The Israel Defense Forces

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 stands.

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 hours.

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 reserve service.

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.

Regular service

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 years.

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.

 The Israel Defense Forces

Officer Ranks in the IDF* and their Equivalents

Segen Mishneh Second Lieutenant
Segen Lieutenant
Seren Captain
Rav Seren Major
Segan Aluf Lieutenant Colonal
Aluf Mishneh Colonel
Tat Aluf Brigadier General
Aluf Major General
Rav Aluf Lieutenant General

* 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 side.

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 including Iraq.

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 original budget.

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.

 The Israel Defense Forces

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 Army

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 conflict.

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 Jonathan.

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 simultaneously.

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 without casualties.

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 hospitals.

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 Israel Defense Forces
 The Israel Defense Forces
The Israel Air Force
 The Israel Defense Forces
The Israel Air Force website

The Navy

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.

 The Israel Defense Forces
 The Israel Defense Forces
The Israel Navy

* * *

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 training depots.

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 Israel Defense Forces
 The Israel Defense Forces
New opportunities for women; will soon serve in special combat units – IDF Spokesman, Dec 15, 2002


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 areas.

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 is preserved.