War of Independence
When Israel achieved its independence on May 14, 1948, the Haganah
became the de facto Israeli army. On that day, the country was
invaded by the regular forces of Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria.
Eleven days later, Israel's provisional government issued an order
that provided the legal framework for the country's armed forces.
The order established the official name Zvah Haganah Le Yisrael
and outlawed the existence of any other military force within
The dissident Irgun and Stern Gang were reluctant to disband.
Fighting between Irgun and regular military forces broke out on
June 21 when the supply ship Altalena arrived at Tel
Aviv with 900 men and a load of arms and ammunition for the Irgun.
The army sank the ship, destroying the arms, and many members
of the Irgun were arrested; both organizations disbanded shortly
thereafter. A more delicate problem was how to disband the Palmach,
which had become an elite military unit within the Haganah and
had strong political ties to the socialist-oriented kibbutzim.
Nonetheless, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister and
minister of defense, was determined to see the IDF develop into
a single, professional, and nonpolitical national armed force.
It was only through his skill and determination that the Palmach
was peacefully abolished and integrated into the IDF in January
The ranks of the IDF swelled rapidly to about 100,000 at the
height of the War of Independence. Nearly all able-bodied men,
plus many women, were recruited; thousands of foreign volunteers,
mostly veterans of World War II, also came to the aid of Israel.
The newly independent state rapidly mobilized to meet the Arab
invaders; by July 1948, the Israelis had set up an air force,
a navy, and a tank battalion. Weapons and ammunition were procured
abroad, primarily from Czechoslovakia. Three B-17 bombers were
bought in the United States through black market channels, and
shortly after one of them bombed Cairo in July 1948, the Israelis
were able to establish air supremacy. Subsequent victories came
in rapid succession on all three fronts. The Arab states negotiated
separate armistice agreements. Egypt was the first to sign (February
1949), followed by Lebanon (March), Transjordan (April), and finally
Syria (July). Iraq simply withdrew its forces without signing
an agreement. As a result of the war, Israel considerably expanded
its territory beyond the United Nations (UN) partition plan for
Palestine at the expense of its Arab neighbors. Victory cost more
than 6,000 Israeli lives, however, which represented approximately
1 percent of the population. After the armistice, wartime recruits
were rapidly demobilized, and the hastily raised IDF, still lacking
a permanent institutional basis, experienced mass resignations
from its war-weary officer corps. This process underscored the
basic manpower problem of a small population faced with the need
to mobilize a sizable army during a wartime emergency. In 1949,
after study of the Swiss reservist system, Israel introduced a
three-tiered system based on a small standing officer corps, universal
conscription, and a large pool of well-trained reservists that
could be rapidly mobilized.
In early 1955, Egypt began sponsoring raids launched by fedayeen
(Arab commandos or guerrillas) from the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza
Strip, and Jordan, into Israel . As the number and seriousness
of these raids increased, Israel began launching reprisal raids
against Arab villages in Gaza and the West Bank (see Glossary)
of the Jordan. These retaliatory measures, which cost the lives
of Arab civilians and did little to discourage the fedayeen, became
increasingly controversial both within Israel and abroad. Shortly
thereafter Israeli reprisal raids were directed against military
targets, frontier strongholds, police fortresses, and army camps.
In addition to these incidents, which at times became confrontations
between regular Israeli and Arab military forces, other developments
contributed to the generally escalating tensions between Egypt
and Israel and convinced Israeli military officials that Egypt
was preparing for a new war. Under an arms agreement of 1955,
Czechoslovakia supplied Egypt with a vast amount of arms, including
fighter aircraft, tanks and other armored vehicles, destroyers,
and submarines. The number of Egyptian troops deployed in Sinai
along the Israeli border also increased dramatically in 1956.
In July Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal; shortly thereafter
Egypt closed the Strait of Tiran, at the southern tip of Sinai,
and blockaded Israeli shipping.
Data as of December 1988