The IDF is considered as one of the most skilled armies in combat, and for a long time it had been perceived both in Israel and abroad as one of the best armies in the world. However, the IDF’s frequent participation in policing operations, a practice that began during the first intifada, has diminished its army combat abilities in the eyes of many
The Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) mission is to protect the existence, sovereignty and security of Israel’s borders in times of war and in times of peace. Moreover, the IDF has a central role in a variety of civilian fields, including immigrant absorption and education. The IDF is considered as one of the most skilled armies in combat, and for a long time it had been perceived both in Israel and abroad as one of the best armies in the world. However, the IDF’s frequent participation in policing operations, a practice that began during the first intifada, has diminished its army combat abilities in the eyes of many.In the first decades after the establishment of the State of Israel, up until the Six-Day War, the IDF enjoyed the Israeli public’s sweeping trust and admiration. The army’s prestige peaked immediately after the 1967 war, but in the years that followed, as Israeli society grew increasingly polarized on policy and defense issues, the national consensus over the IDF and its activity weakened.
The Yom Kippur War, the Lebanon War and the escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict marked additional milestones in the deterioration of the public approval of the IDF. The trust placed in its capabilities and morality faded and was replaced with criticism, and its status as an Israeli symbol waned due to ideological and political disputes. The Second Lebanon War dealt another blow to the IDF’s standing.
From Establishment of State to Six Day War
The IDF was established on May 26, 1948 on orders of the interim government at the height of the War of Independence. The « IDF Order » declared the formation of an Israeli army that would be comprised of ground, air and naval forces, while outlawing any other armed force other than the IDF.
The IDF top brass was sworn in about a month later. The Haganah’s General Command became the first IDF General Command, which established most of the divisions it required in its first days, based on the existing structure of the Haganah. In the following six months, the Lehi and Etzel merged with the IDF while the Palmah was disbanded, in light of the demand that the nation have only one military force. During the War of Independence, the IDF set up three fronts (which were later called Commands) – North, South and Center. Its units were organized under six battalions, which barely had heavy weaponry. The IDF in its initial days had an air force with several light aircrafts and a tiny naval force.
IDF Negev Battalion soldiers during the War of Independence
Haganah Chief of Staff Yaakov Dori was named the IDF’s first Chief of Staff. Head of the General Command Yigael Yadin was the de facto commander of the war. The civilian in charge of the military was Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion. The War of Independence ended with armistice treaties rather than peace agreements and the IDF was therefore tasked with upholding a permanent state of alert. It was forced to adapt to facts on the ground: long, penetrable borders and a constant worry of a second round – another attempt by Arab states to conquer Israel. After the war was over, the Knesset legislated for the first time the military service law of 1949, which was the basis of the army’s structural operation and its fighting doctrines. The law stated, among other things, that the army must aspire to move fighting to enemy territory, or alternatively, to launch a preemptive strike due to a lack of geographic strategic depth.
Between 1949 and 1956, the IDF was forced to deal with a surge of border infiltrators, some of whom entered Israel alone to commit robberies and murder, and others who entered later, as part of the Egyptian-backed Fedayeen movement. In 1953, a special forces unit called Unit 101 was established to deal with the infiltrators by striking their camps in the Gaza Strip and Jordan. The unit was later merged with the Paratroopers Brigade. In those years, the IDF’s routine defense activity included frequent retaliation operations against Fedayeen bases, and in some cases against Egyptian and Jordanian military bases as well. The IDF was also tasked with thwarting Egyptian and Syrian attempts to take over Israeli territories, although it was unsuccessful in stopping Syria from capturing the el-Ḥamma enclave (Hamat Gader) and areas in the lower Golan Heights. During that period, the IDF had to deal with a severe shortage in modern equipment, including tanks, fighter jets, artillery and watercraft. Multiple attempts to reach acquisition agreements with different nations were unsuccessful, and the IDF was forced to make do with purchasing surplus equipment as it became available. The situation took a turn for the better early in 1956, with the enhancement of Israel’s defense ties with France. It was then that Israel had a chance to obtain new weapons for the first time.
