The history of the Israel Defense Forces is intertwined with history of the establishment of the Haganah after which the latter disbanded.
From the 1930s, if not earlier, the political leadership recognized the use of force as a preferred political tool, and this seeped into public discourse and shaped the community's political culture. This mindset became even more entrenched after the establishment of the state. The key players here were not the army or the pre-state military organizations. Neither was powerful enough to be a challenge to the dominance of Mapai or impose a military world view on the political leadership.
Following the 1947 UN Partition Plan which divided the British Mandate of Palestine, the country became increasingly volatile and fell into a state of civil war between the Jews and Arabs after the Arab residents rejected any plan that would allow for the creation of a Jewish state and an Arab state. In accordance with Plan Dalet the Haganah tried to secure the areas allotted to the Jewish state in the partition plan and the blocks of settlements that were in the area allotted to the Arab state.
David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948. His first order was the formation of the IDF - The Israel Defence Forces.
The IDF was based on the personnel who had served in the Haganah and the Palmach and was declared as the only legal armed force in Israel. Another main source of manpower were the immigrants from Europe. Some of them Holocaust survivors and others veterans from World War II.
In the initial phase of the war, the IDF was inferior in both numbers and armament. Due to a number of reasons, the Arabs never managed to exploit their superiority in numbers. The Israelis managed to successfully defend themselves in virtually all battlefields with the notable exception of East Jerusalem. After the first truce June 11 to July 8, the Israelis managed to seize the initiative due to new troop enrollments and supplies of arms. Notable achievements of the IDF include the conquest of Eilat (Um Rashrash), Nazareth, and the capture of the Galilee and the Negev. The war continued until July 20, 1949, when the armistice with Syria was signed. By then the IDF had managed to repel the Egyptians to the Gaza Strip while the Kingdom of Jordan took over the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
In those years the IDF started to rebuild itself as a modern army. It acquired heavier weapons and established an armored corps and the Israeli Air Force.
In order to enhance the morale and organization of the army and to combat the resurgent problem with Palestinian infiltration, Unit 101 was formed. It was led by Ariel Sharon (who later became Prime Minister in Israel), and carried out a number of retaliatory strikes on Jordanian territory to deter the infiltrators. After committing the notorious Qibya Massacre in 1953 it was merged with the Paratroopers Battalions and Sharon became its commander. Unit 101 is regarded as the mother of the IDF's strike force units.
The IDF of the early 1950s was a scrawny, old-fashioned army grappling with alienated high school graduates and kibbutzniks. Its missions were drab and gray, without any militaristic agenda. In other words, it was a "military without militarism." It only grew to become a national symbol in later years, in the wake of the reprisal raids on the eve of the Sinai Campaign.
The secret of the IDF's mounting power lay in how the political echelon made use of it for its own purposes. The army was a tool for establishing control and authority. The model of a "nation in arms," as sociologist Uri Ben-Eliezer has suggested, meshed with the model of state-building embraced by David Ben-Gurion, the state founder. It was a model characterized by a whole society ready for call up, suspension of certain civil liberties, over-intrusiveness of state institutions, blurred borders between ("free") civilians and ("disciplined") soldiers, and a seemingly uniform Jewish-Western Israeli identity devoid of ethnicity.
The army as a "melting pot" and a symbol of new Israeliness, falsely giving its Mizrahi recruits a sense of mobility, became a tool for alleviating ethnic tension. This, in a society built on a combination of immigration and inherent inequality between immigrants and old-timers. As such, the army became an important legitimizing mechanism that helped reproduce social inequality. Moreover, it was a social order that rested on keeping war a permanent fixture, and reaping the economic fruits of such an arrangement - territories, cheap laborforce, an arms industry, and so on. The profits went to the upper strata and helped to advance the mobility of certain groups on the periphery.
The centrality of the army depends on the centrality of war - a dependence that seems to have escaped the eye of many military researchers. Making political hay from the army is not unknown in the world, and there are plenty of historical examples. These missions were not instrumental in fulfilling the IDF's role in safeguarding the country's borders. But the moment the political leadership opted to create a "mobilized," disciplined and inequitable society by turning the army into the "nation builder" and making war a constant, the politicians became dependent on the army. It was not just dependence on the army as an organization, but on military thinking.
