Are the Israel Defense Forces really the world’s best army—or have they fought nothing but bush-league opponents?
Commenting on the 19th century Confederation Helvetica, Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich reportedly observed that Switzerland does not have an army—it is an army.
There is no better way to describe the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the military establishment of the state of Israel. In the 60 years since its 1948 formation, the IDF has become one of the most respected and most reviled of the world’s armies. It has served Israel through seven major wars, countless actions in the occupied Palestinian territories, and several spectacular special operations against enemies in such countries as Iraq and Uganda.
Along the way, the IDF has acquired an aura of invincibility, although strategic and operational missteps in recent years have tarnished that reputation. Yet, the basic assumption behind everything the IDF does is that Israel cannot afford to lose a war, because decisive military defeat would mean the destruction of Israel. As young recruits swear when they take the IDF oath of enlistment, “Masada shall not fall again!” a reference to the Jewish rebel stronghold destroyed by the Roman Legion X Fretensis in AD 73.
Two overriding factors drive Israel’s national security strategy and the IDF’s military doctrine. The first is geography: Surrounded by hostile neighbors on three sides and the sea on the fourth, Israel lacks territorial depth. At its narrowest point the country is only nine miles wide, from its eastern border with the West Bank to the Mediterranean. It has no room to maneuver. Despite the claim it has no territorial ambitions, the need to create buffer zones has prompted Israel at times to occupy the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza, all of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and Syria’s Golan Heights.
The second factor is demographics. With just under 7.4 million people, Israel is vastly outnumbered by its neighbors. The Arab populations of the countries that share a common border with Israel outnumber the Jews 18-to-1. When the populations of the Arabic and Islamic countries in the outer tier are added, the ratio reaches 50-to-1. In many of the Arab-Israeli wars, countries in the outer ring, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, have sent forces against the Jewish state. Israel simply lacks the numbers to survive a war of attrition. With Israel facing a strategic position similar to that of Prussia and later Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries, many of the key tenets of the IDF’s military doctrine are, ironically, similar to those of the old German army, including:
◆ Determine the outcome of any conflict quickly and decisively.
◆ Take the fight to enemy territory rapidly.
◆ Sustain very low casualties.
◆ Maintain a large standing reserve supported by efficient mobilization and transportation systems.
As with the Germans, these imperatives drive the IDF’s predisposition for decisive offensive maneuver and rapid shock action. And like the Germans, the Israelis also claim the advantage of being able to operate on interior lines. The success of their tactics—following the German model—depends heavily on highly trained, aggressive and dynamic leaders and soldiers who can adapt to rapidly changing situations and exercise initiative instinctively. This close mirroring of the German army has led the IDF to commit some of the same warfighting mistakes, particularly stubborn overreliance on the air power–tank combination at the expense of a more balanced combined-arms approach.
The IDF consists of a well-equipped regular air force, a regular coastal navy and a small standing land force augmented by a well-trained reserve that incorporates a large percentage of the population. Perhaps more than any other country in the world, Israel is very much an entire nation in arms.
The IDF did not simply spring into existence when Israel declared independence in 1948. It is the direct successor of often-clandestine Jewish self-defense organizations in Palestine that date back to the start of the 20th century. Among the earliest were BarGiora and Hashomer (“The Watchman”), formed in 1907 and 1909, respectively, to protect Jewish settlements and kibbutzim in what was then a backwater of the crumbling Ottoman Empire.
When the empire dissolved in the wake of World War I, Palestine became a British mandate under the League of Nations. As Arab-Jewish tensions rose with the increasing influx of Jewish immigrants, Haganah (“The Defense”) was formed as a local paramilitary force. The British viewed the Haganah with ambivalence, first outlawing the group, but then, during the Great Arab Revolt of 1936–1939, cooperating with it closely but unofficially. British Colonel (and future World War II general) Orde C. Wingate formed, trained and personally led the Haganah’s Special Night Squads, Israel’s first special operations force. Many of the IDF’s early senior leaders, including future chiefs of staff Yigael Yadin and Moshe Dayan, were Wingate protégés.