In 1956, as the attempts to put an end to the border infiltrations proved futile, the IDF launched an offensive on Sinai in cooperation with France and the United Kingdom, who wished to gain control of the Suez Canal. The IDF’s Armored Corps reached the canal within a few days, and the Sinai Peninsula was under Israel’s control, however briefly. One of the Suez Crisis’ first military courses of action, the Battle over the Mitla Pass, is considered one of the most difficult and well-known battles in the history of the IDF. Following the Suez Crisis, the IDF focused on bolstering the Armored Corps by purchasing modern tanks and upgrading its combat code. The IAF was expanded as well, with the arrival of new jets and helicopters. In the mid-1960s the Armored Corps and the IAF assisted in protecting the Israeli water sources as the conflict with Syria deepened. In 1964, the United States agreed to sell arms to Israel for the first time. Israel’s cooperation with the US on defense matters grew in the years that followed.
History: Six Day War to first Lebanon War
The IDF’s demonstrated its capabilities from the very start of the Six Day War. On the morning of June 5, 1967, the IAF launched a strike on the air forces and airports belonging to Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Over the course of minutes, the IAF destroyed 350 planes, both on the ground in the air. The IDF fought on three fronts during that war, and made significant military gains as it seized control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Moreover, the Bar Lev Line, a chain of fortifications, was established along the Suez Canal. For the first time, Israel had a strategic advantage.
In the years 1969-1970, a War of Attrition took place between Egypt and Israel along the Suez Canal. The bulk of the war consisted of fire exchanges and minor tactics warfare. Meanwhile, with Egypt’s encouragement, Palestinian terrorists from Jordan infiltrated the Jordan Valley. Minor exchanges of fire also occurred on the border with Syria. Following the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which had taken upon itself to continue the war on Israel through terror operations, the border infiltrations resurged. The IDF had to allocate increasing resources to fighting against these operations by protecting the border and striking terrorist cells located outside Israel. One of the most renowned operations of that time was a raid carried in Beirut by the elite IDF unit Sayeret Matkal, during which several PLO leaders were killed.
On October 6, 1973, on Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria launched an all-out war against Israel. Despite the element of surprise, the IDF managed to overcome the disadvantage it suffered during the first days of the war and push the combat into enemy territory. However, the public’s trust in the army and the government was shaken.
IDF near the Suez Canal in 1973
After the war, the Agranat Commission was established to investigate the military leadership’s conduct before and during the war. The commission’s findings brought to the dismissal of IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar and other senior officers. The commission criticized the IDF’s lack of preparation for the war and for the lack of coordination between the troops. Reforms were consequently implemented in the communication between the different corps and the army’s emergency preparedness. In 1976, a new law determined that the IDF is subordinate to the direction of the government, and that IDF chief of staff – the highest ranking army official – is operative under the Defense Minister’s authority. That same year, the IDF carried out Operation Entebbe, which rescued Israeli hostages from the hands of terrorists who hijacked a passenger plane and flew it to Uganda.
Hostages released in Entebbe Operation return home
In the mid-1970’s, the IDF began aiding the Christian militias in southern Lebanon in the battle against the Palestinian terrorists who took hold of the region. In 1978, the IDF invaded Lebanon, reaching the Litani River. The army retreated from the region after a few months, upon the arrival of UN forces. Following the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, the IDF began retrieving troops and equipment from Sinai. With aid from the US, new military bases and airports were established in the Negev.
In June 1981, the IAF carried out a surprise air strike on Iraq, destroying the nuclear reactor there.
History: Lebanon War and the events that followed
In June of the following year, the IDF launched the Lebanon War. The forces pushed all the way to Beirut while combating militants and the Syrian army. In September, the IDF allowed the Christian Phalangist fighters to enter two refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila, and kill hundreds of Palestinians staying there. The IDF’s consent of the massacre caused a stir within the Israeli public, and brought to the establishment of an investigative commission that slammed various Israeli politicians and commanders for their involvement. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was forced to resign.
The IDF in southern Lebanon in 1982
In the spring of 1985, the IDF forces returned to Israel. However, some military presence was left to secure a safety zone in southern Lebanon, in cooperation with local forces.
The IDF underwent some organizational changes in the 1980’s, including the establishment of the Nahal and Givati infantry brigades. The military also obtained modern war equipment, including F-15 and F-16 planes, Apache helicopters, German submarines, and new Merkava tank models.
In December 1987, the first intifada broke out in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, forcing the IDF to deal with violent incidents that took place in crowded areas and within hostile populations. New units were established for that purpose, including an undercover unit that sent Israeli spies to assimilate in Arab villages. The army’s combat code was enhanced at that time.
