The Israel Defense Forces were officially formed out of the Haganah at the order of Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion on May 26, 1948, as a conscript army, and incorporated the three Jewish underground organizations - the Haganah (including Palmach), Irgun and Lehi. It served as Israel's armed forces in all the country's wars - the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, the 1956 Sinai War, the 1967 Six-Day War, the War of Attrition, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1982 Lebanon War and the 2006 Lebanon War. While originally the IDF fully operated on three fronts—against Lebanon and Syria in the north, Jordan and Iraq in the east, and Egypt in the south—after the 1979 Egyptian–Israeli Peace Treaty, its activities have mainly been concentrated in southern Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories, including the First and Second Intifada.
The Israel Defense Forces differs from most armed forces in the world in many ways, including the conscription of women and the structure, with close relations between the ground forces, air force and navy. Since its founding, the IDF has striven to be a unique army fitting Israel's specific requirements, and has also developed numerous local technologies, such as the Merkava main battle tank, Uzi submachine gun, and the Galil and Tavor assault rifles. It also has close military relations with the United States, including financial aid from the US, which also fostered development cooperation, such as on the F-15I jet, THEL laser defense system, the Arrow missile defense system, etc.
While supporters often call the IDF the "most moral army in the world", citing among other things its code of conduct, it has often been criticized by opponents especially for its activities in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories, including allegations of disregard for Arab civilian life, property, and human rights.
The IDF traces its roots to Jewish paramilitary organizations in the New Yishuv, starting with the Second Aliyah. The first such organization was Bar-Giora, founded in September 1907. It was converted to Hashomer in April 1909, which operated until the British Mandate of Palestine came into being in 1920. Hashomer was an elitist organization with narrow scope, and was mainly created to protect against criminal gangs seeking to steal property. After the Arab riots against Jews in April 1920, the Yishuv's leadership saw the need to create a nationwide underground defense organization, and the Haganah was founded in June of the same year. The Haganah became a full-scale defense force after the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine with an organized structure, consisting of three main units - the Field Corps, Guard Corps and the Palmach.
The IDF was founded following the establishment of the State of Israel, after Defense Minister and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion published the order for its creation on May 26, 1948. The order called for the establishment of the Israel Defense Forces, and the abolishment of all other Jewish armed forces. Although Ben-Gurion had no legal authority to issue such an order, a legal order soon followed. The two other Jewish underground organizations, Irgun and Lehi, agreed to join the IDF if they would be able to form independent units. The Irgun also sought to make independent arms purchases, a dispute which led to the Altalena Affair, when an Irgun ship was shelled by the newly-created IDF. Following the affair, all independent Irgun and Lehi units were either disbanded or merged into the IDF. The Palmach, a strong lobby within the Haganah, also joined the IDF with provisions, and Ben Gurion responded by disbanding its staff in 1949, after which many senior Palmach officers retired, notably its first commander, Yitzhak Sadeh.
The new army organized itself during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, when Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen declared war on Israel. Twelve infantry and armored brigades were created: Golani, Carmeli, Alexandroni, Kiryati, Givati, Etzioni, the 7th and 8th armored brigades, Oded, Harel, Yiftach and Negev. After the war, some of the brigades were converted to reserve units, and others were disbanded. Directorates and corps were created from corps and services in the Haganah, and this basic structure in the IDF still exists today.
Immediately after the 1948 war, the Israel Defense Forces shifted to low intensity conflict against Arab infiltrators from the surrounding states, a trend that continues to this day. The 1956 Suez Crisis was the IDF's first test of strength after 1949, and the new army proved itself by capturing the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, which was immediately returned. Following the conflict, infiltrator activity and organization increased and Israel engaged in a border war, which saw infiltration followed by retaliation, until the Six-Day War of 1967. In the war, Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, West Bank and Golan Heights from the surrounding Arab states, changing the balance of power in the region as well as the role of the IDF. In the following years leading up to the Yom Kippur War, the IDF fought a War of Attrition against Egypt in the Sinai and a border war against the PLO in Jordan, culminating in the Battle of Karameh.