Meanwhile, more radical elements of the Jewish community in Palestine were agitating for more aggressive action against both the British and the Arabs. As early as 1931 one group broke away from the Haganah to form the Irgun Zvai Leumi (“National Military Organization”), or Etzel. The same year the Haganah formed its elite strike force, the Palmach, an even more radical group broke away from the Irgun to establish the Stern Gang—later called Lohamei Herut Israel (“Fighters for the Freedom of Israel”), or Lehi.
During World War II most Jews in Palestine formed a common cause with the British to defeat the Germans. More than 30,000 Palestinian Jews served in the British Army, many in the Jewish Brigade, which fought with distinction against the Germans in northern Italy. Of course, their military training and experience proved invaluable in postwar Palestine.
As soon as the war ended, the Haganah started defying the British by smuggling Holocaust survivors and other Jewish refugees from Europe into Palestine, where they were put through clandestine military training programs. Meanwhile, Irgun and Lehi, which even many Jews considered little more than terrorist organizations, launched an armed rebellion against the British. Led by future Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the Irgun on July 22, 1946, planted a bomb in the basement of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, which housed British military headquarters. Ninety-one people died in the ensuing blast.
Following the UN General Assembly vote in late 1947 to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, the British announced they would withdraw their forces. As flare-ups between Arabs and Jews broke out into open fighting, Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948. Two weeks later Defense Army of Israel Ordinance No. 4 established the IDF and ordered the consolidation of all Jewish fighting organizations under a single command. Almost immediately, the acting head of the new government, David Ben-Gurion, appointed U.S. Army Reserve colonel and World War II veteran David “Mickey” Marcus as Israel’s first general officer since Judah Maccabaeus more than 2,100 years earlier. The IDF’s first chief of staff was Yaakov Dori, a former Haganah chief of staff.
Despite the fact that the IDF absorbed the general staff, the combat units and all the senior commanders of the Haganah, integration of the other fighting organizations was difficult. Some Irgun battalions joined the IDF, while others continued fighting the Arabs independently. Lehi flat out refused to consolidate, disbanding itself instead, after which many of its fighters joined the IDF individually. This shaky integration process reached a boiling point in June 1948, when the Irgun tried to land the illegal arms ship Altalena in Tel Aviv—a blatant challenge to the authority of the fledgling IDF. After Begin refused demands to surrender the weapons to the IDF, BenGurion—acting as both prime minister and defense minister— ordered IDF shore batteries to sink Altalena. It was a crisis that brought the new state to the brink of civil war, but ultimately it cemented the IDF’s legitimacy as the country’s sole military force.
The IDF was vastly outnumbered in its 1948 War for Independence, its weapons and equipment a hodgepodge of obsolete items Israeli agents had scrounged from the junk heaps and surplus yards of Europe after World War II. Yet despite simultaneous attacks by Egypt from the south, Syria and Lebanon from the north, and Jordan and Saudi Arabia from the east, the IDF held on all fronts and eventually pushed back. By the time of the final UN-brokered ceasefire on July 20, 1949, the new Jewish state had managed to secure almost all of its original territorial objectives.
Following the War of Independence, other Arab countries immediately occupied the Palestinian sectors of the former British mandate. Jordan took the West Bank and Egypt took Gaza, and throughout the early 1950s Israel was the target of perpetual terrorist raids launched from Arab-held territories. In response, the IDF formed a special counterterrorist force designated Unit 101. Commanded by Major Ariel Sharon, the unit carried out retaliatory raids into Jordanian territory. Unit 101 was disbanded in late 1955 in the face of criticism over the violence and ruthlessness of its operations.
