by Dr. Netanel Lorch
Netanel Lorch, Ph.D. Lt. Col. (Res), Ambassador and former
Secretary-General of the Knesset, is the founder of the IDF Historical
Division, author of the Edge of the Sword (Putnam's 1961, reprinted in
Military Classics, Easton Press 1991), One Long War (Keter 1976), Shield of Zion (Howell Press 1992) and Major Knesset Debates (UPA and JCPA 1993).
Israel can never hope to match its potential enemies in terms of manpower.
It is not a member of any military alliance; on the other hand, it has not
asked and will not ask for foreign troops to come to its rescue. The
stricture that no "American boys" will defend Israel was upheld until the
Gulf War of 1991, when American crews accompanied Patriot missiles.
To bridge the quantitative gap with its potential enemies, the Israel
Defense Forces (IDF) has relied on a number of factors: full utilization
of existing manpower through universal, obligatory conscription for both
sexes and for relatively lengthy periods; the reserves; the qualitative
edge of Israel's manpower; whenever and wherever possible, superiority of
equipment; and, last but not least - the achievement of surprise, in
doctrine, tactics and materiel.
Conscription extends at present to all able-bodied persons, as they reach
the age of 18 - three years for males and two for females.
Exceptions are made for students of yeshivot (religious seminars), whose
mobilization may be deferred as long as their studies continue. At last
count, the number of these deferments amounted to some 6% of those aged
18. This has been a perennial subject for political debate - but the rule
The IDF may decide on deferment on its own initiative, when a student
studies a subject of particular interest. Thus, a student of medicine may
first finish his or her studies, and subsequently do obligatory service in
the Medical Corps; similarly, each year a number of future engineers,
technicians, attorneys, psychologists, economists, etc., will have their
service deferred until they finish their studies. The IDF also selects
each year a few outstanding students in the exact sciences, who will
simultaneously complete a special abridged academic program leading to a
B.Sc. degree and officers' training; they undertake to subsequently serve
for a number of years, primarily in weapons research and development.
New immigrants are not inducted during their first year in the country,
unless they waive the deferment - which many of them do. Military service
of newcomers, side by side with old-timers, has proved to be a. powerful
instrument for successful integration.
The minorities are exempted, except the Druze. The Druze leaders decided,
early on, to throw in the lot of their community with the nascent Jewish
state and, as a token of loyalty, voluntarily waived the exemption to
which they were entitled. Some Bedouin tribes have a tradition of
voluntary service, primarily as trackers, an art in which they have
excelled for generations.
The term of service for women is at present two years. A woman may be
exempted on the basis of a declaration saying that she is opposed to
conscription on religious grounds. Married women are also exempted, and
women who marry during their compulsory service are released forthwith.
Conscription has become deeply ingrained over the years. Not to have
served in the IDF has in the past been regarded as a disgrace; moreover it
has been a real impediment to future civilian careers.
Israel's reserve system is based on the assumption that every citizen is a
"soldier on eleven months vacation", as one Chief of Staff put it. Reserve
service is limited at present to 45 days per annum for officers and senior
NCOs and 30 days for enlisted men. Service in the reserves is obligatory
up to the age of 55 for men and 50 for women.
Israel has hardly any strategic depth; it may - as the Yom Kippur War
attested - be subject to a surprise attack. Speed of mobilization is,
therefore, an absolute priority: 48 hours, including distribution of
equipment and dispatch of the unit to its allocated sector of the front,
is considered the outer limit; 24 hours is the norm, but there are units -
particularly in the Air Force - where this has been reduced to 12
Reserve duty causes a great deal of hardship, particularly at the stage
when young people set out to establish themselves. There are interruptions
of production schedules, of university studies, of the normal flow of
economic activity. In order to minimize the impact, a series of mixed
civilian-military committees was set up to consider requests for
deferment: certain industries or services have been declared essential and
their personnel are exempted from reserve duty; for students there are
deferred examinations and no student will miss a year on account of
Remuneration of reservists is arranged through the Institute of National
Insurance. Workers continue to draw regular pay and the employer is
compensated by the Institute. Self-employed persons are compensated up to
a specified ceiling.