In other words, the military view of political reality has become the main anchor of Israeli statesmanship, from the victory of Ben Gurion and his allies over Moshe Sharett's conciliatory policies in the 1950s. Israel had "an army without militarism" in the early 1950s, the trend in later years was "militarism without an army."
From 1954 and 1955 Egypt established a special force unit known as the Fedayeen. It led to the escalation of hostilities over the Israeli-Egyptian border and eventually contributed to the 1956 Suez War.
When President Gamal Abdul Nasser, encouraged by support from the Soviet Union, nationalized the Suez Canal, United Kingdom and France sent in their paratroopers, and recaptured the canal. Simultaneously, the IDF launched a full scale attack into Sinai. Israeli armour, equipped with tanks, such as M4 Sherman and AMX-13 quickly defeated the Egyptian forces and took control over the canal. Israel withdrew from Sinai under international pressure, particularly by the USA and its Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. But the IDF had achieved numerous goals; the borders dramatically tranquilized, Nasser promised to disband the Fedayeen, the Suez Canal was once again open to shipping and maybe most important of all, Israel had illustrated its military strength. The successful war elevated the reputation of the IDF and contributed a lot to the morale of the soldiers.
The military view of political reality has become a fact of life from the 1960s. The dominant mode of "military thinking" is not just "the thinking of the military." It is a whole ideology that is deeply rooted in civilian-political thinking and relatively autonomous versus the army as an organization, i.e., it is an ideology that stands on its own. Yoram Peri, in suggesting that we relinquish the distinction between army and civilian institutions in favor of fluid coalitions that cut across these institutional boundaries, has taken an important step toward recognizing the autonomy of military thinking. Yet a broad study of the sources of military thinking is missing from his work. Peri accepts the idea that Israel is a militaristic society, but he does not incorporate it as a conceptual anchor in his writing. The 1960s debate between "hawks" and "doves" is an example of two brands of military thinking, for instance, and not security versus diplomatic culture, as Peri suggests. If the outlook of the generals is similar to that of the civilian views of the political center (Labor-Likud), it has more to do with military values that have seeped into civilian culture rather than the army's move away from militarism as Peri claims on several occasions.
The reasons for the war were the concentration of 100,000 Egyptian troops in the Sinai Peninsula (a demilitarized zone) and the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships, which could be devastating to the Israeli economy. Those two steps of Gamal Abdul Nasser were interpreted by the Israeli government as Egyptian preparation for war, a casus belli and after forming a unity government, despite international pressure, the Israelis decided on a massive preemptive strike.
On the morning of June 5, 1967, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) launched a massive airstrike that destroyed the majority of the Egyptian air force on the ground. By noon, the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian air forces, with about 450 aircraft, were annihilated. This pre-emptive strike was code-named Operation Focus, Mivtza Moked.
The Egyptians persuaded Syria and Jordan to join the war by lying to them and reporting on "amazing victories" at Sinai. The two Arab countries reluctantly joined the war, Jordan by shelling the Israeli part of Jerusalem and Syria by entering Israel from the Golan Heights.
Meanwhile, the IDF ground forces quickly overran the Egyptian army in Sinai and were about to reach Alexandria. About 15,000 Egyptian soldiers were killed, 4482 fell into captivity and 80% of the Egyptian tanks were destroyed. 338 Israeli were killed in Sinai and of Israel's losses there were about 63 tanks.
On June 7 Israeli troops (the Harel unit; Yerushalmi unit; and elite paratroopers accompanied by tanks) captured the Old City of Jerusalem The conquest of the Western Wall and Temple Mount was considered as the highlights of the war and a dramatic and emotional peak by the Israeli people. The reunification of east and west Jerusalem as one city under Jewish control were celebrated widely in Israel.
The Six-Day War had great consequences for the state of Israel and the IDF. In six days Israel had tripled its territory and defeated three Arab armies - Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan, Israel Tal, Moshe Peled and Mordechai Gur were admired by the public as "war heroes" while the IAF pilots won unprecedented prestige and were considered to be "the best pilots in the world" (even today, the IAF is considered to be one of the most competent air forces in the world).