Almost all Israeli citizens are required to serve in the military for some period of time, and that makes the IDF experience a kind of common denominator of Israeli society. It reinforces the idea that every war must be won and that victory is the responsibility of every citizen. For most Israelis, induction into the IDF at age 18 is a major rite of passage. Men serve for three years, unmarried women for two. Most then have lengthy reserve obligations, with men required to remain in the reserves until age 51 (45 for direct combat veterans), and single women until age 24. The standard reserve obligation has been 39 days per year, though the reserve system is being revamped. Contrary to widespread belief, IDF women have not served extensively in combat roles until recently. Israeli women are eligible to serve in more than 80 percent of all military specialties, but assignment to combat duty remains voluntary.
Although Israeli law requires all citizens to serve, the minister of defense has broad discretionary powers to grant exemptions. Members of the Haredi, the ultraorthodox Jewish community, are widely exempted on the grounds of pursuing religious studies—an exemption that gives rise to a great deal of tension in the country. Longstanding policy also exempts some non-Jewish minority groups, significantly most of Israel’s 1.4 million Arab citizens. Although Arab Israelis theoretically can volunteer for the IDF, they are actively discouraged from doing so. Members of certain Bedouin tribes from the Negev are actively recruited and highly respected for their desert operational and tracking skills. The Druze are another minority group not exempted, and in recent years members have risen to the general officer ranks.
Israel has no military academy like West Point and no reserve officer training program in its universities. Everyone first enters the IDF as a conscript. Those who successfully complete initial training can apply for the extremely competitive and rigorous selection process to become officers or noncommissioned officers in either the reserves or, for the very best, the IDF’s small regular force. Two overriding principles of military leadership are inculcated in potential IDF officers and NCOs from their first day in uniform: The leader at any level, from squad to division, is simply the best and most proficient soldier in that unit; and combat is the ultimate test of leadership, and the only way to lead is by personal example.
IDF officer training is especially rigorous, and the attrition rate can run as high as 50 percent. It takes almost 24 months to qualify as a second lieutenant. Once an officer completes all commissioning requirements, the IDF offers opportunities to pursue advanced civilian education at government expense, and many senior officers have received advanced degrees in the United States or Europe. IDF officers who retire or leave active duty for other reasons retain reserve commissions and are subject to recall during national emergencies.
Although the IDF is a single cohesive force, it is organized administratively into the traditional branches of service: The army, navy and air force all have distinctive uniforms and separate career tracks. The army is organized into the standard arms and corps—infantry, armor, artillery, signals, medical, etc. The standing ground force consists of three infantry brigades, an elite paratrooper brigade, three armor brigades, three artillery brigades and various support units. The elite Sayeret Matkal, or General Staff Reconnaissance Unit 269, is one of the world’s most respected and feared special operations forces. One of Sayeret’s former commanders, Ehud Barak, later served as the IDF’s chief of staff and was Israel’s prime minister from 1999 to 2001.
The Israeli Air Force (IAF) is the strongest in the Middle East, and its pilots are justifiably considered the best trained and most aggressive in the world. Since first flying in combat in 1948, IAF pilots have shot down 687 enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat, while only losing 23. This 30- to-1 victory ratio is rivaled only by that of the Finnish Air Force during World War II. Thirty-nine Israeli pilots have shot down five or more enemy aircraft to achieve ace status.
Although the IDF is widely assumed to have nuclear weapons, Israel has never formally admitted it. Israel’s supporters cite the Jewish experience of the Holocaust as the moral justification for the Jewish state to use any measure necessary to ensure its survival, including nuclear weapons. Unsurprisingly, Israel’s critics and its adversaries in the region take a different view. The IDF probably fielded its first nuclear weapons by the late 1960s, and most intelligence estimates today place Israel’s nuclear arsenal at between 100 and 200 warheads.
Since the 1948 War of Independence, the IDF has demonstrated its effectiveness in six other major wars. The 1956 Sinai Campaign started after Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal and blocked it to Israeli shipping. Under the command of Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, the IDF sent armored columns slicing into the Sinai, quickly reaching the banks of the canal. As a colonel in command of the 890 Paratroop Brigade, Ariel Sharon jumped into the Sinai with one of his battalions ahead of the armored columns to seize and hold the critical Mitla Pass.