In spite of hardships, many reservists look forward to their annual time
together - with its camaraderie, its outdoor life, its interruption of
daily routine. Many also volunteer to stay on even after reaching the
statutory age of retirement.
In addition to conscripts and reservists, the IDF comprises a considerable
element of regular soldiers. These make up the higher echelons of the IDF;
certain specialists; a nucleus for every reserve unit, primarily to set
the call-up in motion, and to take care of unit stores. The terms for
regular enlistment are flexible - from a few months for graduates of an
officers' course; through a number of years for those who have acquired a
special skill during conscription service at the expense of the IDF such
as pilots; to long-term renewable contracts, up to five years at a time.
The IDF is structured to enable its officers - including the highest
echelons - to have a second career after military service. This is vitally
important to ensure a constant renewal of the officer corps and to
encourage young ambitious adults to stay in the service. It is rare indeed
to find a general above the age of 50; for the same reason the usual term
of service for the Chief of the General Staff is no more than four
A variety of incentives is offered to promising conscripts to prolong
their service by signing up for a period of regular service. The IDF
selects its regulars from among the best, the most skilled and most highly
motivated, and trains and educates them at the highest possible level, in
order to maintain the existing qualitative edge.
Officer Ranks in the IDF* and their Equivalents
* Ranks for Army, Air Force and Navy
Another element in Israel's strategy of overcoming the quantitative gap
between itself and its potential enemies is the constant striving to
achieve and keep a qualitative edge in terms of equipment. This is a most
fragile issue, since it depends on the international situation and on
financial possibilities, both of which have in the past favored the Arab
The Egyptian-Czech arms deal of 1955 signalled the gradual opening up of
the whole Soviet arsenal first to Egypt and subsequently also to Syria and
to Iraq. Huge arms deals between the oil-producing states particularly
Saudi Arabia - and the US have resulted in a flood of arms, which Israel
had to take into account, in spite of American assurances that they were
not intended for use against Israel. France, which at one time had been
Israel's main, indeed only, supplier of military hardware, has meanwhile
sold equivalent, or more modern equipment, to certain Arab states
Aware of the critical importance of the IDF, and of its equipment in
particular, to Israel's survival, the relative share of the defense budget
is the highest in the Western world, taking into account the sizable
contribution in loans and grants from the US. In normal times, it has
reached a level of about one third of the total budget. The constant
dilemma, in preparing the defense budget, is the recurring question of how
much is to be allocated to production and acquisition in Israel and how
much for purchase abroad. This refers primarily to Israel's own share of
the defense budget since the US grants or loans, with certain notable
exceptions, are earmarked for purchases in the US and cannot be used for
purchases elsewhere, including Israel.
In some cases the IDF decided to proceed with the development of its own
hardware, as a direct result of disappointment by a foreign source of
supply. The Merkava, Israel's battle tank, came into being as a direct
result of Britain backtracking on the purchase of its tanks. When France
proclaimed an embargo after the Six Day War of 1967 - compelling Israel to
resort to a variety of stratagems to extract from the Port of Cherbourg
the missile boats that had already been paid for - the Navy undertook to
develop in Israel's shipyards its own version of fast torpedo boats, the
Dabur. An attempt to develop and produce an Israeli multipurpose fighter
plane, the Lavi, was aborted when the project considerably overshot its
Israel's military industries have, as a rule, relied on outside suppliers
for platforms, while concentrating on a great variety of materiel to
transport on them.
A great deal of effort has been devoted to the development of solid fuel
rockets, in order to maximize missile range; and of unmanned aircraft,
with the aim of minimizing casualties. The Israeli sea-to-sea missile, the
Shafrir, has been found useful and has been exported. Information has been
published abroad concerning the advanced state of the Jericho, a medium
range ballistic missile, with a range of 900 kms, i.e., including Iraq.
All the same, when Saddam Hussein initiated his unprovoked missile attacks
against the population centers of Israel, the IDF was not prepared for
effective defense and a rapid airlift operation was undertaken to provide
Israel with a screen of ultimately ineffective Patriot missiles.