Israel's alleged pre-emptive strike in the Six Day War resulted in a French embargo banning all weapon sales to Israel. Israel overcame the embargo by finding other suppliers (such as the USA) and developing and making its own weapons. A strategic decision was made then to make an Israeli battle tank, an Israeli fighter jet, and an Israeli warship - for example: The Kfir fighter jet, the Merkava tank.
After the Six-Day War was over, IDF outposts on the Suez Canal were shelled by the Egyptian army. It was a long and bitter war that ended after three years due to Israeli air superiority.
The Yom Kippur War, also known as the "10th of Ramadan War" in Arab countries broke Israeli over-confidence created after the victory of the Six-Day War. This time, Jordan stayed out and wasn't involved in the war. The war opened on October 6 1973, the holiest Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.
Egypt and Syria attempted to regain the territory under Israeli occupation by force. Their armies launched a joint surprise attack on the Jewish Yom Kippur holiday (the most sacred Jewish day of all in which each Jew must atone for his sins, pray and avoid eating and drinking) -- the Syrian forces attacking fortifications in the Golan Heights and the Egyptian forces attacking fortifications around the Suez Canal and on the Sinai Peninsula. The troops inflicted heavy casualties on the Israeli army. After three weeks of fighting, though, and with U.S. air-lifted reinforcements of weapons and equipments (first shipment arrived on October 14 1973), the IDF pushed the attacking forces back beyond the original lines.
In the Golan Heights, small groups of tank commanders such as Avigdor Kahalani managed to hold back dozens of Syrian tanks. By October 10, the IDF recaptured the entire Golan Heights and on October 11 Israeli armored forces invaded Syria and destroyed the Iraqi reinforcements. On October 22, the Golani infantry brigade captured mount Hermon (an important strategic outpost).
In the Sinai Peninsula, Israeli armour barely managed to stop the overwhelming Egyptian attack. The Egyptians attacked with 2,000 tanks while there were only 300 Israeli tanks to defend the area. Israeli armored forces suffered heavy casualties on the first three days and were forced to withdraw from the Suez Canal outposts.
After being reinforced by reserve forces, the IDF launched a counter-attack. On October 14, General Ariel Sharon managed to cross over the Suez Canal and cause havoc in the logistic back areas of the Egyptian army. On October 24, after Israeli troops were 101 km away from Cairo, and under heavy international pressure, a cease-fire treaty was signed and the war was over.
The price of the war was heavy. 2,700 Israelis were killed and 5,600 were wounded. About 300 Israeli soldiers were taken captive. The Egyptians paid a higher price, with 12,000 dead, 35,000 wounded and 8,400 taken captive. 3,000 Syrian soldiers were killed, 5,600 were wounded and 411 taken captive.
In Israel, the war caused a public outrage, forcing the government to appoint an investigation commission. The Agranat Commission found serious flaws in the functioning of the intelligence forecasting branch, which failed to foresee the war and ignored various warnings. The Chief of Staff, David Elazar ("Dado") resigned after harsh criticism by the commission. Although the commission praised Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir on her leadership during the war, she resigned following the war and was replaced by Yitzhak Rabin.
Social movements have stepped into the arena (Peace Now). So pervasive have these efforts been that the professional autonomy of the army is being eroded.
Following the French embargo and the US air-lift of supplies, weapons and ammunition, the IDF started to base itself upon American and Israeli made weapons and technologies. The American M16 assault rifle entered service along with the Galil assault rifle - an Israeli variant of the Soviet AK-47. M14 were issued as sniper rifles along with surplus of M1 Carbines given to the Police.
In those years the IDF invested most of its efforts in countering international terror, such as the Munich Massacre, committed by the PLO following its deportion from Jordan to Lebanon in the "Black September" of 1970. The PLO focused mainly on hijacking airlines and kidnapping and its terrorists hijacked several commercial airline flights.
Institutional monitoring of the army (by civilian agencies) has become much more powerful since the Yom Kippur War, and has been backed up by public monitoring.
In 1976, a group of PLO terrorist hijacked an airliner with 83 Israeli passengers and held them hostages in the Entebbe airport in Uganda. Israeli elite SF unit - Sayeret Matkal - went on a complex hostages-rescue operation and managed to save 80 of the passengers, with only one soldier lost, the commander, lt. colonel Yonatan Netanyahu, the elder brother of Benjamin Netanyahu. The operation, officially called Operation Johnathan but widely referred as Operation Entebbe, is regard by many military experts as one of the brightest and successful covert operation ever conducted.