Palestinians riot in Ramallah in first intifada
In 1991, the first Gulf War broke out, during which Israel faced missile attacks from Iraq. Due to fears that the missiles could include chemical agents, the government urged the citizens of Israel to wear gas masks and hide in protected spaces. After careful consideration, and due to pressure from the US, the Israeli government decided not to retaliate against the attacks. During the months of June and July 1992, the fighting between Hezbollah and the IDF escalated in the south Lebanon safety zone, prompting the IDF to launch Operation Accountability. After a week-long battle, a ceasefire was mediated with the help of the US. In early 1996, Hezbollah’s operations grew frequent yet again, inducing the IDF to breach the Lebanon border. In retaliation, Hezbollah fired Katyusha rockets on communities in northern Israel.
That same year, the IDF launched Operation Grapes of Wrath, which included artillery fire and airstrikes on southern Lebanon. International pressure brought to the conclusion of the operation after an IDF shell hit the village of Kanna, killing a large number of civilians. IDF troops remained in Lebanon until May 2000.
In September 2000, the Al-Aqsa Intifada broke out, virtually killing all hope that the Oslo Accords could bring long-lasting peace. During the uprising, Palestinians carried out thousands of violent acts, including suicide bombings, shootings and mortar fire. The attacks lasted until the IDF took over most of the West Bank yet again in Operation Defensive Shield, and nullified the Palestinian Authority’s governing power.
Scene of Palestinian suicide bombing in Hadera
Meanwhile, defense establishment forces made efforts to assassinate and arrest members of terrorist organizations, including Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. The forces also implemented curfews in the West Bank, built checkpoints and eventually built a security fence. These measures, used to put an end to the violence, drew criticism from within Israel and around the world. In July 2006, a Hezbollah cell attacked an IDF unit patrolling the Israel-Lebanon border, killing three soldiers and kidnapping two more. Following the incident, the government ordered the IDF to launch a widespread military operation against Hezbollah in Lebanon. During the operation, known as the Second Lebanon War, the IDF carried out hundreds of artillery and air strikes on targets in Lebanon, as well as a few ground assaults close to the border. Hezbollah retaliated by firing hundreds of rockets on northern Israeli communities. In 2006, the war was over after the UN mediated a ceasefire. The Israeli public was shocked by the events that unfolded during that summer, as they saw their great army incapable of defeating a relatively small guerilla force. In the aftermath of the war, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and several other senior officers resigned. In December 2008, the IDF launched Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, aiming to destroy Hamas’ infrastructure and halt the rocket attacks on southern Israel. During the operation, the IDF entered the strip, covered by heavy artillery fire and airstrikes. The military activity was completed in January 2009.
Hezbollah, the ‘Party of God’
Founded in the early 1980s with the backing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, this Shiite Islamic fundamentalist organization is an armed political party with members in the Lebanese parliament. It is currently engaged in an intense power-struggle over Lebanon’s political future
Hezbollah – Party of God – is a Shia Islamic armed political organization based in Lebanon. Officially founded in 1982 with the backing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah originally began to take shape in the late 1970s to counter the Amal Movement (Lebanese Resistance Detachments), the largest Shia organization at the time. Hezbollah’s chief stated objective is to establish Islamic rule over Lebanon according to the religious teachings of the late Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khomeini.
Hezbollah enjoys significant support from Lebanon’s Shia Muslims, called Metoualis, who despite constituting the largest religious sect in the country are disproportionately underrepresented in Lebanese state institutions.
The Lebanese Shia experienced a social awakening following their involvement in the Lebanese civil war (1975-1977), Israel’s Operation Litani (1978) and the 1982 Operation Peace for the Galilee, also knows as the first Lebanon War. The Shiites initially saw Israel’s invasion into southern Lebanon as an opportunity to drive out the presence of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), but the initial sympathy for Israel was slowly replaced with disenchantment after it became apparent that Israel was holding political talks only with the ruling Christian hierarchy. In addition, there was growing Shia discontent with Israel’s military presence in southern Lebanon, whose towns hold the largest concentrations of Shia communities in Lebanon.
Lebanon’s political landscape modeled itself increasingly after the Iranian model. With the assassination of Bashir Gemayel and the expulsion of the PLO from Beirut in1982, Israel’s hopes for a new Lebanese regime crumbled and Iranian-affiliated Shiites rose to even more prominence and power. It is with that Iranian support that Sheik Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah founded « ‘Hezbollah », designed to serve as Lebanon’s vanguard against Israeli and American military presence in the country.