To sum up: whilst the IDF is constantly on the lookout for the best
equipment it can procure or produce, there has not been in the past, nor
will there be in the future, any guarantee that the material advantage
will always be on the Israeli side. This enhances the importance of the
other factors alluded to above.
Perhaps the most important operative decision for the future of the IDF
was adopted early in its history, when it was decided that it should
constitute one unified service, headed by one Chief of the General Staff -
for all practical purposes its Commander, subject only to the overall
authority of the Commander in Chief, the Government, through the Minister
of Defense. There was a great deal of opposition to this decision. Both
the British and the American models dictated otherwise.
This decision was adopted for the following reasons: the size and shape of
the country; the need to closely coordinate every type of operation with
ground forces; the need to economize in manpower and to avoid duplication;
the need to streamline procurement procedures and unify training and
training methods, so as to facilitate inter- service cooperation.
The Chief of the General Staff is the only officer with the highest rank -
Rav Aluf, equivalent to a Lieutenant General. Immediately below him are
the Major Generals - Aluf - Heads of GHQ divisions, Territorial and
Special Commands, and commanders of the Air Force and the Navy. The latter
serve in a dual capacity: as members of the General Staff they are the
advisers of the CGS on matters within their area of competence; and they
are the commanders of their respective branches. So far this system has
worked well. It has prevented, inter alia, the establishment of separate
air forces for the Army and the Navy - which, in the case of Israel, would
have seemed wasteful.
Chiefs of the General Staff
|Ya'akov Dori 1948-1949|
|Yigael Yadin 1949-1952|
|Mordechai Makleff 1952-1953|
|Moshe Dayan 1953-1958|
|Haim Laskov 1958-1961|
|Zvi Tsur 1961-1963|
|Yitzhak Rabin 1964-1968|
|Haim Barlev 1968-1972|
|David Elazar 1972-1974|
|Mordechai Gur 1974-1978|
|Rafael Eitan 1978-1983|
|Moshe Levy 1983-1987|
|Dan Shomron 1987-1991|
|Ehud Barak 1991-1995|
|Amnon Lipkin-Shahak 1995-1998|
|Shaul Mofaz 1998-2002|
|Moshe Ya'alon 2002-|
Israel is divided into three territorial commands North, Center and South
- the limits coinciding with the frontiers of neighboring countries:
Lebanon and Syria to the north, Jordan in the east, and Egypt to the
south. These are battle commands. In case of war each territorial
commander is expected to take charge of all the forces in his territory
and lead them in battle.
There are, in addition, a number of functional non-territorial commands.
These are the Armored Corps, the Field Forces Command, the Nahal Command
and the Training Command.
The Armored Corps was established before the 1956 War in order to give
impetus to the conversion of large chunks of the Infantry to Armor, to
coordinate training, and unify doctrine. The Corps' HQ is so constituted
that, at minimum notice, it can function as the independent command of a
formation, larger than the fixed establishment division, to be allocated
to a territorial command in accordance with developments.
The Field Forces Command, on the other hand, is comparatively recent. It
came into being in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, when it was found that
a great number of tanks had been hit by the enemy, particularly by TAO
missiles, because armor operated without infantry, or in insufficient
coordination with it. The Field Forces Command brings together under one
roof the Infantry, Artillery, Armor and Engineering Corps for joint
training and combined operations.
The Nahal - acronym for Noar Halutzi Lohem (Fighting Pioneering Youth) - is a reminder and descendent of the Palmach (the Haganah's Strike Force). Since pioneering - especially in agriculture, opening up new territories for settlement and reinforcing border settlements - has a high degree of priority in the overall defense of the country, soldiers of Nahal of both sexes are given the opportunity to do both. A good many of the settlements that dot Israel's map were originally Nahal outposts.
