The Israel Defence Forces (IDF; Hebrew: צבא הגנה לישראל Tsva Haganah Le-Israel, often abbreviated צה"ל Tsahal) is the name of Israel's armed forces (army, air force and navy). It was formed following the founding of Israel in 1948 to "defend the existence, territorial integrity and sovereignty of the state of Israel" and "to protect the inhabitants of Israel and to combat all forms of terrorism which threaten the daily life." The predecessors to the IDF were the Haganah (in particular, its operative detachmen, the Palmach) and the British armed forces, in particular the Jewish Brigade that fought during World War II.

After the establishment of the IDF, the two Jewish guerillas the Irgun and Stern gang came under control of the IDF. But they were allowed to operate independently in Jerusalem until the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war after which they eventually dispersed.

For detailed IDF history, see: Israel Defence Forces History.

Israel Defence Forces
Military manpower
Military age18 years of age
Availability males age 15-49: 1,499,186 (2000 est.)
females age 15-49: 1,462,063 (2000 est.)
Fit for military service males age 15-49: 1,226,903 (2000 est.)
females age 15-49: 1,192,319 (2000 est.)
Reaching military age annually males: 50,348 (2000 est.)
females: 47,996 (2000 est.)
Military expenditures
Dollar figure$8.7 billion (FY99)
Percent of GDP9.4% (FY99)

Table of contents
1 Overview
2 Israeli Military Technology
3 Nuclear capability?
4 Recent policies and tactics
5 Effectiveness of IDF tactics in reducing suicide bombings
6 Refusal to Serve
7 Further reference


The IDF falls under the command of a single general staff. The current head of staff is Lieutenant-General (Rav-Aluf) Moshe (Boogie) Ya'alon, answerable to the Minister of Defence.

The Chief of the General Staff (in Hebrew: רמטכ"ל, pronounced: Ramatkal) is the high commander of the IDF and answers to the Defence minister and the Prime minister. All Ramatkals are in the rank of Lieutenant General (in Hebrew: רב אלוף , pronounced: "Rav Aluf").

Service is mandatory for Jewish men and women over the age of 18, although exemptions may be made on religious grounds. The fact that an increasing number of people in the ultraorthodox community are exempt, has been a source of tension in Israeli society. Druze also serve in the IDF. In recent years, some Druze officers have reached positions in the IDF as high as Major General. Israeli Arabs, with few exceptions, are not obliged to serve, though they may volunteer.

Six Israeli Arabs have received orders of distinction as a part of their military service; of them the most famous is a Bedouin officer, Lieutenant Colonel Abd El-Amin Hajer (also known as Amos Yarkoni), that has received the Order of Example. Recently, a Bedouin officer was promoted to the rank of Colonel.

Men serve three years in the IDF, as do the women in combat positions, while women in non-combat positions serve two. The IDF requires women who volunteer for combat positions to serve for three years because combat soldiers must go through a lengthy period of training, and the IDF wants to get as much use of that training as possible. In addition, men serve up to one month annually of reserve service, up to the age of 43-45. No direct social benefits are tied to completion of military service, but doing it is required for attaining a security clearance and serving in some types of government positions (in most cases, security-related); Israeli Arabs claim, however, that this puts them at a disadvantage.

During 1950-66, Israel spent an average of 9% of its GDP on defense. Defense expenditures increased dramatically after both the 1967 and 1973 wars. In 1996, the military budget reached 10.6% of GDP and represented about 21.5% of the total 1996 budget.

In 1983, the United States and Israel established the Joint Political Military Group, which meets twice a year. Both the U.S. and Israel participate in joint military planning and combined exercises, and have collaborated on military research and weapons development.

Military branches:

Israeli Military Technology

The IDF is considered to be one of the most high-tech armies in the world, possessing top-of-the-line weapons and computer systems. Beside of purchasing American-made weapon systems (such as the M4A1 assult rifle, F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon jets and Apache helicopter), the IDF holds a large department of weapon develoment, Rafael (The Authority For Weapons Development), which develops new weapons and technology to the IDF. Most of the technologies are produced by the Israeli security industries including the IMI, Elbit, El-Op and the IAI.

Currently Israel is the only country in the world with anti ballistic missile defence system "Hetz" and working with the USA on development of a tactical high energy laser system against medium range rockets (THEL Nautilus). Also, Israel has the capability of launching its own satellites into orbit (a capability which is held by the Russian, USA, China, UK, Japan, France, India and Israel).

