Israeli Warfare Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Israel is a state measuring 27,000 square kilometers (including the West Bank and Gaza), with about 20,000 square kilometers within the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border.

Political Considerations

Israel is a state measuring 27,000 square kilometers (including the West Bank and Gaza), with about 20,000 square kilometers within the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border. It has a population of about 6 million. It is a country where there is no distinction between foreign and defense policy and where the prime minister traditionally holds the defense portfolio. Israel has concluded peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan but is still technically in a state of war with all its remaining neighboring countries.IsraelIsrael

Military Achievement

The formation of the Israeli army goes back to the 1920’s and 1930’s, when Jewish-Arab conflicts[Jewish Arab conflicts]Jewish settlements needed protection against attacks by local Arab forces and the British mandate government. As the numbers of Jewish immigrants to Palestine and PalestiniansPalestine, both legal and illegal, increased, a military force known as the HaganahHaganah (Hebrew for “defense”) was founded. After statehood in 1948, the Haganah became the core of the Israel Defense ForcesIsrael Defense Forces (IDF). The IDF initially functioned as a militia of volunteers, lacking any ranks or uniforms. It also had an elite unit as a special strike force known as the PalmachPalmach. This unit was based on the kibbutzim, or cooperative settlements, which served as frontline fortresses during the 1948 Arab-Israeli wars;of 1948[1948] Arab-Israeli War. The youth of these settlements were organized as agriculturalists and military reservists, receiving training as members of a special organization known as Nahal (Israeli military group) Nahal. Other assault strike forces were founded by various factions of the Jewish underground, such as the Irgun Zvai Leumi Irgun Zvai Leumi, headed by Begin, MenachemBegin, Menachem Menachem Begin; the Stern Stern, led by Shamir, YitzhakShamir, Yitzhak Yitzhak Shamir; and Lohamei Herut Yisrael Lohamei Herut Yisrael. These were later merged with the Haganah, which became the IDF. From these beginnings and due to the revolutionary origins of these forces, the lines between the civilian and military organizations were blurred. The Air forces;Israeli Israeli Air Force Israeli Air Force (IAF) dates to 1947, when the Air Service, or Sherut-Avir, was created from eleven single-engine light aircraft. Several old aircraft were purchased from the British army, to be renovated and flown by pilots with prior experience in the British Royal Air Force.

The country’s response to border attacks by guerrilla groups in the past has been described as a form of massive retaliation. Following the American campaign in Iraq, however, the Israelis resorted to short military operations of the Shock-and-awe operations[Shock and awe];Israelishock-and-awe type (the military technique of overwhelming the enemy with Rapid dominance“rapid dominance” by means of extreme speed and force), which they amply utilized in Operation Cast Lead (2008)Gaza War (2008)Operation Cast Lead (2006) against Gaza. Despite the apparent success of its offensive doctrine, Israel found itself continuously embroiled in wars. Its persistent occupation of the West Bank, for instance, has reserved policy initiatives for the Arab side, leading to Intifadastwo uprisings (intifadas) and continuous internal and sporadic attacks by Palestinian militants.

Israel’s clear qualitative edge and regional monopoly over nuclear weapons failed to create a state of total security as a result of several factors. One of these is the potential failure of advance warning by military intelligence, as in the 1973 Arab-Israeli wars;of 1973[1973]October War Yom Kippur War (1973)(Yom Kippur War). Another factor that developed during that same war was the coming together and coordinated military attacks by two neighboring Arab states, namely Egypt and Syria. Israel’s Intelligence gathering;IsraelMilitary Intelligence Directorate (Israel)Military Intelligence Directorate (MID) plays a large role in provoking or instigating military attacks by providing early warning to the government about suspicious enemy troop movements or similar activity along the country’s borders. The MID is a standing corps, just like the air force, which is charged with responding to surprise attacks until the reservists are fully mobilized. More important, the ability of the air force to mount a Preemptive warfare;Israelipreemptive attack and render quick support for ground troops has lost its deterrent effect, largely because of the emergence of Arab guerrilla forces, which challenge Israel’s seemingly limitless ability to deliver painful blows to its enemies. The lessons of the failed 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which saw Israeli troops hold the Lebanese capital under siege, are implicated in the Sabra and Shatila massacres of civilian Palestine and PalestiniansPalestinians in September, 1982 (witness the abortive failure of the Israeli-Lebanese treaty and eventual retreat back to Israel’s northern region). These failures have severely lowered Israeli faith in the effectiveness of their own superior air power and ground troops.

