A History of the IDF Through Four Decades

The Israel Defense Forces was formed in battle. Many characteristics of the IDF which are evident today, originated in the fighting of 1948: the total mobilization of the society behind the war effort, the constant introduction of new weapons and techniques during the fighting, and the need of young commanders to establish their authority by successful leadership.

In human terms, the War of Independence was Israel’s costliest war. More than 6,000 Israelis were killed and 15,000 wounded. It was one of the few instances when Israel faced almost equal forces on the other side: 35 to 45 thousand Israeli soldiers faced 42 to 54 thousand in the combined Arab armies. Although the Arab forces were marginally better equipped than the IDF, neither side employed tanks or planes in large numbers. The war was not characterized by a definite chronology or a marked beginning and end. Instead, it consisted of 39 separate operations, fought from the borders of Lebanon to the Sinai Peninsula and Eilat. Virtually the entire Jewish population of Palestine, then numbering 650,000 people, was mobilized in order to meet the coordinated assault of five regular Arab armies, in addition to Palestine’s 1,000,000 Arabs.

A History of the IDF Through Four Decades

A unique feature of the war up to May 1948 was the “battle of the roads”. The vast majority of Palestine’s main roads ran through areas populated by Arabs, and by controlling the roads, the Arabs could effectively lay siege to many jewish settlements. There was fierce fighting along the road to Jerusalem, since losing domination of this road meant risking the loss of Jerusalem itself. As a result, the defense of the road assumed prime importance, as did the task of delivering supplies to the besieged city. Convoys of armored trucks, sometimes escorted by jeeps, made the dangerous journey along the winding, hilly road, often under attack by Arab forces. Many of the convoys did not reach Jerusalem, a factor which led to Operation Nachshon. This operation, which took place between April 3 and April 15, 1948, involved 1,500 Jewish soldiers, using arms purchased in Czechoslovakia. The operation opened the Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem road long enough to allow three long convoys bearing arms, ammunition, and supplies to reach Jerusalem. The people of Jerusalem survived on the provisions brought by these convoys until the Burma Road, the route which outflanked the Arab positions, was completed, permanently ending the siege.

A History of the IDF Through Four Decades

In the postwar years, until 1956, the Arab states maintained the military pressure by supporting terrorist and guerrilla infiltration across the borders. The continual pressure on the Army, together with the country’s very limited financial resources and population, led to the creation of a small standing army backed by a very large reserve force. The principle was Swiss, with major modifications.

The first test of this system came in the 1956 Sinai Campaign. More than 100 thousand soldiers were mobilized within seventy-two hours; the Israel Air Force (IAF) was fully operational within forty-three hours. Subsequent improvements have reduced the time for full mobilization to a minimum.

In the early 1950s, the Armored Corps underwent a number of changes in its command structure. Because of organizational flux and low standards of equipment maintenance, the Corps was poorly prepared to face the growing strength of the Egyptian Army. In 1955, Czechoslovakia began to supply the Egyptians with large quantities of arms, including tanks. The General Staff was forced to undertake immediate steps to rectify the situation. The Armored Corps’ entire approach to combat was restricted to seizing strategic points and avoiding direct contact with the enemy. As a result of the Sinai Campaign, the Israeli armored doctrine was changed to one which called for maximum mobility and for actively seeking out the enemy. This change in turn affected the role of the infantry. The new emphasis on mobility was designed to prevent the enemy from regrouping. The success of the tank forces during the Sinai Campaign ensured that the new doctrine would find a place in the IDF.

In accordance with the new doctrine of seeking out the enemy, in the summer of 1953 a special, secret unit was established (unit “101”) to retaliate against Arab infiltration across the borders by striking at guerrilla bases inside enemy territory. The unit never comprised more than forty-five soldiers, and was integrated into the paratroopers after only five months. Nevertheless, its success in actively dealing with infiltration, as well as the mystique surrounding its operations, ensured that its style of combat had a great impact on the evolving IDF.