Defending the nation for 65 years

The IDF has undergone many transformations in the 65 years since its birth, but its mission remains unchanged: to protect the State of Israel and its citizens

Date: 30/05/2013, 6:12 PM     Author: Gabriel Freund and Sahar Raz

On May 31, 1948, sixty five years ago today, the Israel Defense Forces officially began operations as Israel’s sole, unified military organization charged with protecting the territory and citizens of the two-week-old state. The birth of the IDF came at a time when the entire country was at war for its very survival. Drawing its forces and weapons from the various Jewish paramilitary organizations active at the time, the IDF began as a hastily cobbled together, understaffed, underarmed, and ill-equipped army. By the end of the War of Independence in 1949, the IDF had defeated five invading Arab armies to become the decisive, powerful, spirited fighting force that it is known as today.

Humble beginnings

The need to defend the Jewish communities of pre-state Israel arose long before the declaration of Israel’s independence in 1948, and took on many forms before solidifying itself as a single military force known as the IDF. It began with ordinary people, farmers and pioneers, simply interested in protecting their homes. While their training and access to weapons was limited, their struggle for security and independence never ceased.

One of the earliest Jewish defense organizations, known as Hashomer (the Guard), formed as early as 1909. Small groups of Jewish immigrants rode on horseback between Jewish agricultural settlements, guarding them against Arab thieves and criminal gangs looking to steal property.

Hashomer (the Guard) fighters, 1909

Hashomer continued to defend settlements until the British Mandate period. In 1920, a new, defense organization took over in response to a clear lack of commitment from the British to protect the Jewish population. Following several violent Arab anti-Jewish riots, the Yishuv (the body of Jewish residents in pre-state Israel) decided to take defense into its own hands by forming the first nationwide underground Jewish defense organization: the Haganah (the Defense’).

As Arab violence intensified, the Haganah evolved. When a long-running dispute over access to the Western Wall escalated, a series of Arab riots deteriorated into an all out massacre that left 133 Jews dead. Following the riots, the Haganah began transforming from a poorly trained militia into a capable underground army, acquiring foreign arms and developing workshops to manufacture hand grenades and simple military equipment.

The fight for independence

The Haganah became a full-scale defense force following the 1936-1939 Arab revolt and, by 1941, consisted of three main units: the Field Corps (the main ground force), Guard Corps (the force responsible for protecting Jewish villages from  Arab attacks), and the Palmach. The Palmach was the elite fighting force of the Haganah, combining military training, agricultural work, and Zionist education. Its members eventually came to form the backbone of the IDF’s combat forces.

Haganah fighters, 1947

As the Jewish and Arab communities under the British Mandate continued to clash, the Haganah, Etzel and Lehi (other, smaller underground Jewish fighting forces) helped fight for Israel’s independence leading up to the British withdrawal on May 13, 1948. Following many months of bitter fighting between the Jewish defense forces and hostile armed Arab groups, David Ben-Gurion declared the State of Israel’s independence. One of his first orders as Prime Minister was the establishment of the Israel Defense Forces and the dissolution and disarmament of all other paramilitary groups (namely the Haganah, Etzel, and Lehi). Very quickly, the people of Israel and its defenders learned to adjust to a more structured and disciplined fighting force. Thus, on May 31st, 1948, the IDF was born.

Triumph is the only option

On May 15, 1948, the day after Ben-Gurion declared independence, tens of thousands of troops from Israel’s hostile neighbours, alongside volunteers from as far as Sudan, Pakistan and Yemen, invaded the newborn state, bent on its destruction. Though the veterans of the various Jewish defense organizations had gained valuable experience fighting local Arab militants in the lead up to the declaration of independence, they remained under-equipped, under-trained and under-funded. However, when faced with invasion, it was clear to every Jewish soldier and civilian alike that victory in the war meant survival, and defeat meant total destruction. Triumph was the only option.

Soldiers from all of the previous paramilitary groups, fighting under one banner – that of the newly founded Israel Defense Forces – were deployed to the various fronts to protect the new borders and repel the invading Arab armies. While Jewish soldiers struggled side by side on the battlefield, others, government officials and eager contributors, fought their own struggle across the seas in an effort to arm the IDF with weapons that could match those of the Arab armies.

A real breakthrough came with the arrival of the first delivery of Spitfire and Messerschmitt fighter planes from Czechoslovakia. These planes became the backbone of the Israel Air Force – what started, as the air wing of the Haganah, as a cobbled together collection of appropriated civilian aircraft. A mere 65 years later, following a remarkable record of operational successes, the Israel Air Force has earned international acclaim as one of the world’s mightiest air forces.

A truly decisive force

By July 1949, the IDF had beaten back every invading Arab army and armistice agreements were signed between Israel and its major opponents – effectively ending the fighting and securing the existence of the State of Israel. However, the sweetness of victory was embittered by the heavy casualties suffered. By the end of the war, Israel had lost some four thousand of its fighters and more than two thousand civilians – a staggering total that amounted to more than ten percent of the young country’s population at the start of the war. The bittersweet memory of miraculous triumph and irreplaceable loss is immortalized every year during Israel’s consecutive national memorial and independence days.

IDF soldiers remember the fallen on Memorial Day

Unfortunately, the long tale of Israel’s fight for survival did not end in 1949. Subsequent decades saw the IDF pitted again and again against the armies of Israel’s hostile neighbors who had not abandoned their mission of destroying the Jewish state. Time after time, the country’s young men and women were called upon to join the ranks of the IDF, to raise up arms and defend their home with the following simple and powerful motivation: victory is the only option. 

Today, sixty five years later, Israel is still fighting for its survival. Though the nature of the threats has changed and control of the battlefield is no longer contested between the armies of two opposing states, the struggle is still very real. Israel’s security forces must now contend with terror organizations, hiding and fighting from within civilian populations, seeking to attack and kill Israelis in their homes. The IDF’s strategy has adapted to face these threats and stands, according to Maj. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, on the four pillars of deterrence, advanced warning, decisiveness and defense.

In 2013, the Israel Defense Forces is a mighty, sophisticated and decisive military with state of the art technology, powerful and precise weaponry, penetrating intelligence capabilities, and formidable ground, naval and aerial forces. Its soldiers, men and women from every sector of the population, continue to dedicate their lives to protecting the country and its people.