Though officially created in 1982, Hezbollah began to take shape in the city of Ba’albak in 1978. Unlike Amal, which championed domestic rights for Shiites, Hezbollah’s ideology was of a far more radical nature. Its principal tenets were and remain: the establishment of an Islamic state modeled after Iran, independence from Western powers and an uncompromising resistance to Zionism. The two Shia organizations have a long and bloody history of political and armed clashes over their substantial ideological differences.
Along with Fadlallah, Hezbollah’s spiritual leadership was compromised of various key religious leaders and organization leaders who form the Shura Council. The secretary-general reports to the Shura. The secretary-general is charged with overseeing all of the organization’s activities – military and otherwise.
The number of military operatives commanded by Hezbollah is estimated as several thousand, the number of civilian operatives acting on behalf of the organization is unknown but considered substantial.
Alongside its military agenda, Hezbollah maintains a vast network of community projects financed by untold dozens of millions of dollars. These include schools, hospitals, clinics, research facilities, kindergartens, various businesses and aid for the families of « Shahids » – martyrs. Public services are offered at no charge to local residents. Hezbollah’s chief benefactor continues to be Iran; however it also receives donations from various Shia communities throughout the world.
Hezbollah truly began to garner strength in the 1980s as the Lebanese political system grew increasingly weaker due to the then permanent Syrian presence and influence over Lebanese affairs.Many in Syria still consider Lebanon as part of the concept of Greater Syria. The rule of Greater Syria generally includes Lebanon, Israel and Kuwait as well as the Sinai and provinces in Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.
High-profile terror attacks against Israeli and American targets in Lebanon also helped catapult Hezbollah’s standing within the general public. These attacks include the repeated bombings of the American embassy in Beirut in April 1983 (63 dead) and again in September 1984 (20 dead). Perhaps the most infamous of these attacks is the bombing of the US Marine barracks in October 1983 – 241 American servicemen were killed. The Israeli headquarters in the port-city of Tyre was also attacked several times, 29 people were killed in the worst bombing in November 1983. The subsequent US decision to withdraw from Lebanon was heralded by most Shiites as a massive victory for Hezbollah, as was the Israeli withdrawal to the security buffer zone in southern Lebanon in 1985. The Israeli defense establishment only officially labeled Hezbollah a recognized military threat in the mid-80s. During those years the organization devoted most of its efforts to attacks against IDF forces in the buffer zone.
In February 1992, an Israeli helicopter targeted Hezbollah Secretary-General Abbas Musawi. In the aftermath of his assassination Hezbollah, aided by Iran, initiated a series of terror attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad, most notably the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in March 1992 (22 dead) and the bombing of the Argentinean capital’s Jewish Community Center in July 1994 (80 dead). That same year, Hezbollah also tried to attack the Israeli embassy in London but the bomb detonated outside the building. Several embassy personnel were wounded. Hezbollah also continuously launched Katyusha rocket attacks against Israeli northern border towns.
Musawi was succeeded by the relatively young Sheik Hassan Sayyed Nasrallah as secretary-general. It was under Nasrallah’s rule that Hezbollah turned into a global terror force which saw itself as a player on the worldwide Arab stage and not only the local Lebanese arena.
Concurrently Hezbollah launched its political front (mostly due to Iranian and Syrian pressure) and its delegates were elected to State institutions. Hezbollah’s pursuit of stronger political standing stems mainly from Nasrallah’s intent to depict the organization as a legitimate political force and not a rogue terror organization.
In 1997 Nasrallah faced his first test of leadership when a group from within Hezbollah, led by Sheik Subhi al-Tufayli, the organization’s first secretary-general, launched what it called the ‘hunger revolution’ in protest of what it saw as an abandonment of Hezbollah’s social obligations towards Lebanese Shiites. With the firm backing of Iran and Syria, Nasrallah quickly disarmed the protesting group and they surrendered. The IDF carried out two major operations against Hezbollah in the 1990s. Operation Accountability was launched in July 1993 and Operation Grapes of Wrath was launched in 1996; but despite the IDF’s large-scale activities and the substantial difference in Hezbollah’s military capabilities compared to Israel’s, the organization continued to operate relentlessly both against IDF targets in southern Lebanon and Israeli communities in northern Israel. Over the years Hezbollah’s military professionalism progressed rapidly with the support and training provided by Iran.