Jewish soldiers training in Palestine in 1948.

(Popperfoto/Getty Images)

The Israeli attack on the Lebanon;HezbollahLebanese guerrilla force HezbollahHezbollah in December, 2006, was also thwarted by the unexpected show of force on the part of Lebanese irregular troops. Additionally, the U.S.-Israel alliance came under scrutiny when the 1990-1991 Gulf War (1990-1991)Gulf War forced the United States to exclude Israel from participation, even after Israel suffered from Missiles;ScudsScud missilesScud missile attacks launched by the Iraqi government of Hussein, SaddamHussein, SaddamSaddam Hussein. Maintaining an American-Arab military alliance during the liberation of Kuwait demonstrated Israel’s limited usefulness as the United States’ great strategic ally in the region. This same alliance also suffered when the Cold War ended, leaving in its wake any threat of an imminent Soviet attack on the Middle East.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

Early weapons of the IDF were acquired from the United States and Czechoslovakia during and just before the Arab-Israeli wars;of 1948[1948]1948 Arab-Israeli War. Many volunteer pilots and military personnel arrived from several countries and with varied military experience acquired during World War II. By the end of 1948, the Air forces;Israeliair force had swelled to more than one hundred planes and 660 volunteer pilots and skilled mechanics.

Israeli Armies;Israeliground forces developed into an impressive machine, so that by the 1980’s they ranked third in the world after the United States and the Soviet Union. By the 1980’s, regular ground troops numbered around 450,000, divided among ten mechanical brigades, thirty-three armored brigades, twelve territorial/border infantry brigades, and fifteen artillery brigades. With the rise of the Chinese and Indian militaries, the Israeli military fell back to fifth rank in terms of effectiveness, mobility, and offensive capability. By 1994, ground forces had reached 558,112, divided into forty-two armored brigades, twenty-one infantry brigades, and six territorial brigades. Normally, ground forces would be mobilized within forty-eight hours, although this has been relaxed in recent years. Today, only 30 percent of the ground forces constitute a standing army, while the rest are maintained as reserves, who wear a uniform only one month out of the year.

The Air forces;IsraeliIAF increased in 1983 to 830 aircraft, and in 1993 to 1,052 aircraft, its personnel swelling from 37,000 to 45,889. The effectiveness of Israel’s air power is due to keeping technical and administrative personnel per combat aircraft to a minimum. The IAF relies heavily on ground troops, maintaining only 25 percent of its air force pilots and personnel as reserves. The IAF pilot-training program was always unusually rigorous. Students aspiring to serving with the air force are required to go through a demanding set of initial tests and psychological profiling. Unlike other countries, where pilot candidates are expected to receive a college degree first, Israel enrolls successful candidates immediately after they complete high school. Students’ training usually lasts about twenty months before they learn how to operate some aircraft. Students are then immersed in a regimen of applied mathematics, physics, and other scientific subjects, and are put through rigorous infantry training.