Dayan, meanwhile, spent most of the campaign either on the ground with lead elements or above the battlefield in a Douglas C-47 airborne command post. Dayan was with the 27th Armored Brigade when it entered the Sinai town of El Arish, just west of the Gaza strip. As Dayan was looking out the window of a building used as an observation post, an Egyptian machine gunner opened fire on him, killing his radio operator. In a little more than 100 hours the IDF captured the entire Sinai as well as Gaza, but withdrew quickly under international pressure.
In 1967 Egypt directly threatened Israeli by massing 1,000 tanks and 100,000 troops in the Sinai. With Dayan retired from the military but still very much in charge as minister of defense, the IAF launched a massive preemptive strike on the morning of June 5 and virtually destroyed the Egyptian Air Force on the ground. By noon, just eight hours later, the Israelis had also eliminated the Syrian and Jordanian air forces. Once again, IDF armored columns thrust into the Sinai and to the banks of the Suez. Egypt lost some 15,000 soldiers killed, while the IDF lost 338.
The Six-Day War cemented the IDF’s growing reputation for invincibility, but almost immediately the Egyptian and Israeli forces facing each other across the Suez Canal became bogged down in a protracted series of raids, counterraids, and air and artillery strikes. The ironically named War of Attrition played directly against Israel’s population weakness, but the IDF nonetheless scored a number of impressive tactical successes before the conflict ended in 1970. During Operation Rooster 53 on Dec. 26, 1969, Israeli commandos raided the Egyptian radar station at Ras-Arab on the Gulf of Suez, capturing a newly installed, state-of-the-art Soviet P-12 radar system. Swooping in on three French-built Aérospatiale Super Frelon helicopters, the IDF strike force quickly overpowered the Egyptian garrison. The P-12 equipment was housed in two trailers partially dug into the ground, but the Israelis dug them out and sling-loaded them beneath two U.S.-built CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters for return to Israeli-held territory.
Following its stunning victory in the Six-Day War, the IDF succumbed to a classic case of “victor’s disease” and drew faulty conclusions that would later haunt Israel. Replicating one of the German army’s biggest World War II mistakes, the IDF came to rely too heavily on tanks and fighter-bombers, de-emphasizing the value of artillery and conventional infantry. The IDF also grew so overconfident that it believed another Arab attack to be almost unthinkable. The Arabs, however, had also learned some hard lessons from 1967.
Egypt and Syria launched their next attack on Oct. 6, 1973, on Yom Kippur, the most solemn Jewish religious holiday of the year. This time the IDF was caught almost totally by surprise. Fully resupplied by the Soviets, Syria launched mass tank formations across the Golan Heights, while Egypt staged a “bite-and-hold” crossing of the Suez Canal and then threw up an impenetrable umbrella of surface-to-air missiles. Stripped of air cover, and without traditional infantry support, the IDF’s tanks fell prey to Egyptian infantry armed with new Soviet antitank guided missiles.
In the end the IDF rallied, especially after a massive American airlift started bringing in weapons and supplies on October 14. IDF tanks eventually annihilated the Syrian forces on the Golan Heights (see Military History, May/June 2008). In the Sinai, Sharon’s armored division forced a crossing of the Suez, quickly followed by another armored division under Maj. Gen. Avraham “Bren” Adan. Together the two tank divisions cut off and trapped the Egyptian Third Army on the other side and got to within 60 miles of Cairo before a UN-brokered ceasefire went into effect.
Israel’s fifth major war had been a close-run affair. Although the combined Arab forces lost more than 2,500 main battle tanks (MBTs) and 850 other armored vehicles, the IDF lost almost 800 MBTs and 400 other armored vehicles. The Egyptians, at least, had proved to the rest of the Arab world that the IDF could be fought to a standstill under the right conditions. Dayan was forced to resign as defense minister, his reputation as one of history’s great captains in tatters. In the aftermath, however, the IDF significantly realigned its force structure to put greater emphasis on a combined-arms approach.