In those years the IAF received a new generation of warplanes. In 1977 the first F-15 Eagle American warplanes arrived in Israel and only a year later, they logged their first kill in the world when IAF F-15s shot down Syrian MiG (Mikoyan-Gurevich) fighters. In 1980 the F-16 Fighting Falcon arrived and the model's first aerial kill was also credited to the Israeli Air Force.
Because of waves of terrorist attacks (most notable is the road massacre of 37 civilians) coming from the PLO in Lebanon, the IDF undertook Operation Litani, a wide-ranging and thorough anti-terrorist operation which included occupying part of Southern Lebanon in 1978.
In 1979 the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty was signed, when Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat agreed on peace in return for Israel giving the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. The peace agreement, still valid today, closed the bitter southern front and let the IDF focus on the raging northern border.
In 1981 the Israeli Air Force destroyed Iraq's Osiraq nuclear reactor. The Israeli government suspected that the Iraqis would use the nuclear reactor to build atomic weapons (WMD). On June 7, four F-16 fighters, covered by F-15 jets, flew 1,100 km to Iraq from Israel, and bombed the nuclear reactor, thus, thwarting the Iraqi nuclear program and severely holding back the Iraqi plans for getting a nuclear bomb.
On 6 June 1982, following an assassination attempt against its ambassador in London by the Abu Nidal Organization, Israeli forces under direction of Defense Minister Ariel Sharon invaded southern Lebanon in their "Operation Peace for the Galilee". They eventually reached as far north as the capital Beirut in an attempt to drive the PLO forces out of the country.
Although the Israelis did succeed in driving the PLO from Beirut and out of Lebanon, they had to remain within southern Lebanon for the next 18 years to secure a buffer zone between other terrorist groups supported by Syria operating in Lebanon and Israel. In 2000, in response to a UN resolution calling for this buffer zone to be maintained by the Lebanese government, and for the Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon, Israel withdrew its troops.
Although Syria eventually withdrew from Lebanon, it maintained its influence via Hezbollah who continued to attack Northern Israel long after the withdrawal had been certified by UNIFL. Four years later, the UN passed resolution 1559 calling for disarming Hezbollah. The failure of the Lebanese government to do so has led to the strengthing of Hezbollah's militants and to the building of an immense arsenal of 13,000 rockets all aimed at civilian centers within Israel.
The rocket attacks by Hezbollah continued unabated for the next two years, and it was these attacks coupled with the incursion of Hezbollah terrorists into Northern Israel to kill and kidnap IDF soldiers that led to the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.
The Oslo Accords, Yoram Peri says, were formulated as military agreements, with greater emphasis on security than economics, might be examined from a broader angle, taking into consideration the Rabin administration's reliance not only on the army but on military thinking in its attempt to carry out a moderate policy that was fiercely controversial. Military thinking was used as a tool to drum up legitimacy for an unpopular policy, especially among the nationalist, social periphery for whom the army and its symbols remained meaningful.
Militarism exists as an autonomous entity. This conclusion has implications for Peri's comprehensive discussion of the political monitoring of the army. One of the points that stands out in this discussion is that close monitoring mechanisms, such as breaking the military monopoly on intelligence evaluation for national security policy, will increase political control over the army, to the point where effective political oversight will be exercised by civil society and not only formal institutions.
The army as subservient to the government at the formal level, but over-powerful in practice. While the army does not actually disobey the political echelon, it does not necessarily adopt a policy that coincides with the politicians' preferences. This pattern became more entrenched during the Al-Aqsa Intifada due to the change in military approach, from conventional fighting to forceful policing, or "low-intensity warfare," as it is called in military parlance. Under these circumstances, the work of the military becomes political in the sense that every action (the conduct of soldiers at checkpoints, for example) takes on political significance, especially when the tasks are carried out relatively autonomously at the field command level.
