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“‘Masada” is an elite takeover unit of the Prison Service and is classified as a special national unit. Among its primary functions are the rescue of hostages, the handling of special situations in detention facilities, the treatment of severe disturbances, access to prisons and handling of prison breakouts. Its experience with special actions has resulted in the unit serving as a center of focus by those interested in resolving situations using non- lethal weapons.
In May 2010, the eve of the arrival of the Turkish flotilla to Gaza, the former Commander of the Israeli Navy, Eli “Cheney” Merom, met with the commanding officers of Masada. It was planned, if necessary, that the Masada unit would take part in the takeover of the ship.
A member of Masada has said, “All prisons are familiar with the unit and have come to work with us on a daily basis. Today I feel not only welcomed in correctional facilities, but also needed. Often times the prison guards recall little of what may have been found or done during special internal activities within the cells. They only recall that a special unit came and went without attracting much attention.
As far as we’re concerned, we treat every mission in the prisons as if it were a hostage rescue event. The perception about us is that the more routine our activity, the better we will perform during an emergency. Our operations have contributed to a rise in our self-image, as prison employees have grown aware that they are not the last line facing the prisoner”.
Israel’s Prison Service and the Masada unit as part of it, now participate in all national missions. Also, Masada has become expert for all things related to non-lethal weapons. In discussions that have taken place in the office of the IDF Chief of Staff on such issues, a senior advisor is a member of Masada. Where matters concern the General Security Service, Masada members serve as the domain experts in the IDF and the “Shin Bet” on non-lethal activities. When personnel of special units like ‘Duvdevan’ and ‘Shaldag’ as well as other elite units of the army, face complex operations requiring non-lethal weapons, they pass certification in Masada.
For example, members of the Police Special Forces have come to learn about the use of non-lethal weapons and special patrol units of the Israel Police are taking courses on this subject as well. There is nothing else to say about the subject other than the given fact that Masada has the greatest expertise in this area.
There are a few dozen trained personnel who make up the Masada unit. Among them are a handful of regular soldiers who are able to offer assistance when necessary. “Their primary mission is the rescue of hostages inside the prisons or involving other exceptional events” says an expert on Masada.
Making up the Masada unit are negotiators who work in cooperation with the negotiating unit of the police. ‘Sometime negotiators’ like wardens of the various prisons have come to Masada for educational purposes. They learn to negotiate with the prisoners when necessary, until the arrival of Masada personnel.
A Masada training course recently ended, having lasted six months. Masada, unlike other IPS units, recruits its own fighters. Recruitment occurs every three years, administered internally by its own fighters and trainers. Due to its infrequency, the recruitment phase into Masada is referred to as ‘the event’.
After the completion of a six month course, the unit members are divided into squads. The unit consists of two major companies, the takeover company and the break in company. The takeover company specializes in aspects related to any takeover, including the takeover of cells within the prison or a ‘Nachshon’ unit’s vehicle in which prisoners are transported. The break in company specializes in the deployment of explosives and the opening of both ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ doors. The members of this company receive their basic training in the IDF’s ‘Yahalom’ unit. They must then pass a special course in the unit regarding detention facilities. “The doors in the prisons are very massive,” says E, but if we were to apply too much explosive, we could destroy something or hurt someone. Total professionalism is required here”.
In recent years quite a few escape events involving prisoners have occurred, including the breakout of 13 prisoners from the West Bank. Masada members were able to put them back behind bars. In many cases, they reached the very bed of the fugitive using the same stealth methods they use during their arrival at a prison department in the event of a hostage rescue.
“This may be considered the task of the police, but for reasons of the honor of our organization, we prefer to take on the challenge ourselves”, explained a source in Masada.
The article originally appeared in publications of the Prison Service.