Israel Defense Forces

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Israel Defense Forces
Image:IDF badge.gif
Military manpower
Military age 18 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 GDP 9.4% (FY99)

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The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) (Hebrew: צבא ההגנה לישראל ("[Army] Force for the Defense of Israel"), often abbreviated צה"ל Tsahal, alternative English spelling Tzahal, is the name of Israel's armed forces, comprising the Israel army, Israel air force and Israel 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 operational branch, the Palmach) and former elements of the Jewish Brigade that fought under the British flag during World War II. See also Jewish legion.

After the establishment of the IDF, the two Jewish underground organizations the Etzel and Lehi joined with the IDF in a loose confederation, but were allowed to operate independently in some sectors until the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war; after which these two organizations were eventually disbanded.



See main article: History of the Israel Defense Forces for a detailed history of the IDF.


Service and manpower

Regular Service

National military service is compulsory for Jewish men and women over the age of 17, although exemptions may be made on religious, physical, pacifist or psychological grounds (see Profile 21). The fact that an increasing number of men in the Haredi community are exempt has been a source of tension in Israeli society.

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 undergo a lengthy period of training, and it is in the interests of the IDF to get as much use of that training as possible. Women in combat positions are also required to serve as reserve for several years after their dismissal from regular service.

Reserve Service

Following regular service, men may be called for reserve service of up to one month annually, until the age of 43-45 (reservists may volunteer after this age), and may be called for active duty immediately in times of crisis. In most cases, the reserve duty is carried out in the same unit for years, in many cases the same unit as the active service and by the same people. Many soldiers who have served together in active service continue to meet in reserve duty for years after their discharge, causing reserve duty to become a strong male bonding experience in Israeli society. A well-known Israeli joke refers to civilians as soldiers on 11-month furloughs.

Although still available to be called up in times of crisis, most Israeli men, and virtually all women, do not actually perform reserve service in any given year. Units do not always call up all of their reservists every year, and a variety of exemptions are available if called for regular reserve service. Virtually no exemptions exist for reservists called up in a time of crisis, but experience has shown that in such cases (most recently, Operation Defensive Shield in 2002) exemptions are rarely requested or exercised; units generally achieve recruitment rates above those considered fully-manned.

Recently, legislation has been proposed for reform in the reserve service, lowering the maximal service age to 40, designating it as a purely emergency force, as well as many other changes to the current structure (although the Defence Minister can suspend any portion of it at any time for security reasons). The age threshold for many reservists whose positions are not listed, though, will be fixed at 49. The legislation is set out to take effect by 13 March 2008. The Hapashim Forum (פורום החפ"שים), a movement for reform in the reserve service, however, criticized the new legislation in being "at worse, a bad joke, and at best, another push for total collapse of the reserve force."

Minorities in the IDF

A soldier joins gay pride events in Jerusalem, Israel. The Israel Defense Forces allow service without distinction to sexual orientation.
A soldier joins gay pride events in Jerusalem, Israel. The Israel Defense Forces allow service without distinction to sexual orientation.

Druze Arabs and Circassians, like Israeli Jews, serve mandatory service in the IDF. In recent years, some Druze officers have reached positions in the IDF as high as Major General and many have received orders of distinction.

Service is not mandatory for all other Israeli minorities (notably Israeli Arabs but also Black Hebrews and others). However, a large number of Bedouin, as well as some Christian Arabs and even a few Muslim Arabs, 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), who received the Order of Distinction. Recently, a Bedouin officer was promoted to the rank of Colonel.