Israel is known to have acquired a significant Nuclear weapons and warfare;Israelnuclear capability, amounting to three hundred nuclear warheads by the beginning of the twenty-first century. Israel has the capacity to deliver these warheads but managed to avoid signing the United Nations’ Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty[Nuclear nonproliferation treaty]Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is believed that Israel built two nuclear reactors, one at Nahal Soreq and one at Dimona in the Negev. The former was provided by the United States and devoted mostly to research and the training of scientists; the other was based on French technology and built in the late 1960’s. Uranium was always acquired surreptitiously from a variety of European and African sources. The United States attempted to subject the Dimona reactor to inspection during the Kennedy administration but was deliberately misled about its true purposes. Israel’s means of delivery of atomic payload is based on a ballistic missile code-named Missiles;JerichoJericho (Israeli missile)Jericho. It was developed in the mid-1980’s based on a French design by the firm of Marcel Dassault. According to some reports, Israel maintains nuclear bases at various locations in the Galilee region. Israel is also suspected of developing Biological weapons;IsraelChemical weapons;Israelchemical and biological weapons at its Nes Ziona plant south of Tel Aviv. Prime Minister Begin, MenachemBegin, MenachemMenachem Begin (1913-1992) resisted U.S. pressure during theCamp David Accords (1978)Camp David negotiations in the 1970’s to halt his country’s nuclear program as a price for peace with Egypt. He also initiated the Begin DoctrineBegin Doctrine, which stated that no state in the region would be allowed to develop a nuclear capability threatening to Israel. This policy led to Israel’s raid on the Osirak nuclear plant (Iraq)Osirak nuclear plant near Baghdad in 1981, the first such an attack on a nuclear facility in modern times.

Israel’s defense industries had a modest start when Bedek Aircraft, Ltd., was formed by the late 1940’s, in order to provide maintenance services for the country’s fledgling air force. Later, this company developed into Israel Aircraft IndustriesIsrael Aircraft Industries (IAI), which began to produce its own line of combat aircraft, transport jets, and other vehicles. Spurred by frequent arms embargoes due to the desire of the United States and other countries to curtail Israel’s frequent initiation of wars, and fearful of Egypt’s acquisition of immense arms supplies from Czechoslovakia in the mid-1950’s, Israel began to manufacture most of its own weapons. This effort was greatly aided by its own scientifically trained population, U.S. funds for research, and the early availability of markets for its weapons in Central and South America, Africa, and East Asia. Israel’s main weapons industries have always been state-owned. They include Israel Military Industries, the Raphael Armament Development Authority, and the Haifa Shipyards. These produce a variety of weapons often based on U.S. technology, such as the Kfir, its fighter plane; the Merkava, a highly rated battle tank; missile-carrying boats; a large selection of artillery pieces; and a variety of missiles. In addition, Israel produces radar, computers, and much electronic equipment, provided by the IAI’s subsidiary Elta Electronic Industries. The Haifa-based Soltam Company produces guns and howitzers.

The Arms trade;IsraelIsraeli arms industry is the country’s main economic endeavor, employing an estimated one-third of the Israeli labor force and generating more than a billion dollars in annual arms sales abroad. Israel ranks in the top ten exporters of arms worldwide. Israel’s arms sales are often in direct competition with the American arms industry, even though it is highly dependent on U.S. fiscal and technological assistance. One example of this relationship was the Lavi projectLavi project, which sought to build a fighter plane, supported by U.S. credits that Congress approved in 1983. The Lavi project, which employed four thousand skilled workers, was canceled by the Israeli cabinet in 1986 because of its excessive cost to the United States (in the amount $2 billion). U.S. strategic cooperation with Israel and the sharing of advanced military technology were always justified by access to battlefield testing of weapons in Israel’s various wars. The United States also frequently overlooked its own legislation prohibiting the use of American-supplied arms in aggressive wars, such as the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Foreign Sales Act of 1968.

Military Organization

The Navies;Israelileast important branch of IDF is the navy, although this is also changing. The navy is the smallest of the three branches because of the country’s limited coastline of about 225 kilometers, which includes Gaza. After the Israeli destroyer Eilat (Israeli destroyer) Eilat was sunk by Egyptian missiles in the June war of Six-Day War (1967)[Six Day War] 1967 (the so-called Six-Day War), Israel began to acquire small but fast-track boats designed by the West German firm Lürssen Werft, which were actually produced by a French company. These were fitted with Israeli Missiles;Gabriels Gabriel missiles Gabriel surface-to-surface missiles. Eventually, Israel developed an advanced type of this design in its own Haifa shipyards. By 1993, the navy was estimated to have 12,402 units, including Submarines;Israelisubmarines. By 2004, Israel had guaranteed the regional superiority of its navy by acquiring German submarines of the Dolphin submarines Dolphin type, equipped with nuclear cruise missiles.