The surprise of the Yom Kippur War and its aftermath completely changed the IDF's procedures and approach to warfare. Organizational changes were made and more time was dedicated to training for conventional warfare. However, in the following years the army's role slowly shifted again to low-intensity conflict, urban warfare and counter-terrorism. The battle against the PLO peaked with the 1982 Lebanon War, where the IDF ousted Palestinian guerilla organizations from Lebanon. Palestinian militancy has been the main focus of the IDF ever since, especially during the First and Second Intifadas, causing the IDF to change many of its values and publish the IDF Spirit. The Shi'ite organization Hezbollah has also been a growing threat, against which the IDF fought a full-scale war in 2006.
Men serve three years in the IDF, while women serve two. The IDF allowed women who volunteer for several combat positions to serve for three years because combat soldiers must undergo a lengthy period of training. Women in other positions, such as programmers, who require lengthy training time may also serve three years. Women in most combat positions are also required to serve as reserve for several years after their dismissal from regular service.
The Border Police units fight side by side with the regular IDF combat units. They are also responsible for security in heavy urban areas such as Jerusalem.
Many officers in the Border Police come from IDF combat units. While the Border Police does retain their own command structure, on the ground they are almost indistinguishable from the regular IDF units.
Although still available to be called up in times of crisis, most Israeli men, and virtually all women, do not actually perform reserve service in any given year. Units do not always call up all of their reservists every year, and a variety of exemptions are available if called for regular reserve service. Virtually no exemptions exist for reservists called up in a time of crisis, but experience has shown that in such cases (most recently, Second Lebanon War in 2006) exemptions are rarely requested or exercised; units generally achieve recruitment rates above those considered fully-manned.
Recently, legislation has been proposed for reform in the reserve service, lowering the maximum service age to 40, designating it as a purely emergency force, as well as many other changes to the current structure (although the Defence Minister can suspend any portion of it at any time for security reasons). The age threshold for many reservists whose positions are not listed, though, will be fixed at 49. The legislation is set out to take effect by 13 March, 2008.
Druze and Circassians are subject to mandatory conscription to the IDF just like Israeli Jews. Originally, they served in the framework of a special unit called "The Minorities' Unit", which still exists today, in the form of the Herev ("Sword") independent battalion. However, since the 1980s Druze soldiers have increasingly protested this practice, which they considered a means of segregating them and denying them access to elite units. The army has increasingly admitted Druze soldiers to regular combat units and promoting them to higher ranks from which they had been previously excluded. In recent years, several Druze officers have reached ranks as high as Major General and many have received commendations for distinguished service. It is important to note that, proportionally to their numbers, the Druze people achieve much higher—documented—levels in the Israeli army than other soldiers. Nevertheless, some Druze still charge that discrimination continues, such as exclusion from the Air Force, although the official low security classification for Druze has been abolished for some time. The first Druze aircraft navigator completed his training course in 2005; his identity is protected as with all air force pilots. After the battle of Ramat Yohanan during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, approximately 1000 Syrian Druze soldiers and officers deserted and joined Israel.
The issue of their mandatory conscription, unlike other Israeli Arab citizens, is the subject of an ongoing controversy inside the Druze community itself. Since the late 1970s the Druze Initiative Committee centered at the village of Beit Jan and linked to the Israeli Communist Party had been campaigning to abolish Druze conscription - arguing that the Druze are Arabs and Palestinians and should not be compelled to fight their brothers and sisters; that Druze conscription was instituted in 1956 following an appeal by the heads of the Druze community to then PM Ben Gurion which should not be considered binding on youths born many decades later.
By law, all Israeli citizens are subject to conscription and it is the Defense Minister's complete discretion to grant exemption to individual citizens or classes of citizens. A long-standing policy dating to Israel's early years extends an exemption to all other Israeli minorities (most notably Israeli Arabs). However, there is a long-standing government policy of encouraging Bedouins to volunteer and offer them various inducements, and in some impoverished Bedouin communities a military career seems one of the few means of (relative) social mobility available. Also, Muslim and Christians are accepted as volunteers, even at an age greater than 18.