No direct social benefits are tied to completion of military service, but doing so is sometimes required for attaining security clearance and serving in some types of government positions (in most cases, security-related), as well as some indirect benefits. Israeli Arabs claim that this puts them at a disadvantage vs. non-Arab Israeli citizens. According to the 2004 U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Israel and the occupied territories, "Israeli Arabs were not required to perform mandatory military service and, in practice, only a small percentage of Israeli Arabs served in the military. Those who did not serve in the army had less access than other citizens to social and economic benefits for which military service was a prerequisite or an advantage, such as housing, new-household subsidies, and employment, especially government or security-related industrial employment. Regarding the latter, for security reasons, Israeli Arabs generally were restricted from working in companies with defense contracts or in security-related fields." In recent years, there have been several initiatives to enable Israeli Arabs to volunteer for civilian National Service instead of to the IDF, completion of which would grant the same privileges as those granted to IDF veterans. However, this plan has gained strong resistance from Arab members of the parliament, and as a result, have not been implemented yet.

Women in the IDF

Israel has female conscription, but about a third of female conscripts (more than double the figure for men) are exempted, mainly for religious reasons.

Following their active service, women, like men, are in theory required to serve up to one month annually in reserve duty. However, in practice only some women in combat roles get called for active reserve duty, and only for a few years following their active service, with many exit points (e.g., pregnancy).

Women were historically barred from battle in the IDF, serving in a variety of technical and administrative support roles, except during the 1948 war of independence, when manpower shortages saw many of them taking active part in battles on the ground. But after a landmark 1994 High Court appeal by Alice Miller, a Jewish immigrant from South Africa, the Air Force was instructed to open its pilots course to women (several served as transport pilots during the war of independence in 1948 and "Operation Kadesh" in 1956, but the Air force later closed its ranks to women fliers). Miller failed the entrance exams, but since her initiative, many additional combat roles were opened. As of 2005, Women are allowed to serve in 83% of all positions in the military, including Shipboard Navy Service (except submarines), and Artillery. Combat roles are voluntary for women.

As of 2002, 33% of lower rank Officers are women, 21% of Captains and Majors, but only 3% of the most senior ranks.

450 Women currently serve in combat units of Israel's security forces, primarily in the Border Police. The first female fighter pilot successfully received her wings in 2001. In a controversial move, the IDF abolished its "Womens Corps" command in 2004, with a view that it has become an anachronism and a stumbling block towards integration of women in the army as regular soldiers with no special status. However, after pressures from Feminist lobbies, The Chief of Staff was persuaded to keep an "advisor for Women's affairs".

Expenditures and alliances

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 a Joint Political Military Group, which convenes 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. Israel has the official distinction of being a US Major Non-NATO Ally. As a result of this, America shares the vast majority of its security and military technology with Israel.

Military structure

The following is a very partial list that does not refer to any reserve forces.

High command (General Staff)

The IDF falls under the command of a single general staff. The Chief of the General Staff (Hebrew acronym: רמטכ"ל, pronounced: Ramatkal) has the rank of (Lieutenant) General (in Hebrew: רב אלוף, pronounced: "Rav Aluf") and is the high commander of the IDF. He reports directly to the Defense minister and indirectly to the Prime Minister of Israel and its government. Chiefs of Staff are formally appointed by the government, based on the Defense Minister's recommendation, for three years, but the government can vote to extend their service to four (and in rare occasions even five) years.

The current chief of staff is (Lieutenant) General (Rav-Aluf) Dan Halutz, who replaced Moshe Ya'alon, on June 1st, 2005.

(Also see a note about ranks below)

As of 10 June 2005, the above list is no longer up to date, though all the positions remain officially in effect for the next several months.

Ground forces

Air force

The Israeli Air Force (IAF) ( [חיל האוויר] ) consists of:


The Israel Navy ( [חיל הים] ) consists of:

  • Patrol boats
  • Missile ships flotilla
  • Submarines flotilla
  • Naval Intelligence
  • Radar units
  • Shayetet 13 - naval commando
  • Undersea missions unit
  • Harbour security unit

Military intelligence

Directorate of Military Intelligence (אגף מודיעין)


  • C4I Directorate
    • C4I (formerly Signal) Corps
  • Technological and Logistics Directorate
    • Logistics (Quartermaster) Corps
    • Ordnance Corps
    • Medical Corps
  • Manpower Directorate
  • Military Courts \ Military Attorney
  • Military Schools \ Military Academy

Regional commands

Related organisations

See also: Israel Security Forces.