Thus, while the Israeli IDF suffer from a dramatic negative quantitative comparison with the standing armies of the surrounding Arab countries, even when all the reserve units are mobilized, Israel continues to enjoy a decisive qualitative edge when it comes to the total effectiveness of its units. Israel’s limited territorial depth made it vulnerable prior to the acquisition of Sinai, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank in the 1967 war. Although much ameliorated, this vulnerability continues to be addressed through a strong and extensive early-warning system. Israel’s dependence on a vast army of reservists and its frequent lengthy mobilization of manpower and civilian transport vehicles often resulted in severe economic disruption. This was the case prior to the 1967 war, when a monthlong period of mobilization along all fronts aggravated the political crisis, leading to a preemptive attack against all surrounding Arab air bases.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

Israel’s Tactics;IsraeliStrategies;Israelimilitary doctrine has changed over the years but has remained based on the principle of military and psychological deterrence. This doctrine was intended to discourage attacks on Israel’s population centers or on its vital strategic assets, such as its nuclear reactors. Because of its lack of strategic depth prior to 1967, Israel always felt justified in launching Preemptive warfare;Israelpreemptive attacks. Known as the “operational plan,” this doctrine called for delivering simultaneous offensive attacks against all of its neighboring Arab airfields. These strikes depended greatly on reports by military intelligence and its policy recommendations, as well as on a variety of intelligence sources and on coordinating with all branches of the military services. Because of the IDF’s numerical inferiority when compared to the total strength of surrounding Arab armies, they enjoy a qualitative edge in terms of air power and the speed with which they can carry out a mission. Israel relies heavily on an early-warning system based on the work of military intelligence.

Israel’s faith in its own strategic doctrine changed as a result of its 1967 occupation of the West Bank (Palestinian territory)West Bank and Gaza (Palestinian territory)Gaza, home to large Palestinian populations who therefore became subject to Israeli control. Since Israel’s armed forces are made up largely of ordinary citizens serving as reservists, they easily became highly sensitive to psychological pressures resulting from a permanent military occupation of a densely populated territory. More and more Israelis expressed a reluctance to function as an occupation army charged with containing a civilian population. The reputation of the military institution was tarnished as a result of its failure to deliver a decisive blow to Hezbollah’s forces in southern Lebanon;and Israel[Israel] Lebanon. Israel’s previous vocalization of potentially targeting the Jordan Jordanian territory in case of an imminent attack from the east was relinquished after the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement in 1994. The same strategic shift occurred as a result of relinquishing control over Sinai Sinai in the Camp David Accords (1978) Camp David Accords (1978). By 2010, Israel found itself on the horns of a dilemma, being forced to develop a new strategic doctrine while a solution for the Palestinian issue remained as elusive as ever.

Israeli paratroopers stand ready to shoot Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip in January, 2009.

(Getty Images)

A new challenge to Israel’s nuclear hegemony in the Middle East materialized when Nuclear weapons and warfare;IranIran;and Israel[Israel]Iran began developing its own nuclear capability. When Egypt and the United States attempted to persuade Israel to give up its nuclear weapons as an attempt to solidify the Camp David peace treaty, Israel refused to do so until every Arab state in the area signed a similar treaty with Israel. By the late 1970’s, Israel had finalized the so-called Begin DoctrineBegin Doctrine, which reflected the views of Prime Minister Begin and his stance during these negotiations. It was there that he announced Israel’s determination to resist any effort to develop a rival nuclear power in the region. Any such nuclear state would be considered a threat to Israel’s security and must be forced to dismantle such weapons. Israel’s 1981 attack on the Osirak nuclear plant (Iraq)Osirak reactor in Iraq was the first response to such a threat, an attack that was severely criticized by the U.N. Security Council. How far Israel would go in order to replicate its attack on the Iraqi reactor vis-à-vis Iran remained unclear, but it was clear that Israel had decided to enforce a wide territorial doctrine when it came to this type of weapon. Such a situation was averted during Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, DavidBen-Gurion, David[Ben Gurion, David]David Ben-Gurion’s years in office (1955-1963), when he sought to cultivate close relationships with countries, such as Turkey and Iran, lying within Israel’s outer rim.