Main Israeli Developments:

  • Small Arms
    • Tavor TAR-21 bullpup assult rifle
    • Galil assult rifle
    • Uzi submachine gun
      • Micro Uzi
      • Para Micro Uzi
      • Mini Uzi
      • Uzi pistol
    • IMI Negev light machine gun
    • Jericho 971 handgun
    • Magnum Research "Desert Eagle" large-caliber handgun
    • T.C.I M89-SR semi-auto bullpup sniper rifle
    • SR-99 semi-auto sniper rifle
    • RCWS - remote control weapon station
    • OWS - overhead weapon station (also known as "Mag Refael")
  • Armoured Fighting Vehicles
  • All-terrain vehicles and other wheeled vehicles
    • Abir
    • Sufa
    • Desert Raider
  • Rockets and Missiles
    • Gil\\Spike - ATGM (anti-tank guided missile)
    • Shifon - ATGM
    • Jericho missile - ballistic missile
    • Shavit - can launch satellites into orbit
    • Rafael Python 4 and Rafael Python 5 - air-to-air missiles
    • Popeye - advance guided air-to-ground missile
    • Hetz (Arrow missile) - part of a ballistic missile defence system, able to shot down ballistic missiles
  • Electronics and High-Tech
    • Oren Yarok (Green Pine) - radar system
    • Phalcon - intelligence gathering systems installed on Boeing 707 airplane
    • Satellites such as Ofek 5
    • Katbam - unmanned naval vehicle
    • Litning Pod - enhance fighter jets offensive capabilities
    • F-15I and F-16I fighter jets electronic systems
  • Aviation
    • Nesher fighter jet (upgraded Mirage V)
    • Kfir fighter jet (upgraded and improved Mirage V)
    • Nammer fighter jet
    • Lavi fighter jet (development wasn't complete)
    • Mazlat (UAV) - unmanned small areial vehicle

More information: Israeli Weapons

Nuclear capability?

Most analysts hold it that Israel is the only
nuclear power in the middle east. The Israeli government has neither acknowledged nor denied that it possesses nuclear weapons, an official policy referred to as "ambiguity".

Gathering information from various sources, it is generally believed that nuclear weapons have been developed at the Dimona nuclear reactor since the 1960s.

Very little can be said with certainty beyond this. The Federation of American Scientists (see references) claims that the first two nuclear bombs probably were operational before the Six-Day War. It is widely reported that Prime Minister Eshkol ordered them armed in Israel's first nuclear alert during that war. It is also reported that, fearing defeat in the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Israelis assembled 13 twenty-kiloton nuclear bombs. Naturally, it is next to impossible to confirm this information.

The current size and composition of Israel's nuclear stockpile is uncertain, and is the subject of various estimates and reports. FAS estimates that Israel probably has 100-200 nuclear warheads, which can be delivered by airplanes (A4 Skyhawk or converted F-4 Phantom II), or ballistic missiles (Lance, Jericho, or Jericho II missiles). The Jericho II is reported to have a range between 1,500 and 4,000 kms, meaning that it can target sites as far away as central Russia.

Recent policies and tactics

The IDF uses sophisticated technology, and due to their long experience fighting Palestinian guerrillas, have developed methods of crowd control and use of non-lethal force, in particular in scenarios when armed clashes occur in the presence of unarmed crowds. Some, however, criticise the IDF's methods, as there were numerous cases in which unarmed civilians have died during clashes.

Some of the unarmed civillians, however, found themselves in the line of fire after travelling thousands of miles from other countries. Often they had entered Israel as tourists, but their agenda was obstructing IDF activity, on the grounds that the IDF's actions are "immoral" and harmful to the Palestinian population.

For example, Rachel Corrie was killed during a clash between about ten unarmed International Solidarity Movement activists and two Israeli bulldozers and a tank. The official IDF investigation concluded that Ms. Corrie's death was an accident, as she was crushed by rubble and hidden from the driver's eyes. This conclusion is hotly contested by the other ISM members who were present. Many interest groups have used her death to denounce the IDF's moral standards in the international media.

