Are Israel’s armed forces destined for more decline?

By Uri Bar-Joseph Commentary by

Approximately six months before the Six-Day War, the Israeli armed forces rejected an American proposal to assist Israel in finding technological solutions to the intensifying infiltration of Palestinian guerrillas into Israel. Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin and his generals expressed the view that the right answer to the problem was increasing military pressure on Syria, rather than electronic fences that would turn Israel into another ghetto and consume the scarce manpower and financial resources that were needed to reinforce the army. Forty years later, the Israeli Army – which is by far the strongest between Morocco and the Indian subcontinent – failed to defeat a few thousand Hizbullah fighters who kept launching Katyusha rockets until the very last moment of the July-August 2006 Lebanon war.

The gap between the aggressive, lean military machine of the 1960s and the far bigger, bureaucratic and less effective army of the early 21st century was, to a large extent, the result of the June 1967 war. Before the war, Israel’s armed forces had to defend a vulnerable state, most of whose territory was within the range of Arab artillery. The territorial outcomes of the war turned Damascus, Amman, and Cairo into prey for the Israel Air Force, and the Suez Canal and its industrial area into an easy target for Israeli artillery. Most importantly, the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip made the Israeli military responsible for administering the lives of nearly 1 million Palestinian civilians.

In the first decade after the war, when Israel’s main challenge was still conventional Arab forces, the armed forces succeeded in maintaining their professional quality. This was proven in October 1973, when Israel came back from a near defeat in the first days of the war to a situation where only a United Nations resolution saved the Egyptian Army from complete destruction. But the war was Israel’s last conventional conflict. The peace treaty with Egypt rendered the Arab conventional military option more remote than ever. And even though, in the short run, the traditional threat was replaced by that of the eastern front coalition headed by Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s 1980 attack on Iran almost completely nullified that, too. The collapse of the USSR, Syria’s strategic ally, and the 1991 Gulf war that destroyed much of the Iraqi Army completed this process. The end of the Cold War left Israel’s armed forces with no real effective enemies.

In parallel to the decline of the conventional threat, the non-conventional challenge of Arab guerrilla and terrorism began to rise. The Israeli war initiative against the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1982 was the first Arab-Israel war in which the Israeli armed forces fought a relatively low-intensity conflict against a far weaker opponent. As a number of studies show, the military’s performance level in this war was quite low in comparison with past conventional conflicts. The outcome of the war was frustrating as well. Although most of the Palestinian force was destroyed and the PLO was expelled from Lebanon, Israel suffered many casualties. And when it withdrew from the territory it had occupied three years earlier, it left behind a new type of enemy: Hizbullah.

The outbreak of the first Palestinian intifada in late 1987 intensified the process of decline in the quality of the Israeli Army. If, until then, policing the Occupied Territories was only the armed forces’ secondary mission, it now became its primary one. This type of activity can erode the quality of any army and the Israeli Army was no exception.

The brilliant military historian Martin van Creveld warned in the aftermath of the intifada: “The troops now look upon mostly empty-handed Palestinian men, women, and children as if they were in fact a serious military threat. Among the commanders, the great majority can barely remember when they trained for and engaged in anything more dangerous than police-type operations; in the entire [Israeli armed forces] there is now hardly an officer left who has commanded so much as a brigade in real war.”

This analysis fully materialized in the years that followed. The unilateral withdrawal in 2000 from Israel’s self-proclaimed “security zone” in Southern Lebanon ended the low-intensity conflict with Hizbullah that had proven to be an effective rival, leaving fighting the Palestinians during the second intifada as the Israeli military’s sole activity. Since September 2000, thousands of soldiers have spent their entire military service at roadblocks, patrolling refugee camps or guarding settlements, far away from their tanks, artillery pieces and armored personnel carriers – thus becoming a professionally degenerate military force. The final outcome was vividly exposed in last year’s Lebanon war. In this sense, the seeds of Israel’s failure to decisively defeat Hizbullah were planted in the refugee camps of Jenin and Balata and in numerous roadblocks along dirt roads in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The performance of Israel’s ground forces during the Lebanon war triggered a considerable effort to upgrade their professional quality. At the same time, however, the continuation of the occupation is likely to undermine this effort. Thus, the irony of history is that one of the long-term results of the June 1967 war is the constant deterioration in the quality of the proud and professional army that in 1967 achieved one of the most brilliant victories in history.

Uri Bar-Joseph is a senior lecturer in the Division of International Relations at the School of Political Science, University of Haifa. His most recent book is “The Watchman Fell Asleep: The Surprise of Yom Kippur and Its Sources” (SUNY Press, 2005). This commentary first appeared at, an online newsletter.



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