The Iranian Revolution (1978-1980)removal of the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah PahlaviMohammad Reza Shah PahlaviMohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, from office in 1979 and his replacement with a radical Islamic regime at odds with Israel’s claims of nuclear monopoly in the Middle East posed new threats to the entire region. The danger of instigating a nuclear duel between Israel and its challengers became real. In 2008, it was revealed that Israel’s air force had been practicing to mount a strike on the Iranian reactor and Iran had test-fired a new missile capable of reaching Israel. These Israeli maneuvers were reminiscent of the building of a model of the Osirak nuclear plant (Iraq)Osirak reactor in Israel in order to practice mounting a strike against it. Any such attack on Iran’s nuclear reactor was expected to come in the form of serial bombings, which would provide ample opportunity for Iranian retaliation.

Even though a Nuclear weapons and warfare;Israelnuclear attack against Egypt’s most vulnerable strategic asset, the Aswan DamAswan Dam, was averted by the signing of the Camp David Accords (1978)Camp David agreement and these two countries’ adherence to their international obligations, by 2010 it seemed that Israel had used uranium-based weapons in some of its recent wars. It is known that Israel has used weapons (such as American “buster bombs,” which were dropped on Hezbollah’s offices in Beirut in the 2006 campaign) proscribed by the third Protocol III (Geneva Conventions)[Protocol 03]protocol of the Geneva Conventions;and Israel[Israel]Geneva Conventions. Both the United States and Israel have declined to sign these conventions. Cluster bombs and phosphorus bombs were used in the 2008 attack on Gaza. The British scientific secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, Busby, ChristopherBusby, ChristopherChristopher Busby, concluded upon testing soil samples that Israel during the 2006 Lebanese campaign must have used a new weapon with a nuclear fission device or a bunker-busting uranium penetrator weapon. The latter may have used enriched uranium, rather than depleted uranium. The Israelis continued to argue, however, that the Geneva Conventions did not cover many of these nuclear waste weapons.

Contemporary Sources

As the field is a relatively current one, there is much in the way of archival, firsthand material on the history of the Israeli military. Much information on the early wars surrounding the founding of the state of Israel is available in the David Ben-Gurion Archive, held at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Sede Boker campus. The archive contains not only Ben-Gurion’s personal papers and speeches, but also the minutes of meetings and other documents produced by Israel’s first prime minister. In addition, the Israel State Archives in Jerusalem holds its record groups 72 and 153, which contain the private papers of many prominent Israeli politicians and government officials.Israel

Books and Articles
  • Bar-On, Mordechai. Never-Ending Conflict: Israeli Military History. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2006.
  • Dunstan, Simon. The Yom Kippur War: The Arab-Israeli War of 1973. New York: Osprey, 2007.
  • Karsh, Efraim. The Arab-Israeli Conflict: The Palestine War 1948. New York: Osprey, 2002.
  • Maman, Daniel, Eyal Ben-Ari, and Zeev Rosenhek, eds. Military, State, and Society in Israel: Theoretical and Comparative Perspectives. Piscataway, N.J.: Transaction, 2001.
  • Varble, Derek. The Suez Crisis 1956. New York: Osprey, 2003.
Films and Other Media
  • Beaufort. Feature film. Keshet Broadcasting, 2007.
  • Cast a Giant Shadow. Feature film. Batjac Productions, 1966
  • Clear Skies: The Story of the Israeli Air Force. Documentary. TES Video, 1990.
  • The Fifty Years’ War: Israel and the Arabs. Documentary. Public Broadcasting Service, 2000.
  • Operation Thunderbolt. Feature film. Warner Bros., 1978.
  • Six Days in June: The War That Redefined the Middle East. Documentary. WGBH Boston, 2007.

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