Israeli military technology

Israeli modified F-16 flying over Masada.
Israeli modified F-16 flying over Masada.

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. Besides purchasing American-made weapon systems (such as the M4A1 assault rifle, F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon jets and Apache helicopter), the IDF has several large internal R&D departments.

IDF also purchases many technologies produced by the Israeli security industries including IAI, IMI, Elbit, El-Op, Rafael, Soltam and dozens of smaller firms. Many of these developments have been battle-tested in Israel's numerous military engagements, making the relationship mutually beneficial, the IDF getting tailor-made solutions and the industries a very high repute.

Main Israeli developments

An Israeli Merkava main battle tank.
An Israeli Merkava main battle tank.

Israel's military technology is most famous for its guns, armored fighting vehicles (tanks, tank-converted APCs, armoured bulldozers etc) and rocketry (missiles and rockets). Israel also designs and in some cases manufactures aircraft (Kfir, Lavi) and naval systems (patrol and missile ships, Dolphin class submarine). Much of the IDF's electronic systems (intelligence, communication, command and control, navigation etc.) are Israeli-developed, including many systems installed on foreign platforms (esp. aircraft, tanks and submarines). So are many of its precision-guided munitions.

Currently Israel is the only country in the world with an anti-ballistic missile defense system ("Hetz", or Arrow) and working with the USA on development of a tactical high energy laser system against medium range rockets (called Nautilus THEL).

Israel has the independent capability of launching reconnaissance satellites into orbit (a capability which only Russia, USA, UK, France, China, Japan and India hold). Both the satellites (Ofeq) and the launchers (Shavit) were developed by the Israeli security industries.

Israel is also said to have developed an indigenous nuclear capability, although no official details or acknowledgement were ever publicized.

Specific weapon systems

Tavor TAR-21
Tavor TAR-21
  • Aircraft platforms
    • Nesher fighter jet (upgraded Mirage V)
    • Kfir fighter jet (upgraded and improved Mirage V)
    • Nammer fighter jet
    • Lavi fighter jet (original design, prototype flown but project cancelled due to cost)
    • Arava STOL medium transport aircraft
    • Mazlat (UAV) - unmanned small aerial vehicle

Nuclear capability

See also: Israel and weapons of mass destruction

It is generally believed that Israel has nuclear weapons. The weapons were thought to have been developed at the Dimona nuclear reactor since the 1960s. The first two nuclear bombs were probably operational before the Six-Day War and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol ordered them armed in Israel's first nuclear alert during that war. It is also believed that, fearing defeat in the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Israelis assembled thirteen twenty-kiloton nuclear bombs.

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 km, meaning that it can target sites as far away as central Russia, Iran and Libya.

It has also been speculated that the Israeli Navy's three Dolphin class submarines may be capable of carrying nuclear-armed specially-modified Popeye Turbo cruise missiles. These missiles are purported to have a 1,500 km range and are supposedly fired out of what are suspected to be unusually-sized additional torpedo tubes that were allegedly installed on the Dolphin submarine and are otherwise larger than what is required to accommodate any currently known western torpedo design in existence. A test of such a missile is alleged to have taken place off the coast of Sri Lanka in May 2000. Nevertheless, some military analysts have labeled such rumors to be highly unlikely and impossible given the logistics of the submarines. Furthermore, there is no factual basis for the origins of the alleged test firing.

The Israeli government has neither acknowledged nor denied that it possesses nuclear weapons, an official policy referred to as "ambiguity". However, a formerly imprisoned ex-Dimona employee, Mordechai Vanunu, confirmed much of the earlier speculation.