The Infantry is still considered "queen of the battlefield" - for
historical, actual and future reasons. Historically, because it goes back
to Haganah days, more than any of the other branches. Although most of the
brigades that participated in the War of Independence have been disbanded,
two of them - Golani and Givati - have been maintained to this day as
regular formations, with their battle-worn traditions and memories. They
were given special berets to emphasize both their common and separate
heritage. Actually, since the bulk of the burden of maintaining current
security, of keeping law and order in the administered territories, of
fighting against terrorists particularly Hizbullah incursions from across
the northern frontier - falls on the regular infantry, supplemented by
other units, Nahal and Paratroopers, and by reserves. It is largely thanks
to them that the rest of the army is able to devote its time and energy to
the supreme task of any Army - the preparation for all-out war. When all
is said and done, an enemy in war is completely defeated only when the
infantry of the other belligerent stands guard outside his GHQ, and a war
is over only when the infantry of one side occupies the real estate in
The paratroopers have a much shorter, though no less impressive, battle
history than either Golani or Givati. Their moment of glory came during
the Sinai Campaign, when - for the first time - they were actually
parachuted into battle at the Mitla Pass. Since then, parachuting is more
of a battle-hardening, character-forming exercise than actual preparation
for battle; helicopters have increasingly replaced the parachute as a
vehicle for "perpendicular outflanking".
The paratroopers share with Golani and Givati the day-to-day tasks and
training exercises. The tension inherent between a broad-based, citizens'
army on the one hand - and elite units for special tasks on the other has
been satisfactorily resolved by a special duty unit Sayeret Matkal.
Several CGSs have commanded it at some point in their career; amongst its
best known and most daring exploits is the Entebbe raid - Operation
In the Haganah - an underground organization - the maximum unit to
participate in any tactical operation was the platoon. Nowadays the Ugda (division) is the largest, fixed establishment formation, operating on the three-legged model: three platoons to the company; three companies to the battalion; three battalions to the brigade; three brigades - although they may differ in character: armor, armored infantry, paratroopers - to the Ugda. Also, a rank has been added: Tat-Aluf, equivalent to a Brigadier General. At every echelon the requisite support and service units are added.
Above the level of the Ugda, and below that of the Territorial Commands, are a number of skeleton staffs which are activated if and when there are a considerable number of divisions on one single front. They do not have a fixed establishment and will be allocated forces in line with the tasks they may be given.
The Territorial Commands encompass not only the frontier zone of each
command, but also include the civilian rear. The three Territorial
Commands - Pikudim in Hebrew - cover the entire country. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, a Command of the Rear was established, to relieve the Territorial Commands of the problems of civil defense, first aid, fire
fighting, evacuation of wounded, closing off of areas, alternative
housing, payment of compensation - all of which have to be attended to
During the Gulf War the personnel of the Civil Defense enjoyed their rare
moment in the limelight: their men and women were the first to appear at
the sites; their heavy equipment unit, which had gained experience during
the war in Lebanon, and following earthquakes in Mexico and in Armenia,
has been known for performing miracles in finding and extracting people
from beneath the rubble.
The Air Force
The Air Force has the formidable task of gaining time in case of surprise
attack, to allow the rest of the IDF to mobilize its forces. It is
therefore called upon to maintain maximum preparedness and readiness. At
maximum alert, it has its pilots waiting in their cockpits. It is
difficult for outsiders to imagine the implications of a
country-without-depth, a total of 20,000 sq.kms - 26,000 sq.kms including
the administered territories - a country in which hardly any point is more
than 50 kms removed from the frontier - two or three minutes flight for a
modern aircraft; a fraction of that for a relatively primitive missile.
From the outset Israel concentrated on fighter planes and fighter bombers.
A plane exclusively devoted to bombing was considered a luxury in terms of
acquisition and maintenance. In spite of that limitation, the IAF
succeeded in achieving air supremacy in 1967 by destroying the Egyptian
Air Force on the ground. Since that war, such a feat will hardly again be
possible: dispersion of aircraft at home and abroad; the construction of
concrete underground hangars; and the provision of more and more
sophisticated decoys - will see to that. To compensate for the relatively
short range of its planes, the Air Force has developed a remarkable
refueling-in-the air capacity. This has become of particular importance
following the evacuation of the Sinai Peninsula, including the forward
bases, in accordance with the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty.
