I worked with and conducted liaison with The Israel Defense Force (IDF) for many years. This activity occurred as part of my regular duties as a US Army officer and later as a civilian executive of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Since my retirement from US government service I have had many business or religious occasions to visit Israel and to watch the IDF in action against various groups of Palestinians all over the West Bank. I have many friends who are retired or reserve members of the IDF. My observations concerning the IDF are based on that experience.
I write here of the ground force. The air force and navy are unknown to me from personal experience except that I know some of their officers from their service in joint (inter-service) assignments like general staff intelligence.
In my opinion, the IDF is an army built to very specifically suit Israel’s individual circumstances, needs, and philosophy. It is in some ways, a singular force. It actually more closely resembles the Swiss military establishment than it does a large standing force backed by reserve units in the way that the US Army is built.
The IDF ground force is essentially a reserve or militia army that keeps most of its forces in inactive status while maintaining a handful of units on active duty as a training base and a force in being to meet short term contingencies.
In this essay I am writing of the “line” of the ground forces as represented by armor, infantry, paratroop and artillery units at brigade level and below, i.e., battalion and company.
The special operations forces are a small part of Israeli capabilities and are manned and maintained on a very different basis. In many ways they are more like a “SWAT” team than a military force.
To understand the IDF ground forces as an institution, there are certain things that must be understood in order to “see” clearly the actual capabilities of this army:
- Because of the heavy reliance on reserve units filled with older, part time soldiers, any mobilization of a large number of ground force units for considerable periods of time places a heavy burden on the Israeli national economy. Mobilized reservists are lost to their jobs. Israeli soldiers are among the strongest and most skilled members of their society. They are typically well employed in the civilian world. When they are gone in military service the economy suffers. This automatically limits the scale and duration of reserve mobilizations.
- Older reserve soldiers serve in units made up almost entirely of similar reservists. These units are hard to maintain at a high level of training and readiness. Only limited amounts of training time and money are available for this necessity. As a result units are often unready for deployment into combat in an emergency. On a number of occasions this problem has caused IDF troops to be committed to combat in a less than “ready” status. In other words, troops have gone into combat with equipment not properly maintained and with insufficient unit training. It must be said that they have typically been lucky in their enemies and that if they had faced more serious enemies, they would have had a much different experience than the ones they had. In the Golan Heights the Syrians gave them a very difficult time in 1973 and in the same war their victory against Egypt featured a renewal of offensive activity under the cover a cease fire which they had accepted.
- There are no career ground force sergeants except as technicians. Unless the system has changed very recently, the IDF ground forces typically do not have career NCOs in the LINE of the combat arms. This is a structural tradition that derives originally from the Russian tsar’s army and which came to Palestine through Russian and Polish Zionist immigrants. This tradition of organization passed through the Hagenah into the IDF. The IDF “line” conscripts what amount to yearly classes of recruits and selects from them more promising soldiers who are given NCO level command responsibilities as; infantry leaders, tank commanders, artillery gun captains, etc. The IDF does have career NCOs but they are typically found in jobs of a more technical nature rather than junior combat command at the squad or platoon (section) level. As a result, junior officers (company grade) are required to perform duties that in more traditionally organized armies would be performed by sergeants. Leading a small combat or reconnaissance patrol would be an example. As a result, a non-reserve infantry or tank company in the field consists of people who are all about the same age (19-22) and commanded by a captain in his mid-20s. What is missing in this scene is the voice of grown up counsel provided by sergeants in their 30s and 40s telling these young people what it is that would be wise to do based on real experience and mature judgment. In contrast a 22 year old American platoon leader would have a mature platoon sergeant as his assistant and counselor.
- As a result of this system of manning, the IDF’s ground force is more unpredictable and volatile at the tactical (company) level than might be the case otherwise. The national government has a hard time knowing whether or not specific policies will be followed in the field. For example, the Israeli government’s policy in the present action in the Gaza Strip has been to avoid fatal shootings whenever possible. Based on personal experience of the behavior of IDF conscripts toward Palestinian civilians, I would say that the Israeli government has little control over what individual groups of these young Israeli soldiers may when given the chance to pick their own targets.
In the Christian Beit Sueur village outside Bethlehem, I have seen IDF troops shoot at Palestinian women hanging out laundry in their gardens. This was done with tank turret coaxial machine guns from within a dirt walled fort a couple of hundred yards away, and evidently just for the fun of it. In Bethlehem itself a lieutenant told me that he would have had his men shoot me in the street during a demonstration that I happened to get caught in, but that he had not because he thought I might not be a Palestinian and that if I were not the incident would have caused him some trouble. I have seen a lot of things like that.
One might say that in war, bad things happen but is the Gaza massacre actually war by any standard. Such behavior is indicative of an army that is not well disciplined and not a completely reliably instrument of state policy. In my travels in the West Bank, it has been noticeable that the behavior towards Palestinian civilians of IDF troops at roadblocks is reminiscent of that of any group of post-adolescents given guns and allowed to bully the helpless in order to look tough for each other. I think the IDF would be well advised to grow some real sergeants.
All in all, I think the IDF ground forces can best be described as a specialized tool that reflects 20th century Zionist socialist and nationalist ideals, and which have military traditions that are in no way reflective of those of the United States. They can also be justly said to have been fortunate in their enemies. The Jordanians gave them a run for their money in 1948-49. Hezbollah delivered a hint of the inherent limits in such a socio-military system in 2006 and now we are seeing whatever it is that we will see at Gaza.