From among non-Bedouin Arab citizens, the number of volunteers for military service—some Christian Arabs and even a few Muslim Arabs—is minute, and the government makes no special effort to increase it. Six Israeli Arabs have received orders of distinction as a part of their military service; of them the most famous is a Bedouin officer, Lieutenant Colonel Abd el-Amin Hajer (also known as Amos Yarkoni), who received the Order of Distinction. Recently, a Bedouin officer was promoted to the rank of Colonel.
Until the second term of Yitzhak Rabin as Prime Minister, social benefits given to families in which at least one member (including a grandfather, uncle or cousin) had served at some time in the armed forces were significantly higher than to "non-military" families, which was considered a means of blatant discrimination between Jews and Arabs. Rabin had led the abolition of the measure, in the teeth of strong opposition from the Right. At present, the only official advantage from military service is the attaining of security clearance and serving in some types of government positions (in most cases, security-related), as well as some indirect benefits. In practice, however, a large number of Israeli employers placing "wanted" ads include the requirement "after military service" even when the job is in no way security-related, which is considered as a euphemism for "no Arab/Haredim need apply". The test of former military service is also frequently applied in admittance to various newly-founded communities, effectively barring Arabs from living there. Also, the Israeli national airline El Al hires only pilots who had served in the Air Force, which in practice excludes Arabs from the job.
On the other hand, non-Arab Israelis argue that the mandatory three-year (two years for women) military service puts them at a disadvantage, as they effectively lose three years of their life through their service in the IDF, while the Arab Israelis are able to start right into their jobs after school, or study at a university. In fact, the most frequently heard argument whenever the subject of the discrimination of Arabs comes up - whether on the Knesset floor, in the media or among ordinary citizens - is that the Arabs' "non fulfillment of military duty" justifies their exclusion from some or all the benefits of citizenship. The late former general Rafael Eitan, when he went into politics in the 1980s, proposed that the right to vote be linked to military service. The idea occasionally crops up again among right-wing groups and parties.
According to the 2004 U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Israel and the occupied territories, "Israeli Arabs were not required to perform mandatory military service and, in practice, only a small percentage of Israeli Arabs served in the military. Those who did not serve in the army had less access than other citizens to social and economic benefits for which military service was a prerequisite or an advantage, such as housing, new-household subsidies, and employment, especially government or security-related industrial employment. Regarding the latter, for security reasons, Israeli Arabs generally were restricted from working in companies with defense contracts or in security-related fields."
In recent years, there have been several initiatives to enable Israeli Arabs to volunteer for civilian National Service instead of to the IDF, completion of which would grant the same privileges as those granted to IDF veterans. However, this plan has gained strong resistance from Arab members of the parliament, and as a result, has not been implemented yet.
Following their active service, women, like men, are in theory required to serve up to one month annually in reserve duty. However, in practice only some women in combat roles get called for active reserve duty, and only for a few years following their active service, with many exit points (e.g., pregnancy).
Apart from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, when manpower shortages saw many of them taking active part in battles on the ground, women were historically barred from battle in the IDF, serving in a variety of technical and administrative support roles. During this period the IDF utilized female instructors for training male soldiers in certain roles, particularly tank crews.
After a landmark 1994 High Court appeal by Alice Miller, a Jewish immigrant from South Africa, the Air Force was instructed to open its pilots course to women. Miller failed the entrance exams, but since her initiative, many additional combat roles were opened. As of 2005, women are allowed to serve in 83% of all positions in the military, including Shipboard Navy Service (except submarines), and Artillery. Combat roles are voluntary for women.
As of 2002, 33% of lower rank officers are women, 21% of Captains and Majors, and 3% of the most senior ranks.
450 women currently serve in combat units of Israel's security forces, primarily in the Border Police. Yael Rom, the first female pilot in the Israeli Air Force earned her wings in 1951. The first female jet fighter pilot, Roni Zuckerman, received her wings in 2001. In November 2007 the first woman was appointed to the rank of deputy squadron commander.