The Air Force took heavy punishment in the first days of the Yom Kippur
War. The majority of IDF losses resulted from anti-aircraft fire -
sophisticated Russian-made artillery in huge quantities, and the then
state-of-the-art ground-to-air SAM missiles. It has proved itself once
again, in air-to-air combat, during the war in Lebanon; in long range
transportation during the Entebbe Raid; and in precision bombing when it
took out the French-built Iraqi nuclear reactor, Osirak, at long range and
Whilst the fighter wing, currently flying mostly American-made F15s and
F16s, has taken the limelight, a great deal of attention has also been
devoted to other branches of the Air Force. The Helicopter Wing has
acquired more modern and larger Cobra aircraft to increase its ability to
transport more ground troops, swiftly and safely, to and from the
battlefield. Its casualty evacuation helicopters, properly equipped, have
achieved a record of speed and safety in transporting wounded to base
Little talked about in normal times, but suddenly come into the
foreground, is the fact that the Air Force bears exclusive responsibility
for the anti-air defense system of the country - including radar and other
warning devices; air patrols; and anti-air missiles. It became painfully
clear during the Gulf War that the IDF did not possess an adequate defense
answer even to a relatively primitive missile, the Scud, known for a
number of years to have been in Iraqi and Syrian hands. The Chetz (arrow)
anti-missile, a joint American-Israel development, is expected to become
operational by the end of the century and provide an adequate reply.
The Navy was late in coming into its own, but once it did - it did so with
a vengeance. After having discarded, over the years, the heavy vessels -
many of which were used to transport "illegal immigrants" in Mandatory
times, and some that were acquired later it concentrated on small, swift,
flexible torpedo boats of different sizes and shapes and the secret
"flotilla 13" with its divers and underwater demolition crews.
The Navy's performance during the Yom Kippur War has rightly been
described as the only one with no initial defeats. Ever since, it has
simultaneously prepared for an additional round of all-out war involving
the Arab navies, and carried out the unspectacular task of patrolling the
coastline and protecting it against marauders and terrorist attacks, day
in and day out.
Two major mishaps have weighed heavily on the Navy's collective memory;
the sinking of the Eilat by an Egyptian, Russian-made Styx missile off the
coast of the Gaza strip (1967), which served as a rude reminder that
superior technology was enough to compensate for defects in other areas.
The Gavriel sea-to-sea missile - Israel's answer to the Styx - was
subsequently developed. The second mishap, which until this day is
shrouded in mystery, is the loss of the Dakar, one of the Navy's first
submarines, on its maiden voyage from Portsmouth to Haifa (1968). It had
reported entering the Mediterranean and then no more was heard. Its entire
crew of 69 perished in the depths of the sea. Although a number of
friendly navies offered to help with the search - the Egyptian Navy has
been particularly helpful - no clue has been found as to the whereabouts
of the submarine, nor of the causes for its sudden disappearance.
The Navy's submarine program was interrupted for a number of years; it was
revived in the late eighties, only to be shelved again after a bitter,
public debate in 1990, for budgetary reasons. The program was again taken
out of mothballs, thanks to the Republic of Germany, in 1991. Aware of
Israel's problems vis-a-vis Iraq, from which it could not entirely wash
its hands German companies and experts had provided both know-how and
hardware for Iraq's missiles - it agreed to finance the submarine program
of the IDF. Paradoxically, this may be one of the most lasting effects of
the Gulf War.
* * *
Women in Uniform
The Palmach (the Haganah's Strike Force), born before the State and the
IDF, had accorded equality of status to women: equal rights and equal
duties, theoretically, at least. Some women, though admittedly relatively
few, participated in every course available at the time - and some women
took part in battle.
Soon after the establishment of the IDF and, within it, the Chen (acronym
for cheil nashim and meaning "grace" in Hebrew), the removal of all women
from front-line positions was decreed. Decisive for this decision was the
very real possibility of falling into enemy hands as prisoners of war. It
was fair and equitable, it was argued, to demand from women equal
sacrifice and risk; but the risk for women prisoners of rape and sexual
molestation was infinitely greater than the same risk for men.
Ever since, women, though trained in the use of weapons and prepared for
front-line duties, have not been allowed in front-line units. Following a
Supreme Court Decision in 1994, women are now admitted to training as Air
Force pilots or navigators.
