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Israeli jets firing laser-guided missiles at RPG-toting gunmen, along with pictures of Arab children throwing stones at hulking Merkava tanks, have become an icon of modern armed conflict and the asymmetrical warfare being waged in the Middle East. Consequently, the Israel Defense Forces’ overall record of success is frequently written off as the result of overwhelming materiel advantage— victories won by beefed-up American weaponry and technology.

But the Israeli army that won independence in 1948 and a six-day victory in 1967 did not fight with superior planes and tanks. In fact its soldiers didn’t even have a decent rifle. In most cases, Israel’s forces were armed with equipment that was at best equal to that of their Arab opponents. Israel won battles because of the daring tactics and volunteer response of a people convinced that defeat would mean eradication.

It is difficult to remember that American billions in weaponry were not available before the 1960s. President John F. Kennedy commenced arms sales to Israel of Hawk surface-to-air missiles in 1962, but it wasn’t until the Johnson and Nixon administrations that they arrived on a large scale. For the first 20 years of its existence, the period of formative Israeli victories, Israel had to patch together what weapons it could get.

This was certainly clear in the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, when the British mandate over Palestine forbade accumulation of weapons there, leaving the surrounding Arab states free to build up armies. When the fighting began, Jordan’s British-trained Arab Legion charged toward Jerusalem in armored cars, wielding American Thompson submachine guns.

Israel’s makeshift forces met this assault with surplus Czechoslovakian boltaction rifles, Molotov cocktails and homemade artillery, including the noisy but terribly ineffective “Davidka” cannon. Yet the Israelis prevailed and survived.

Nineteen years later the IDF again won an underdog victory, defeating Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq and seizing expansive territory in just six days. In 1967 Israel’s opponents came to the field with $2 billion in Soviet hardware, including 500 jet planes, 1,700 tanks and 2,400 artillery pieces. The T-54 tank was fortified with twice the armor of its American equivalent, the M-48 Patton. When the smoke cleared, Israel’s armor had decisively bested its opponent. Israel’s success in the Six-Day War stemmed from strategy and ethos, not materiel. Israel was willing to hazard a preemptive strike— the technical superiority of Egypt’s jets made little difference once they were ambushed on the tarmac.

The Yom Kippur War shows the same pattern. Israel was momentarily shocked by new Soviet technology. In the early days of the conflict, SA-6 SAMs knocked out many Israeli jet planes, and Sagger antitank missiles devastated the IDF’s M60 tanks. Sophisticated Soviet weapons, combined with the surprise invasion and poor leadership by its government, nearly spelled defeat for Israel.

Still, the civilian military saved the nation, even as the government fumbled. Thousands of reservists jumped into their own cars and raced through the desert toward the front. Within a few days they pushed back Egypt’s invasion, seizing Egyptian territory. Though the IDF was beginning to acquire a few high-quality American arms, the 1973 victory relied more on rapid mobilization and motivated troops.

Israel never even fielded that most basic weapon of war, a quality rifle. Since the late 1950s, most Arab states have wisely trusted the AK-47, the world’s most reliable assault rifle. Israel’s military, however, hopped from design to design, using the homegrown Uzi, then the Belgian FN FAL, then the Israeli Galil. Each weapon had major shortcomings. The Uzi, for instance, is just a large automatic pistol, but Israeli troops won their greatest battles armed with it, again suggesting that there was more involved than equipment.

Until the 1980s, the IDF succeeded because of their lack of overwhelming power. As poorly armed underdogs, Israelis were forced to fight for their lives, forced to launch dynamic, sudden attacks and to accomplish their goals before the international community had time to react.

A small nation born of artificial partitioning and global politics, Israel understandably had no friends among its Middle Eastern neighbors. Israel developed a military ethos that depended on surprise and communality rather than international response.

Things changed in the 1980s, when the IDF found itself fighting in low-intensity occupations, first in Lebanon, then during two Palestinian uprisings, or Intifadas. Strategy, however clever, could do little to alleviate the drudgery of targeted assassinations and the monotonous work of manning checkpoints. Israel succeeded in stifling certain uprisings, but gone was the emphasis on preemptive strikes and mobilizations of reserves.

With U.S.-Israeli diplomatic ties tightening, there was a sudden glut of American equipment. These weapons were also given to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait, and Israel had its own military industry. The IDF became largely dependent on its F-16 jets, Apache helicopters, M-16s and other fancy gifts from the Pentagon. Ironically, these better weapons have probably weakened the Israeli army. For the first time Israel began to think in terms of sheer materiel strength.

The IDF’s 2006 campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon resembled American-style protracted and ineffective offensives. It began with major strategic bombing, including a shock-and-awe attack that substituted Beirut for Baghdad.

Such a display of air power may have crumbled Saddam Hussein’s conscripts, but it makes little difference against an organization as dedicated as Hezbollah. This bombing continued for a stunning 11 days before the IDF committed ground troops—longer than Israel has ever before hesitated.

Mobilization, which helped in 1973, has been absent in 2006. When tanks and infantry were finally introduced, they failed to overwhelm Hezbollah’s defenses quickly, allowing its antitank teams to snipe at the IDF positions from far away.

In 1976 Israeli troops quietly slipped into Entebbe Airport, in Uganda, and rescued 101 kidnapped airline passengers using nothing more than C-130 cargo planes, vehicles borrowed from civilians and a few Uzis. When a similar raid was recently attempted on the Hezbollah stronghold of Baalbek, Israel pounded the region with laser-guided bombs for hours before inserting commandos. News of the assault was all over the Internet while the operation was still taking place.

Hezbollah had weaknesses Israel could have exploited using simpler methods. The organization’s cellular structure meant a lack of central command. Its scattered antitank teams could never coordinate a defense against a large Israeli ground assault.

Israelis, both civilian and military, blamed their leaders’ logistical mistakes for the unimpressive campaign, ignoring history in favor of materiel strength. Yet Israel cannot afford to fight with the confidence of the United States—its materiel resources are not so seemingly boundless. Perhaps when the IDF relearns the lessons of the past and chooses to fight as an agile, dynamic, desperate nation, it will regain its ability to sustain its position in the Middle East.

Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here