The IDF gained experience in low intensity warfare during the years it held a security zone in Lebanon fighting Palestinian militias and later Hizbullah. During the Second Intifada, the IDF developed special tactics to keep casulties low without hurting civilians. Such tactics are deemed necessary because Palestinian organizations (Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades) hide among the civilian population in order to deter the IDF from attacking them. However, the terror of 2002 and the "Passover Massacre" forced the IDF to enter cities and refugees camps and engage in urban warfare. The famous urban battles of Operation Defensive Shield were Jenin (notable for massacre allegations and use of Caterpillar D9 bulldozers), Tulkarem (swarming) and Nablus (swarming with armor).

Israel targets and detains individuals to avert future terrorist acts. In addition, Israel employs a strategy of assassinations (called targeted killings by proponents).

It should be noted that assassinations are a gray area in international relations. Most developed nations, including the U.S., do not consider the assassination of political leaders legitimate. However, since 2001 the U.S. has openly tried to assassinate leaders of two countries (Mullah Omar and Saddam Hussein) with missile-armed remote-controlled drones.

In the Second Intifada, Israel's official "most wanted" list has become the list of likely future targets. In the majority of cases, Israel prefers to arrest as it may lead to intelligence not otherwise obtained.

In an interview with the BBC (linked below) Giora Eiland, the chief of Military Planning department of the IDF General Staff, defines four criteria necessary to carrying out an assassination:

  1. No way to arrest the particular individual
  2. The target is important enough
  3. The assassination can be carried out with minimal civilian casualties
  4. The operation cannot be delayed - meaning the target is a "ticking bomb", ready to execute an attack

If the criteria are met, the target can be killed by various methods, including sniper fire, explosive devices, helicopter-launched rockets or aerial bombs. By using this method, according to Israeli spokepeople, Israel hopes to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties while preventing severe attacks from being carried out.

The method remains highly controversial however, inside as well as outside Israel, also because of the risk of hurting non-combatant civilians in the process. Many reject its legitimacy outright, while supporters say there is no viable alternative. It is seen and accepted by the majority of Israeli public only as a measure of last resort, facing the Palestinian Authority's perceived complicity, in the very least by non-prevention.

Effectiveness of IDF tactics in reducing suicide bombings

The method, combined with a network of checkpoints and the re-occupation of all Palestinian areas, has resulted in a dramatic and sustained decrease in suicide bombing attacks. Suicide bombing attacks reached a peak of 17 in March 2002. The first six months of 2002 witnessed 60 suicide bombing attacks while the IDF prevented 32. In the last six months of 2003, there are been a total of 9 suicide bombing attacks versus 79 attacks prevented by IDF. [1]

Refusal to Serve

Although small numbers of IDF soldiers refused to serve in Lebanon and during the first intifada, the Al-Aqsa intifada has seen the phenomenon growing to the extent that it has become a major public controversy. The refusers (known as seruvniks after the Hebrew word for refusal) are not strictly conscientious objectors, since they don't refuse military service in general but only refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A public letter of refusal issued in January 2002 had by September 2003 been signed by 550 active or reserve soldiers. The letter promises to "continue serving in the Israel Defense Forces in any mission that serves Israel's defense" but refuses to "continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people".

Though lauded as heroes by some, the seruvniks have been condemned by all the major Israeli political parties and by almost every major newspaper editorial. Air-force chief Halutz called refusal "the mother of all dangers to our people". Some of the seruvniks have been prosecuted and spent time in prison but others have been quietly transferred to alternative duties.

On September 25, 2003, a similar declaration of refusal to serve was made by 27 air-force pilots including 9 active pilots, but only 2 who were involved in aerial attacks in the territories. The refusers' petition was widely condemned by other IAF pilots. The 9 active pilots were dismissed from duty. On December 21, 2003, ten soldiers and three officers serving as reservists in the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal sent a letter to Sharon refusing to serve in the territories. Their letter said, "We say to you today, we will no longer give our hands to the oppressive reign in the territories and the denial of human rights to millions of Palestinians, and we will no longer serve as a defensive shield for the settlement enterprise." Political leaders from both sides condemned the action.

According to a survey published by the Israel Democracy Institute and the Gutman Center at the end of 2003, 28% of Israelis support refusal to serve in the territories and an identical percentage would support soldiers who refuse to evacuate settlements in the territories.

see also: Refusal to serve in the Israeli military

Further reference

See also: Israel, Israel Defence Forces History, Arab-Israeli conflict, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Nuclear proliferation, Military technology and equipment.