Although conscription for women is only 24 months at present and a fairly
large proportion is exempted for a variety of reasons, there is a relative
abundance of women in the services. This has permitted the IDF to
undertake a number of national, but not strictly military functions. Women
soldiers are employed, after only a modicum of specialized training, as
teachers or teaching assistants in border areas, at nursery and primary
school level; they help new immigrants to learn the rudiments of the
Hebrew language; they assist soldiers in completing their secondary school
education. A special category, almost exclusively female, is that of
instructors in the geography of Israel and its history, primarily the
history of the IDF and its antecedents, taught at all IDF schools and
Women also predominate among the instructors of the Gadna (youth
battalions) in secondary schools. They take the lion's share of organizing
the volunteers for the IDF from abroad: a form of identification which
enables young people from abroad to spend some time on IDF bases,
performing non-military tasks.
Last but not least: women soldiers are the welfare sergeants, who look
after the soldiers' families when the need arises.
The minorities - Muslim, Christian, Druze and Circassian - have this in
common: their language is Arabic and they have family and other ties on
the other side of the borders. Since Israel's potential enemies are to be
found on the other side of the borders; since war against the Arabs would
create an insurmountable conflict of loyalty among the recruits; since,
conversely, there would always remain a lingering suspicion towards them
as to their trustworthiness - it was found mutually convenient to exclude
these citizens of the country from the draft. A suitable legal formula was
devised to legitimize the arrangement.
Yet there are exceptions to the rule. The Druze had, as early as 1948, a
non-aggression pact with the IDF and subsequently their Elders agreed to
apply conscription to the youth of their community. They are largely
employed in the Border Guard, a paramilitary formation subordinate to the
police, in which they have achieved distinction and high rank. Following
the war of 1967 they also share in the burden of policing the administered
Soldiers from various Bedouin tribes have volunteered to serve with
regular infantry units as trackers, an art they perfected during many
generations in the desert. They have excelled in their tasks and they
carry on, in spite of not inconsiderable casualties.
* * *
The IDF has placed great emphasis on the care of the wounded, the
rehabilitation of the disabled, early release of POWs and the burial of
its dead. This has been an important underpinning of the normally high
morale of its troops. A soldier going to war knows that if wounded, he
will not be abandoned on the battlefield but given medical attention,
efficiently and speedily; if taken prisoner, he will not be forgotten and
every effort will be made to bring him home; that if killed, the IDF will
do its utmost to give him a decent burial and his widow and children will
be taken care of by the State.
This apparent source of strength has frequently also proved a source of
weakness. The Government has been criticized for laying itself open to
blackmail and for paying terrorist organizations an exorbitant price for
the release of prisoners - in one case over 1,000 detained terrorists in
return for three POWs, which encouraged the terrorists to ply their trade
even more vigorously. At least in one case - the negotiations with Syria,
through the American Secretary of State, following the Yom Kippur War -
Israel made substantive concessions in return for a list of POWs - a list
which the Syrian Government was obliged to hand over, promptly and without
conditions, under the Geneva conventions to which it is a signatory.
Moreover, and more importantly, Israel's extreme sensitivity to losses has
been perceived as a source of vulnerability: its enemies have concluded
that if a sufficiently large number of casualties is inflicted, the
Government will have to give in, under pressure from within - regardless
of the military consequences. Nevertheless, the IDF has persevered,
attaching a high degree of priority to the security of its soldiers and of
the civilian population. This is perhaps Israel's proudest record, despite
occasional misgivings, and a constant source of strength.
Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, close to the tomb of Theodor Herzl, visionary of
the Jewish State, is the central military cemetery of the country. Here
are buried those who fell in the battles for Jerusalem and in terror
attacks ever since and those from Jerusalem who fell in other parts of the
country. Here are honored the soldiers who have no graves - the victims of
the Dakar and of the Eilat, of Jewish Palestinian soldiers of WWII whose
ships were sunk in the Mediterranean. Throughout the country there are
similar burial grounds. Over 20,000 graves - with a simple headstone, a
standard inscription. Once a year, on the eve of Independence Day, there
are commemorative services in each and every one of them, attended by
Government Ministers and Members of the Knesset. At the sound of the siren
the entire country comes to a standstill - remembering its fallen. They
are, in the words of a famous poem, the "silver platter upon which the
nation was presented with its independence", upon which its independence