If your country is surrounded by bigger and more powerful enemies, who have constantly been threatening your national security for many years with wars, conflicts, and terrorism, what would you do? Would you do nothing and die? Or would you stand up and defend yourself, your country, and your people?
For such a country as tiny Israel, it sure knows the answer.
Since the State of Israel was established in 1948, many Arab nations and terrorist groups have threatened to eliminate its existence. But these threats have only made Israel to come itself prepared any time if (and when) it’s under attack.
This is why the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) came to exist. All countries have to have their own armed forces to protect and defend their borders and their citizens. But for a young sovereign nation like Israel that’s mostly surrounded by enemies, the establishment of the IDF is more than just urgent. It knows that its existence as a state could be at stake.
But before its formal establishment on May 31, 1948 – only two weeks after Israel declared its independence – the IDF’s roots had gone even deeper during its Haganah days when Israel was then under the British Mandate. But through the decades, the principle has remained the same: to defend their ancestral homeland from their enemies. The IDF ranks among the most battle-tested, battle-ready, and highly-trained armed forces in the world.
In 1947, the United Nations proposed the Partition Plan that would divide the British Mandate for Palestine. Following the UN plan, the country became increasingly volatile as Arab citizens rejected any plan that would create a Jewish state. The Haganah tried to secure the areas allotted to the Jewish state in the UN’s partition plan and the blocks of settlements that were in the space allotted to the Arab state.
When David Ben-Gurion declared Israel as an independent state on May 14, 1948, one of his first orders was to establish the IDF. The newly formed armed forces were based on the former personnel of the Haganah and its elite strike force, Palmach.
Only a day after Israel was declared an independent state, the first Arab-Israeli war broke out. In the war’s initial stages, the Israeli military (still consisted of Haganah and other paramilitary groups Irgun and Lehi) was severely outmanned and outgunned. They only had three tanks; they didn’t even have warplanes.
On the other hand, the invading Arab enemies boasted 270 tanks, 300 aircraft, and 150 field guns. But due to several of reasons (among them strategic failure), the Arabs weren’t able to exploit their numerical superiority.
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The Israelis, later beefed up by new army recruits and a fresh arms supply, managed to succeed in almost all battlefields. They conquered areas such as Eilat, Nazareth, the Negev, and the Galilee. The notable exception was East Jerusalem, which remained under Jordanian control.
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Since its formation, the IDF’s mission has been:
- “To defend the existence, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of the state of Israel”;
- “To protect the inhabitants of Israel”; and
- “To combat all forms of terrorism which threaten the daily life.”
One of the IDF’s principles is the belief that Israel cannot afford to lose a single war. The IDF believes that it can achieve its goal only if it can rapidly mobilize its troops, of overwhelming force, to engage with the enemy in enemy territory.
In absolute terms, the Israeli army is small – 21st-century estimates placed the IDF at some 125,000 troops, of whom about two-thirds are active-duty conscripts. Taking these numbers into account, the IDF’s mission could be attained only through the maintenance of well-trained reserve units and active intelligence gathering.
Because of the IDF’s reliance on its reserve force to boost its infantry, it could be more precisely described as citizen militia supplemented by active-duty conscripts and career officers.
Jewish men and women are inducted into the IDF at age 18 – men for three years and women for two years. Enlistment to the army is also mandatory for Druze and Circassian men only.
Arab Israelis, Muslims and Christians alike, may not join the IDF if they don’t want to. However, recent years have seen an increasing number of Arab Israelis who voluntarily join the military service. Bedouins in Israel may also volunteer to join the IDF.
After active service, reserve services may continue up to the age of 51 for men and 24 for women.
The IDF may exempt Orthodox Jewish women from active service, although they would choose to perform 12 months of national service in the non-military (civilian) sector. Many ultra-Orthodox men may be granted deferment while pursuing their Torah studies, and those who serve the military may fulfill religious functions. New immigrants may also be deferred or drafted into the army for a shorter period, depending on their age or their status on their entry to the country.
In July 2015, the IDF modified the active-duty conscription period to 32 months for men (from the previous 36 months) and 21 months for women (from the previous 24).
The IDF’s commander is the Chief of General Staff, who reports directly to the Minister of Defense and indirectly to the Prime Minister and the cabinet.
The cabinet appoints the Chief of General Staff, upon the recommendation of the Defense Minister, normally for three years. But the Chief’s period of service may extend to four years, and on rare occasions, even five years.
Both air force and navy chiefs report to the Chief of General Staff. Various directorates, such as the Israeli Intelligence Corps, the Mossad (Israel’s national intelligence agency), and the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security service), also report to the Chief of General Staff. These three directorates serve as pillars of Israel’s intelligence and counter-intelligence establishment.
The IDF’s public image has changed significantly throughout the decades since its establishment. In recent years, IDF has become social media-savvy. It has over three million Facebook followers, 1.5 million Twitter followers, and over 800,000 Instagram followers. Apart from offering their followers a peek of their regular military activities and news updates, the IDF also peppers its official social media accounts with politically charged memes and photos.