Women serve in combat support and light combat roles in the Artillery Corps, infantry units and armored divisions. A few platoons, named Karakal, were formed, in which men and women serve together in light infantry on the borders with Egypt and Jordan. Karakal became a brigade in 2004.
The IDF abolished its "Women's Corps" command in 2001, with a view that it had become an anachronism and a stumbling block towards integration of women in the army as regular soldiers with no special status. However, after pressures from feminist lobbies, The Chief of Staff was persuaded to keep an "adviser for women's affairs". Female soldiers now fall under the authority of individual units based on jobs and not on gender. The 2006 Lebanon War was the first time since 1948 that women were involved in field operations alongside men. Airborne helicopter engineer Sergeant-Major (res.) Keren Tendler became the first female combat soldier to be killed in action.
During 1950-66, Israel spent an average of 9% of its GDP on defense. Defense expenditures increased dramatically after both the 1967 and 1973 wars. They reached a high of about 24% of GDP in the 1980s, but have since come back down to about 9%, about $15 billion, following the signing of peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt.
In 1983, the United States and Israel established a Joint Political Military Group, which convenes twice a year. Both the U.S. and Israel participate in joint military planning and combined exercises, and have collaborated on military research and weapons development. Additionally the U.S. military maintains two classified, pre-positioned War Reserve Stocks in Israel valued at $493 million. Israel has the official distinction of being an American Major non-NATO ally. As a result of this, The US and Israel share the vast majority of their security and military technology.
Since 1976, Israel had been the largest annual recipient of U.S. foreign assistance. In 2004, Israel was receiving $2.16 billion a year in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) grants from the Department of Defense. This amount has increased in recent years due to non-military economic aid being shifted to military aid. A large proportion of this military aid is for the purchase of American military equipment only.
|Equipment||Quantity||In Service||Being delivered|
|High quality main battle tanks||970||970||300|
|Medium and low quality tanks||1830||1430|
|APCs, IFVs, ARVs, LCVs||6930||6930|
|Heavy SAM batteries||25||25||1|
The IDF possesses top-of-the-line weapons and computer systems used and recognized worldwide. Some is American-made (with some equipment being modified for IDF use) such as the M4A1 assault rifle, the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon, and the AH-64 Apache and AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters. Israel also has developed its own independent weapons industry, which has developed weapons and vehicles such as the Merkava battle tank series, the Kfir fighter aircraft, and various small arms such as the Galil and Tavor assault rifles, and the Uzi submachine gun.
The IDF also has several large internal research and development departments, and it purchases many technologies produced by the Israeli security industries including IAI, IMI, Elbit, El-Op, Rafael, Soltam, and dozens of smaller firms. Many of these developments have been battle-tested in Israel's numerous military engagements, making the relationship mutually beneficial, the IDF getting tailor-made solutions and the industries a very high repute.
Israel's military technology is most famous for its guns, armored fighting vehicles (tanks, tank-converted APCs, armoured bulldozers, etc.), Unmanned aerial vehicles, and rocketry (missiles and rockets). Israel also has manufactured aircraft including the Kfir (reserve), IAI Lavi (cancelled), and the IAI Phalcon Airborne early warning System, and naval systems (patrol and missile ships). Much of the IDF's electronic systems (intelligence, communication, command and control, navigation etc.) are Israeli-developed, including many systems installed on foreign platforms (esp. aircraft, tanks and submarines). So are many of its precision-guided munitions.
Israel is the only country in the world with an operational anti-ballistic missile defense system ("Hetz", Arrow, developed with funding and technology from the United States), though an operational system is in place protecting the Moscow area. Israel has also worked with the U.S. on development of a tactical high energy laser system against medium range rockets (called Nautilus or THEL).
Israel has the independent capability of launching reconnaissance satellites into orbit (a capability which only Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the People's Republic of China, India, Japan and Ukraine hold). Both the satellites (Ofeq) and the launchers (Shavit) were developed by the Israeli security industries.