Israeli Defence Forces Ranks

Enlisted דרגות חוגרים
Rank in Hebrew Abbreviations Pronounced as... US equivalent
טירון none Tiron Recruit - Private E1
טוראי none Turai Private E2
טוראי ראשון טר"ש Turai Rishon Private First Class
רב טוראי רב"ט Rav Turai Corporal
סמל none Samal Sergeant
סמל ראשון סמ"ר Samal Rishon Staff Sergeant

Under-Officers / Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) דרגות נגדים
Rank in Hebrew Abbreviations Pronounced as... US equivalent
רב סמל רס"ל Rav Samal Sergeant First Class
רב סמל ראשון רס"ר Rav Samal Rishon - Rasar First Sergeant
רב סמל מתקדם רס"מ Rav Samal Mitkadem Master Sergeant
רב סמל בכיר רס"ב Rav Samal Bakhir Sergeant Major / Warrant Officer
רב נגד רנ"ג Rav Nagad Command Sergeant Major / Chief Warrant Officer

Junior Officers דרגות קצונה זוטרה
Rank in Hebrew Abbreviations Pronounced as... US equivalent
קצין מקצועי אקדמאי קמ"א Katzin Miktzo'i Academai Academic Officer
קצין אקדמאי בכיר קא"ב Katzin Academai Bakhir Senior Academic Officer
סגן-משנה סג"מ Segen Mishne Second Lieutenant
סגן none Segen Lieutenant
סרן none Seren Captain

Senior and Supreme Officers דרגות קצונה בכירה
Rank in Hebrew Abbreviations Pronounced as... US equivalent
רב סרן רס"ן Rav Seren Major
סגן אלוף סא"ל Sgan Aluf Lieutenant Colonel
אלוף משנה אל"מ Aluf Mishne Colonel
תת-אלוף תא"ל Tat Aluf Brigadier General
אלוף none Aluf Major General
רב-אלוף רא"ל Rav Aluf Lieutenant General or General


  • If the ranks of the IDF are to be translated one-to-one to Western ranks then a "Rav Aluf" is equivalent to Lieutenant General (since Major General is "Aluf"). But since Rav Aluf in Israel is the high commander of the army (including air force and navy), the translation of it as "General" is more appropriate.
  • In the IDF, the same ranks are used throughout the army, including air force and navy. This contrasts with many other armed forced that have a separate rank system for different branches.[[2]]


Code of Conduct

In 1992, the IDF drafted a Code of Conduct that is a combination of international law, Israeli law, Jewish heritage and the IDF's own traditional ethical code - Ruach Tzahal רוח צה"ל ("The Spirit of the IDF").

Values of the Code of Conduct

The IDF Code of Conduct emphasis the following values:

  • Tenacity of Purpose in Performing Missions and Drive to Victory (חתירה לניצחון והשלמת המשימה)
  • Responsibility (אחריות)
  • Credibility (אמינות)
  • Personal Example (דוגמה אישית)
  • Human Life (ערך חיי אדם)
  • Professionalism (מקצועיות)
  • Discipline (משמעת)
  • Comradeship (רעות)
  • Sense of Mission (שליחות)
  • Purity of Arms (טוהר הנשק) - "The IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property".

Code of Conduct against terrorists

Recently, a team of professors, commanders and former judges, led by Tel Aviv University head of Ethics cathedra, Professor Assa Kasher, developed a code of conduct which emphasizes the right behavior in low intensity warfare against terrorists, where soldiers must operate within a civilian population. Reserve units and regular units alike are taught the following eleven rules of conduct, which are an addition to the more general IDF Spirit:

  1. Military action can only be taken against military targets.
  2. The use of force must be proportional.
  3. Soldiers may only use weaponry they were issued by the IDF.
  4. Anyone who surrenders cannot be attacked.
  5. Only those who are properly trained can interrogate prisoners.
  6. Soldiers must accord dignity and respect to the Palestinian population and those arrested.
  7. Soldiers must give appropriate medical care, when conditions allow, to oneself and one's enemy.
  8. Pillaging is absolutely and totally illegal.
  9. Soldiers must show proper respect for religious and cultural sites and artifacts.
  10. Soldiers must protect international aid workers, including their property and vehicles.
  11. Soldiers must report all violations of this code.