Israel’s sixth major war, initially called Operation Peace for Galilee, started in June 1982 when the IDF invaded southern Lebanon in retaliation for increasing Palestinian terrorist and rocket attacks being launched from Lebanese territory. As IDF ground units approached Beirut on June 10, the IAF launched a series of punishing air strikes against Syrian SAM sites in the strategic Bekáa Valley. When the Syrian Air Force tried to intervene, IAF pilots shot down 22 Syrian MiGs. The Lebanon War officially ended in May 1983, and in the process Israel did manage to eject Yasir Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization from Lebanon, but then the IDF became mired in a long and grinding occupation of southern Lebanon that lasted until 2000.
Many observers considered the Lebanon War to be “Israel’s Vietnam.” The IDF’s reputation suffered severely when Lebanese militia groups allied with Israel massacred between 800 and 2,000 Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps on Sept. 15 and 16, 1982. Sharon, then Israel’s defense minister, was branded internationally as a war criminal, and the incident led directly to the formation of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
The IDF was drawn into the West Bank and Gaza to perform security and stability operations during the First Palestinian Intifada (“shaking off”), which lasted from 1987 to 1992. The Second Intifada started in late September 2000 when Sharon, leader of the Israeli opposition and always a lightning-rod figure, visited Jerusalem’s disputed Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest and Islam’s third holiest site. The ensuing al-Aqsa Intifada, as it was known, was far more violent and bloody than the first, and the security demands placed on the IDF and especially its reservists exacted a high price. The Second Intifada finally sputtered out by 2005, after Israel withdrew from Gaza, though to this day the IDF remains heavily committed in the West Bank.
The Second Lebanon War started on July 12, 2006, when Hezbollah forces crossed the border from Lebanon into northern Israel and killed three IDF soldiers. Wary of getting bogged down in another long occupation, the IDF made the even greater mistake of trying to win the war entirely from the air—ignoring the lessons of the last 90 years of military history. Israel launched massive air attacks against Hezbollah positions and Lebanese infrastructure nodes in Beirut and elsewhere. Israel’s apparent strategy was to drive a wedge between Hezbollah and the rest of the Lebanese population. It backfired, and by the time the IDF’s leaders concluded that ground forces were needed, the necessary units were not in position and the IDF ran up against a determined and well-prepared resistance. By the time another UN-brokered ceasefire went into effect on August 14, the IDF had lost 119 soldiers killed in action, with less to show for the loss than in any other war in its history.
The Second Lebanon War differed from Israel’s previous wars in other ways: For the first time Israel suffered large numbers of civilian casualties, as Hezbollah rockets slammed into northern Israeli cities. For the first time, too, Israel had inflicted more civilian than military deaths on its enemy; and for the first time the IDF failed to crush its military opponent. By simply surviving an IDF onslaught, Hezbollah could claim victory.
Although many pundits have proclaimed that the IDF’s armor of invincibility has been pierced once and for all, such claims have been made before, especially after the Yom Kippur War. The IDF did not win decisively in 2006, but Israel’s existence was never threatened. Like all armies that lose a war, the IDF has undertaken a thorough self-examination and undoubtedly will transform itself accordingly, much like the German army after World War I and the American military after Vietnam.
In the final analysis, Israel is a modern Western state with Western military institutions, including its own modern arms industry. Israel’s Arab opponents, meanwhile, have been struggling to modernize traditional cultures rooted in the Middle Ages. As long as the IDF’s raison d’être is to prevent Masada from falling again, the IDF will remain a formidable force.
For further reading, David T. Zabecki recommends: The Sword and the Olive: A Critical History of the Israeli Defense Force, by Martin Van Creveld, and The Israeli Defense Forces: A People’s Army, by Louis D. Williams.
Originally published in the March 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.