Brigade attacked the Jordanian town of Karameh. The Israelis fought both Palestinians and Jordanian regulars in a day long battle. When the IDF withdrew 28 Israelis were dead along with 61 Jordanians and 150 Palestinians (and another 128 were taken prisoner).


Operation ‘Shoshana’, Oct 1953

When Arab infiltrators kill two Israeli children (13 Oct) Unit 101 was ordered to retaliate against the Arab Legion outpost at the Jordanian village of Kibya.

Major Ariel Sharon lead the operation which involved Unit 101 (presumably all 40 men) and a paratroop force including sappers with Bangalore torpedoes. Sholomo Baum (presumably a Unit 101 man) commanded the attacking force called ‘Kibya Task Force’; this included all the paratroopers (including their commander Captain Davidi). Lieutenant Har-Zion of Unit 101 commanded the covering force.

Kibya Task Force was spotted but Baum lead his men through the defences under fierce fire. Sharon ordered the village destroyed, and dozens of houses were demolished by the paratrooper sappers. Although the paratroopers warned the locals to flee 69 bodies were found in the ruins.

The Israeli government denied responsibility and blamed the attack on outraged civilians.

Operation Elkayam, 30 Aug 1955

The Israeli 890th paratroop battalion attacked the police station at the Egyptian town of Khan Yunis. The paratroopers used M3 half-tracks for the first time. 73 Egyptians were killed in heavy fighting.

Operation Aalizait

Using rubber boats the Israeli 890th paratroop battalion attacked Syrian positions on the far side of the Sea of Galilee.

The reconnaissance company under Meir Har-Zion split off from the main force and managed to capture two Syrian officers.

Operation Shomron, 10 Oct 1956

Main Sources: Dayan (1965), Katz (1988) and Sharon & Chanoff (2001).

The Israeli Unit 202 / Paratroop Brigade (Ariel Sharon) attacked Jordanian military headquarters in the police fort at the town of Kilkilya. This was the first time the brigade had operated together, and was also unusual in that the “raid” had armoured and air support.

At the time Unit 202 / Paratroop Brigade comprised:

  • Paratroop Reconnaissance company (54 men under Yehudah Feshef armed mainly with Uzis)
  • 890th Paratroop Battalion (Major Rafael Eitan)
  • 88th Nahal Paratroop Battalion (Major Mordechai Gur)
  • 771th Reserve Paratroop Battalion
  • M3 Half tracks for at least 2 companies

In immediate support:

  • 25 pounders for direct fire
  • Battery of 155 mm guns
  • 2 Harvard aircraft
  • 2 Mustang aircraft

In second line support (these chaps were going to be used to rescue the reconnaissance company if it hadn’t got out by day break):

  • 2 tank squadrons
  • an Infantry battalion
  • Fighter aircraft

Jordanians that I know about:

  • 1 company of 100 men in the Police Fort
  • 1 company of 100 men in positions near the Fort
  • 9th Battalion of the Arab Legion in Azun with 15 trucks

The Police fort was located to the north of Kilkilya several hundred metres from the towns defensive positions. The nearest Jordanian reinforcements – the Bedouins of the Arab Legion’s 9th Battalion – were located at Azun some kilometers to the east. The hill position of Zuffin dominated the north side of the Kilkilya-Azun road about 500 m to the east of Kilkilya; the trenches on this hill were initially unoccupied but were to play a significant role in the operation.

Ariel Sharon proposed a comprehensive plan to take the southerly defensive positions, set a road block on the Kilkilya-Azun road, and occupy Zuffin Hill. For political reasons the Israeli General Headquarters only approved the road block; Zuffin Hill and the town’s defensive positions were not to be occupied.

The 88th (Mordechai Gur) assaulted the Fort whilst the 890th (Rafael Eitan) provided cover. (Katz, 1988, has the 890th assaulting the fort, while the 88th provided cover. however, Sharon & Chanoff, 2001 – and remember Sharon was the Brigade commander – says that Motta Gur, the commander of the 88th, led the assault.

The reconnaissance company was to block the Kilkilya-Azun road about 6 km east of town. I’ve no idea what the 771st did, although as it was a reserve unit it might not have been present.

The operation started at 2100 on 10 October 1956. By 2150 pm the assault unit was within 200 metres of the Police fort and the Jordanians opened fire. Immediately the fort was lit up by Israeli search lights positioned 3 km away, and the Israeli 25 pounders started direct fire on the fort.

The assault on the police fort was undertaken by two companies of the 890th Paratroop battalion. I think a third company was in support of the assault, although it might have been one of the two companies already mentioned. The Paratroops took casualties due to heavy fire from the fort and the defensive positions around the town to the south, however, after a hard fight including close combat they cleared the building and at 2330 the Israelis blew up the fort

Immediate after the Israeli attack two companies of the Arab Legion’s 9th Battalion advanced along the road from Azun in 15 trucks only to be blocked by Israeli’s Paratroop reconnaissance company. 4 Jordanian trucks were knocked out in the first encounter, and an hour later 2 more were taken out as the Jordanians tried again.

At midnight, still with no casualties but their mission over, the Israeli reconnaissance company withdrew off the road and ran straight into the dismounted Bedouin of the 9th Battalion. After their earlier bloodied nose the Jordanians had dismounted and flanked the Israelis to take up a blocking position behind them. After 11 Paratroopers were wounded and one killed Sharon ordered them back to a rise in the road to take up defensive positions. Running short of ammunition for their Uzis the Israelis called in artillery support; 155mm shells bracketed their position as headquarters organised their rescue.

Around 0130 a company – the unit that had been in support of the assault on the fort – was sent to relieve the reconnaissance company. The Israelis were under no illusions that this unit could get them out, but it could help stem the Jordanian assault until further reinforcements arrived.

These further reinforcements were two Paratroop companies in half tracks. These units dashed along the main highway, at top speed, lights blazing. They went through the Jordanian positions outside Kilkilya, through the town itself past Zuffin hill. Despite half the vehicles losing their way in Kilkilya and returning to base, and despite taking fire all the time of their journey, nine half tracks reached the reconnaissance company by 0230.

At 0300 the convoy started for home. The Jordanians had reinforced their positions at Zuffin and poured heavy fire of heavy machine guns, anti-tank weapons, and grenades on the retreating Israelis. One half track was sent into a ditch and another 5 killed and 20 wounded added to the Israeli casualty list.

The Israelis only realised they had lost a vehicle when the remaining half tracks reached the Police Fort. Four half tracks returned up the road to rescue the occupants of the lost vehicle. They recovered the half-track and its sole wounded occupant – the others had escaped on foot – but suffered two more killed in the process.

In total 18 Israeli paratroopers were killed and 60 wounded. The Jordanians losses included 70 killed.

(Note, the Sinai Campaign started 19 days later.)

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