The IDF's approach to war-fighting was based on the premise that Israel could not lose a single war. Given Israel's experience and the intentions of its more hostile neighbors, there can be little doubt of the validity of that assumption. Israel tried to avoid war through a combination of political engagements and the maintenance of a powerful military deterrent.
In six major wars beginning with the 1948 War of Independence and during seemingly never-ending occupation duty and counterterrorist actions into 2005, 21,951 Israeli military personnel have been killed in the line of duty. During that same time period the IDF, always fighting outnumbered, inflicted many times more that number of casualties on its enemies. The IDF continually strove to maintain an advantage in advanced weapons systems, many of which were developed and manufactured in Israel. The IDF's major strategic advantage, however, has always been the quality and discipline of its soldiers.
The IDF was the backbone institution of Israel. Most Israelis were inducted into the IDF at age eighteen. Unmarried women served for two years, while men served for three years. Following initial service, men remained in the reserves until age fifty-one and single women until age twenty-four. Most reservists served for thirty-nine days a year, except during emergencies. More than 10 percent of Israel's gross domestic product (GDP) went to military expenditures.
IDF officers who retired or otherwise left active duty retained reserve commissions and were subject to recall in time of war. Ariel Sharon, for example, commanded a division in the 1967 Six-Day War, retired as a major general in 1973, and was recalled only a few months later and put in command of a division in the Yom Kippur War. IDF general officers were a major force in Israeli society. Many went into politics after retirement. Indeed, several Israeli prime ministers have been IDF generals. Although Israel never formally admitted to having nuclear weapons, most of the world assumed that it did. With French support, Israel constructed its first nuclear reactor in 1960. The IDF probably acquired nuclear weapons capability in the late 1960s. Most estimates place Israel's nuclear stockpile at between 100 and 200 weapons, including warheads for the Jericho-1 and Jericho-2 mobile missiles and bombs for longer-range delivery by Israeli aircraft.
Immediately following the establishment of the State of Israel on 28 May 1948, the government issued the Defense Army of Israel Ordinance No. 4, establishing the IDF and merging all Jewish fighting organizations under it. Immediately thereafter, David Marcus, a U.S. Army Reserve colonel and World War II veteran, received a commission as Israel's first aluf (general).
Although the IDF essentially absorbed the General Staff and combat units of the Haganah (the self-defense militia of the Jews in Palestine), the integration of other more radical militias was difficult and protracted. The Stern Gang, also known as Lehi, dissolved itself, and its members joined the IDF individually. Some battalions of the Irgun (also called the IZL) joined the IDF, while others fought on independently. The turning point came when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered the IDF to sink the IZL's arms ship Altalena as it approached Tel Aviv in June 1948. It was a defining moment for the new State of Israel and established the authority of the central government. The remaining IZL battalions finally disbanded in September 1948.
The IDF recognizes six major wars for which it awards campaign ribbons. The 1948 War of Independence started immediately after the declaration of statehood, as Egypt attacked from the south, Syria and Lebanon attacked from the north, and Jordan—backed by Iraqi and Saudi troops—attacked from the east. Outnumbered almost sixty to one in population, Israel's prospects looked bleak. By the time of the cease-fire in July 1949, however, the IDF had managed to secure all of its major objectives, with the exception of East Jerusalem.
In 1956 the second of Israel's major wars began when the IDF launched a full-scale attack into the Sinai Peninsula. French and British forces then invaded Egypt, having secretly planned the operation with the Israelis to take back control of the Suez Canal from Egypt and topple Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the operation, the IDF captured Gaza and the entire Sinai Peninsula but later withdrew under international pressure.
In 1967 Egypt massed 100,000 troops in the Sinai and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships. In response, the IDF launched a preemptive strike on 5 June, virtually destroying the Egyptian Air Force on the ground. The Israeli Air Force then attacked Syria and Jordan. During the Six-Day War, the IDF again captured the Sinai and Gaza. The Egyptians lost some 15,000 soldiers, while only 338 Israelis died. The IDF also captured the strategic Golan Heights from Syria and captured East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank from Jordan. Following the Six-Day War, the war of attrition ground on with the Egyptians along the Suez Canal and with the Syrians along the northern borders.
The Yom Kippur War began on 6 October 1973 when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on the eve of the most important Jewish religious day. Just prior to the start of the war, the active IDF numbered some 75,000 troops, with one-third being regulars and the rest conscripts and reservists undergoing training. The ground forces could field fifteen brigades, but not all were at full operational strength.