Critics, including B'Tselem and Amnesty International accuse Israel of frequently violating their own purity of arms and code of ethics, and protecting soldiers who do. Palestinians and their supporters often refer to the IDF as the "Israeli Occupation Force" (IOF). This label expresses their belief that the primary role of the IDF is maintaining an "Occupation" of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, rather than "Defense" of Israeli citizens. Some even refuse to use the official title at all, claiming it is a propaganda term.

Recent policies and tactics

Owing to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the tactics of the IDF have been adapted for low intensity warfare primarily against Palestinian militants operating from within densely-populated civilian areas. Sometimes, such clashes have resulted in deaths of nearby civilians.

Targeted killings

The IDF also employs a controversial strategy of "assassinations" (called "targeted killings") of Palestinian militant leaders.

Those policies are largely supported by Israeli society, but there are exceptions: In 2003, 27 IAF Air Force pilots composed a letter of protest to the Air Force commander, announcing their refusal to continue and perform attacks on targets within Palestinian population centers, and claiming that the occupation of the Palestinians "morally corrupts the fabric of Israeli society". This letter, the first of its kind emanating from the Air Force, evoked a storm of political protest in Israel, with most circles condemning it as dereliction of duty. IDF ethics forbid soldiers from making public political affiliations, and subsequently the IDF chief of staff announced that all the signatories would be suspended from flight duty, after which some of the pilots recanted and removed their signature.

House demolitions

IDF Caterpillar D9 Armored Bulldozer. Bulldozers have been used by the IDF throughout the conflict with the Palestinians.[1]
IDF Caterpillar D9 Armored Bulldozer. Bulldozers have been used by the IDF throughout the conflict with the Palestinians.[1]

The IDF has historically used a strategy of demolishing houses of family members of suicide bombers, claiming that this is a very effective prevention tactic: Would-be bombers' families sometimes prevent the bomber, sometimes even going as far as informing to the IDF, in the hope of preventing their family-member's death as well as their house being demolished. Some would-be bombers even relented at the last moment, fearing their parent's home would be demolished. Critics contend that effectiveness does not legitimize excessive force. They also contend that the demolitions carried out by the IDF disproportionately affect civilians, and the destruction of civilian homes as retribution for attacks is a war crime under international law. However, many Israelis accept this tactic as necessary.

During the recent conflict, the number of houses demolished has increased significantly, both as the result of an increase in the number of suicide bombers, as well as due to more lenient criteria for house demolition. The IDF now routinely demolishes houses from which shots were fired at nearby traffic or settlements, houses harboring concealed Smuggling tunnel entrances in the Gaza strip, and for other security reasons.

Another main source for house demolition is in the course of fighting. After several IDF soldiers were killed early in the conflict while searching houses containing militants, the IDF started employing a tactic of surrounding such houses, calling on the occupants (civilian and militant) to exit, and demolishing the house on top of the militants within in case they do not surrender. This tactic is now used whenever feasible (i.e., non multi-rise building that's separated from other houses). Palestinians claim several cases in which houses were demolished on top of incapacitated or deaf civilian occupants. However, the IDF claims that in the vast majority of cases the occupants were militants.

In some heavy fighting incidents, esp. in the Battle of Jenin 2002 and Operation Rainbow in Rafah 2004, heavily-armored IDF Caterpillar D9 bulldozers were used to demolish houses to widen alleyways or to secure locations for IDF troops.

Palestinians and some international organizations claim the use of bulldozers by the IDF is illegal. In one well-known incident, International Solidarity Movement activist Rachel Corrie was killed while trying to stop a bulldozer in Rafah.

In summer 2005, after numerous houses have been destroyed, the Israeli army itself came to the conclusion that these demolitions do not contribute to Israel's security and announced putting an end to this policy.

See also: urban warfare, counter terror, CQB.

See also

Related IDF articles

General related articles

External links

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