Israel is also said to have developed an indigenous nuclear capability, although no official details or acknowledgments have ever been publicized. On the issue of this nuclear weapons program, Israel chooses to follow a policy of deliberate ambiguity.
Academic officers (Ktzinim Akadema'im)
NCOs past mandatory service (Nagadim)
IDF soldiers have three types of insignia (other than ranks) which identify their corps, specific unit, and position.
Corps are identified by a pin attached to the beret. Soldiers serving in staffs above corps level are often identified by the General Corps pin, despite not officially belonging to it, or the pin of a related corps. New recruits undergoing basic training do not have this pin. Beret colors are also often indicative of the soldier's corps, although most non-combat corps do not have their own beret, and sometimes wear the color of the corps to which the base they're stationed in belongs. Individual units are identified by a shoulder tag attached to the shoulder strap. Most units in the IDF have their own tags, although those that do not generally use tags identical to their command's tag (corps, directorate, or regional command).
While the position/job of a soldier cannot often be identified, two optional factors help make this identification: an aiguillette attached to the left shoulder strap and shirt pocket, and a pin indicating the soldier's work type (usually given by a professional course). Other pins may indicate the corps or additional courses taken. Finally, an optional battle pin indicates a war that a soldier has fought in.
The IDF mission is to defend the existence, territorial integrity and sovereignty of the state of Israel. To protect the inhabitants of Israel and to combat all forms of terrorism which threaten the daily life [thereof].
Palestinian news agencies, and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, as well as some pro-Palestinian activists abroad, call the IDF the "Israeli Occupation Forces" ("IOF") rather than "Israel Defense Forces." This attempt to reframe discourse has been recommended by some Palestinian activists and rejected by others.
The IDF has historically used a strategy of demolishing houses of family members of suicide bombers, originally claiming that this was a very effective prevention tactic: would-be bombers' families sometimes prevent the bomber, sometimes even going as far as informing to the IDF, in the hope of preventing their family-member's death as well as their house being demolished. Some would-be bombers even relented at the last moment, fearing their parent's home would be demolished. Critics, including human right organizations, contend that effectiveness (i.e., actually preventing Israeli civilians' deaths in a terrorist attack) does not legitimize excessive force.
During the recent conflict, the number of houses demolished has increased significantly, both as the result of an increase in the number of suicide bombers, as well as due to more lenient criteria for house demolition. The IDF now routinely demolishes houses from which shots were fired at nearby traffic or settlements, houses harboring concealed Smuggling tunnel entrances in the Gaza strip, and for other security reasons.
Another main source for house demolition is in the course of fighting. After several IDF soldiers were killed early in the conflict while searching houses containing militants, the IDF started employing a tactic of surrounding such houses, calling on the occupants (civilian and militant) to exit, and demolishing the house on top of the militants that do not surrender. This tactic, called "Noal Sir Lachatz" נוהל סיר לחץ "Pressure Pot" ,is now used whenever feasible (i.e., non multi-rise building that's separated from other houses). Palestinians claim several cases in which houses were demolished on top of incapacitated or deaf civilian occupants. However, the IDF claims that in the vast majority of cases the occupants were militants. In some heavy fighting incidents, esp. in the Battle of Jenin 2002 and Operation Rainbow in Rafah 2004, heavily-armored IDF Caterpillar D9 bulldozers were used to demolish houses to widen alleyways or to secure locations for IDF troops. The use of the D9 proved to be effective, as it prevented further casualties in Jenin and prevented casualties at Rafah.
Palestinians and international organizations say the use of bulldozers for purposes of demolishing civilian structures is illegal. In one well-known incident, International Solidarity Movement activist Rachel Corrie was killed when she tried to obstruct a Caterpillar D9 armoured bulldozer in Rafah after being ordered several times by the IDF soldiers to exit the area of the demolition.
In the summer 2005, after numerous houses had been destroyed, the Israeli army itself came to the conclusion that these demolitions had outgrown their usefulness and announced putting an end to this policy. This does not however mean that, as part of its low intensity warfare doctrine, the IDF would not destroy civilian homes that are used by enemy combatants.