Israels stealth killers make life less certain for terrorists

JERUSALEM — When Hamas mastermind Abdullah Kawasme 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 they were undercover Israeli agents. The innocuous-looking workers were 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, disguised as Palestinian laborers, had been lounging around a van packed with diapers outside Kawasme's mosque. When he emerged amid a crowd of worshippers, the Yamam squad pulled out pistols and ordered him to stop.

Kawasme, whom Israelis say was responsible for terrorist bombings that killed 52 people, 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. Its missions must 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'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 avert 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 Druze who intercept and quickly analyze enemy communications. Some of Yamam's attack dogs 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."

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 longstanding 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. Heffetz fought to recruit old friends from the military to form an officer core that would refine the team, and established ties with foreign counterparts — including the British SAS and 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. 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, who was killed along with the Matkal team commander 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. Candidates must have completed three years' mandatory military service in a combat unit and have earned high-security clearance.

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 so as 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.

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.

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