Upon mobilization, total IDF strength grew to 310,000, with the army capable of fielding more than thirty brigades, which were combined into divisional task forces for combat. In the Golan Heights, the IDF deployed three divisions consisting of eleven brigades. In the Sinai, it fielded four divisions with seventeen brigades. The combined force of the attacking Arab armies totaled more than 820,000 troops.
The IDF's mixture of major weapons systems was a logistician's nightmare. Almost half of its 2,000 tanks were British Centurions. Another 600 were a combination of more modern American M-60s and older M-48s that had been locally modified and up-gunned. Another 250 were old World War II–era American M-4 Shermans that the Israelis had completely rebuilt and up-gunned to create the Super-Sherman. The IDF also fielded some 250 Soviet T-54s and T-55s, captured from the Arab armies in 1967. The IDF had only 100 antitank guided missiles. The Arab armies had almost 2,100, including the Soviet AT-3 Sagger.
The IDF's 4,000 armored personnel carriers were a mixture of World War II–era half-tracks, modern American M-113s, and various Soviet APCs captured in 1967. The IDF's weakest link was its artillery, which consisted of only 575 tubes (as opposed to 6,700 Arab guns). The IDF mainstay was the 155mm howitzer, either the American self-propelled M-109 or the locally produced Soltam, mounted on a Sherman tank chassis. The IDF also had captured Soviet pieces plus a few American-built self-propelled, long-range 175mm M-107s.
The IDF had 1,000 air defense guns against 6,000 for the Arab armies. More significantly, the Arabs had almost 5,000 Soviet shoulder-fired SA-7 antiaircraft missiles, while the IDF had no equivalent weapon system. The Israeli Air Force possessed about 500 combat aircraft, including 130 American-built F-4 Phantoms, 170 A-4 Skyhawks, and an assortment of older French Mirages. The Arabs had more than 1,600 combat aircraft. The Israeli Navy at the start of the Yom Kippur War had 5 submarines, 21 coastal patrol boats, and 10 heavy landing craft.
Initially the IDF took heavy losses, but after U.S.-airlifted weapons and supplies started arriving on 14 October, the tide turned. The IDF pushed the Egyptians and Syrians back to their original lines. On the Golan Heights, some 150 Israeli tanks stopped more than 1,400 Syrian armored vehicles. By the time the war stopped under international pressure, the IDF had suffered 2,700 dead while inflicting more than 15,000 deaths on its enemies.
The IDF's most famous special operation came on 3–4 July 1976 when the elite Sayeret Matkal (also known as General Staff Reconnaissance Unit 269) rescued Israeli passengers held hostage at the Entebbe airport in Uganda after their plane was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. The complex operation managed to save eighty of the eighty-three passengers. The only IDF casualty was the operational commander, Colonel Jonathan Netanyahu, whose brother Benjamin Netanyahu later became prime minister.
On 7 June 1981 the Israeli Air Force destroyed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor. Although almost universally condemned in international circles at the time, this preemptive strike almost certainly neutralized Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program.
The IDF's most recent major war during the Cold War era came in 1982 when, in Operation peace for galilee, the IDF invaded southern Lebanon on 6 June in retaliation for Palestinian terrorist and rocket attacks launched from Lebanon's territory against Israeli civilian targets in the north. Although the IDF neutralized the Palestinian threat, it became bogged down in a long and grinding occupation of southern Lebanon that only ended in September 2000. The reputation of the IDF also suffered severely from the 16 September 1982 massacre at the Sabra and Shatilia refugee camps, which many international figures branded as war crimes. During 1987–1993 the IDF also performed stability operations during the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising).
The Israeli Air Force (IAF) was one of the strongest in the Middle East, and with much justification its pilots have been considered the best in the world. Since the IAF began in 1948, its pilots have shot down 687 enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat. Only 23 Israeli aircraft have been shot down in air-to-air combat, giving the IAF an incredible 30:1 victory ratio.
The Israeli Navy, also formed in 1948, operated in two unconnected bodies of water. Its main base on the Mediterranean was Haifa, while its main base on the Red Sea was at Eilat. Its three principal operating units were the Missile Boats Flotilla, the Submarine Flotilla, and Shayetet 13, a naval special operations force similar to the U.S. Navy's SEALs.
David T. Zabecki
Hersh, Seymour. The Sampson Option: Israel's Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy. New York: Random House, 1991.; Lorch, Netanel. Shield of Zion: The Israel Defense Forces. Charlottesville, VA: Howell, 1992.; Van Creveld, Martin. The Sword and the Olive: A Critical History of the Israeli Defense Force. New York: Public Affairs Books, 2002.; Williams, Louis. The Israeli Defense Forces: A People's Army. Lincoln, NE: Authors Choice Press, 2000.