Israel’s retreat from Lebanon
The continuous fighting resulted in heavy casualties for both sides and the Israeli public grew weary of the price of its continued presence in the region. Ultimately the government decided to withdraw and in May 2000. Many members of the South Lebanon Army, which fought alongside Israel against Hezbollah, received asylum in Israel and were offered full citizenship and financial aid. The Israeli retreat presented Hezbollah with a new challenge. Hezbollah’s raison d’être had been the expulsion of Israeli presence from Lebanon and now with this objective seemingly achieved, the organization feared it would be deemed irrelevant.
In response Hezbollah announced that Israel had not completely withdrawn from Lebanon, as it still controlled a section of Mount Dov called the Shebaa Farms. The UN, however, declared Israel’s withdrawal as complete, defining the contested Shebaa Farms as Syrian land captured along with the Golan Heights. After the withdrawal Hezbollah maintained its attacks against the IDF along the border, primarily focusing on attempting to shoot down IDF fighter planes and attack military outposts. The organization filled the border region with military outposts, training bases and shooting posts.
After the withdrawal
With the help of Iran, Hezbollah also extended its influence over Palestinian terror groups in the West Bank and Gaza and increasingly providing them with military knowledge, equipment, and financial support, as well as even actively directing several terror attacks. With support and funding from Iran and Syria, Hezbollah established a complex infrastructure in Lebanon, including a wide range of rockets with capabilities ranging from the shorter-range 5 miles (107 mm diameter) and 13-mile (122 mm diameter) Katyusha or Grad rockets, to the longer-range 27-46 mile (240 and 333 mm) Fajr-3’s and Fajr-5’s.
Hezbollah is also widely believed to possess the long-range Zelzal or Nezaat rockets which can reach Knesset Member-112 miles, capable of striking Israel’s largest cities.
The Revolutionary Guards and other Iranian military and intelligence experts are actively involved in the training of Hezbollah forces. Technologically sophisticated command and control centers have been set up in various compounds in the southern Beirut Shiite neighborhood of Dahiya, and the Hezbollah-operated Al-ManarTelevision Network broadcasts from this area as well.
Alongside its continued conflict with Israel, Hezbollah actively pursued more political power and most of southern Lebanon is effectively under complete Hezbollah control. In 2004, the UN Security Council ratified Resolution 1559 which called for the complete withdrawal of Syrian military presence in Lebanon and the immediate disarming of the country’s armed militias – but Hezbollah was not mentioned by name in the resolution. The Lebanese government failed to implement the resolution, mostly due to Hezbollah’s political clout.
In the July 2005 elections Hezbollah won 14 out of 128 seats in the Lebanese Parliament and two of its delegates became cabinet ministers. A third minister who ran on an independent ticket was officially endorsed by Hezbollah.
2006 Israeli-Hezbollah conflict
On July 12th 2006 Hezbollah forces crossed the international border and attacked an Israeli patrol. Three IDF soldiers were killed and two additional soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, were abducted and taken into Lebanon. At the same time Hezbollah also launched a diversionary attack and fired Katyusha missiles at Israeli border towns. In the initial attempt to retrieve Goldwasser and Regev, five IDF soldiers were killed.
Following the attack the Israeli government ordered the army to launch a wide-scale campaign – the Second Lebanon War. A ceasefire was declared after 33 days in accordance with UN Resolution 1701.
The outcome of the war is ambiguous, and no clear victor emerged. While Hezbollah and Lebanon were both dealt a serious blow by the war, Israel emerged relatively unscathed in terms of the impact the war had on its economy and the damage caused to infrastructure.
In Lebanon Hezbollah’s popularity surged and the organization held victory marches throughout the country. However since the initial, almost unanimous, support for the organization, primarily in southern Lebanon, some residents have begun voicing their discontent as Hezbollah’s initial promise to rebuild their villages seems to have stalled. In early December 2006 Hezbollah led a series of large-scale protests in opposition to Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s Western-backed government. The opposition groups, which along with Hezbollah included Amal, the anti-Syrian Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Communist Party, Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Marada party, sought to create a national unity government with larger representation for their parties as well as veto powers. Fears of civil war flared briefly but abated several months later.
Nasrallah has since said that the status quo will continue.