Military analyst Stuart Cohen recently warned that the IDF is being subjected to "over-surveillance" by civilian institutions. Hence the calls to exercise greater control, by strengthening the National Security Council or giving the Knesset more monitoring power, are misguided. It is not granting political institutions more oversight that will prevent military escalation that does not serve political goals, but keeping military thinking subservient to political-civilian thinking. This conceptual system helps lay the foundations for understanding Lebanon War II. Unlike the past, when military moves clearly dictated policy, as Peri astutely observes, this time a decision was made before embarking on any major maneuver. Unlike the metaphorical "putsches" of the past (the "waiting period" in 1967, retaliation during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, and, it goes without saying, the reprisal raids in the 1950s) the army did not put undue pressure on the government. On the contrary, reports show that the political echelon dictated the ambitious goals of this war, going beyond the military "contingency plan" of forceful retaliation after Hezbollah's kidnapping of the soldiers. Moreover, not a single incident of the army surprising the government has been recorded in recent weeks, unlike past events. In short, political control of the army did not fail this time around. Maybe there was even a little of the "over-surveillance" syndrome, with the generals swept along by the politicians and not using their legitimate professional authority to keep the political echelon within bounds.
Sharon and Mofaz's policy of restraint and moderation in Lebanon was converted into a war of choice by Olmert and Peretz - the most "civilian" team ever to head Israel's defense establishment, civilian in both the biographical and political agenda sense. Under these circumstances, not only was Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz's military plan the only one, but the political echelon stepped aside of its own volition and opted not to discuss it in depth. This time, there was no showdown between the cabinet and belligerent chiefs of staff like Rabin or Mofaz, but only the General Staff of Dan Halutz, which knew very well where it stood vis a vis the political echelon. No one prevented the ministers from asking questions, just as no one stood in the way of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee (after the previous government had discussed reforms that would grant it more control over military affairs).
It all goes back to the supremacy of military thinking and the great weight still attached to the legitimacy of employing force, if only as a remnant of the role the army and war once played in stabilizing a polarized society, by means of a "people's army" that mobilizes the periphery. Perhaps the best illustration of this is how the media rushed to stand behind the military agenda. Criticism, if it was voiced at all, was limited to the army's performance. Paradoxically, this is the kind of criticism that perpetuates the preeminence of military thinking, because it reinforces the belief that there is a military solution for political problems, and it can be put into practice if the army would perform well. Moreover, throughout the war, previous political leaders were criticized for allowing Hezbollah to grow stronger, i.e., for not launching a preventive war. As a result, the discussion of political alternatives was pushed aside. In this kind of cultural-political environment, a political leadership bearing a "civilian" stamp will find it hard to operate, and will often resort to giving the military more leeway. In a situation like this, the civilian leadership will use the army as a political instrument in order to push forward its civilian agenda. This is what happened during the disengagement, and could apply even more to the convergence plan, which would be impossible to implement without the army's support because it remains so controversial. The civilian leadership thus becomes dependent on the army, as the vehicle of military thinking, and this dependency makes it hard for the leadership to hold the army back in the event of some unforeseen crisis.
After the abduction of an Israeli solder by Hamas on June 25, the IDF began an air and ground campaign in the Gaza Strip to get back their kidnapped soldier, and end the fire of rockets onto Israeli territory.
At 9:05am on July 12th Hezbollah's military wing staged a cross-border attack on two Israeli Humvees. The attacks came two weeks after the beginning of the Gaza-focused Operation Summer Rains. Eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two were captured. Later on July 12th Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the captures an "act of war" warranting a "severe and harsh response" and threatened to "turn Lebanon's clock back 20 years." In response, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched a military offensive into Lebanon. In the following days, hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah increased to a point of both parties exchanging tough rhetoric and escalating into deadly military campaigns. Israel proceeded by destroying energy and transportation infrastructure throughout Lebanon, focusing on highway infrastructure initially claiming they were trying to prevent the kidnapped soldiers from being removed to Iran. Israeli sources later justified their assault on the infrastructure claiming the roads and airports are used to transport the missiles launched from southern Lebanon toward Israeli civilian population centers. After several days of Israeli attacks Hezbollah leaader Hassan Nasrallah declared an "open war" with Israel.
IDF Special Operations took place within the borders of Lebanon. On July 22nd Israeli troops in large numbers moved into Lebanon to demolish Hezbollah outposts, and diminish Hezbollah missile capabilities.