Israel's 'People's Army' at War


Jan 16, 2024

An Israeli soldier crouches near a column of military vehicles moving out of the Gaza Strip, January 15, 2024, photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

An Israeli soldier crouches near a column of military vehicles moving out of the Gaza Strip, January 15, 2024

Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on Foreign Policy on January 13, 2024.

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, a parade of U.S. defense officials, politicians, former generals, and defense policy wonks have offered advice—largely unsolicited—about how Israel should conduct its offensive in Gaza, based upon the lessons the United States learned from its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of these recommendations have centered on the need to protect the civilian population during the ongoing fighting and plan for the day the war ends, if only to prevent a power vacuum and subsequent insurgency. Much to this group's increasing frustration, a lot of the advice has gone unheeded.

There are many reasons why Israel has so far chosen to ignore these recommendations. For starters, Iraq and Afghanistan were much larger and half a world away; Gaza is far smaller, more compact, and right next door to Israel. The Israel-Hamas war is also bound up in the long and troubled history of Israeli-Palestinian relations. And then, of course, there is the fact that most Americans leave unspoken: The United States lost the Afghanistan War and produced, at best, a muddled outcome in Iraq. Neither war is a great selling point for the U.S. model for fighting an insurgency or a group like Hamas.

And yet, on top of these considerations of military strategy and tactics, there is another important factor at play, just below the surface. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is fundamentally different from the U.S. military. Its relationship with society, cultural predilections, and individual norms of behavior are uniquely its own. And so, despite outsiders' advice and pressure to the contrary, the way it fights in Gaza is—and will continue to be—different, too.

At the Ben Gurion Airport gift shop, there are T-shirts showing a tank, an attack helicopter, and a fighter jet, along with the slogan “America Don't Worry—Israel Is Behind You.” The motto is drenched in irony. After all, Israel receives more than $3 billion a year in aid from the United States, and the F-16 fighter jet and AH-64 Apache helicopter emblazoned on the shirt are both U.S.-made. But the shirts also capture Israel's prewar idolization of its military—a mixture of nationalism and a deep-seated, if misplaced, belief in the invincibility of its military prowess. Prior to this war, there was an unspoken contract: For all the turmoil and chaos in Israeli society and politics, the military would always be there to keep citizens safe.

Israelis' relationship with their military is distinct from Americans' relationship with U.S. Armed Forces. Americans' reverence for their military comes largely from their isolation from it. Fewer than one percent of Americans serve on active duty—often drawn from military families—and all do so by choice. For better or worse, since the end of conscription in 1973, the U.S. military has increasingly become a warrior caste separate from society. Paradoxically, as fewer and fewer Americans have firsthand connections to their military, its popularity has grown.

The IDF is fundamentally different from the U.S. military. Its relationship with society, cultural predilections, and individual norms of behavior are uniquely its own.

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By contrast, the IDF is at its core a draft military, not a professional one. Although pundits often acknowledge this fact, few fully internalize what this means. The IDF was deliberately designed to be what Israel's founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, called a “people's army,” both a reflection of society and the glue that binds the people together. While there was an active debate about whether the IDF should move to an all-professional force and tension over the ultra-Orthodox exemption from the draft, the IDF still pulls from Israeli society across ethnic and religious lines, with Druze, Bedouins, and other non-Jewish Israelis serving in the IDF as well.

And yet, despite the draft—or perhaps because of it—the IDF enjoys a special place in Israeli society. While confidence in the military had more recently been slipping (just like in the United States), more than three-quarters of Jewish Israelis still expressed “very much or quite a lot” of trust in the IDF in 2021. The IDF's senior ranks are household names in Israel, and they often enter politics after retiring from the service. Military funerals are broadcast on live television. Israelis observe a moment of silence on their memorial day to commemorate the fallen, rather than it being a day for barbecues and store sales, like in the United States.

The Oct. 7 terrorist attack shook Israelis' relationship with the IDF to its very foundations. That morning, the IDF failed not only to protect the Israeli public in one of the largest losses of Jewish life in a single day since the Holocaust, but it failed to even protect its own: At least 274 Israeli soldiers, plus dozens of local security officials, were killed on one of the bloodiest days in Israeli military history. Some of these soldiers—like the ill-fated female soldiers tasked with watching the Gaza border—were unarmed when they were slaughtered by Hamas attackers. Over the course of a single morning, Hamas shattered Israelis' sense of security, alongside their confidence in the omnipotence of the IDF.

The sense of personal failure and, indeed, shame—that the IDF broke its fundamental contract with the Israeli public—weighs on the minds of Israeli officers today. In my interviews with them, current and recently retired IDF officers often spoke of the need to “restore the trust” in the IDF, not only as an institution but also as one of the cornerstones of national unity. And these concerns color how the officers are approaching the war in Gaza. Their fight is about more than redeeming professional honor. It is about more than simply restoring security for their fellow citizens. In these officers' eyes, it's about restoring a pillar of national unity.

After Oct. 7, the IDF senior leadership wanted to charge headlong into a ground offensive in Gaza. This push is even more striking in retrospect because, according to multiple current and former Israeli security officials I spoke to, the IDF never expected that it would ever need to retake the Gaza Strip. Consequently, it had not devoted much time to planning for such a contingency prior to Oct. 7. In the end, the ground offensive was delayed for weeks, partly because of international pressure for a slower, more methodical approach. That initial urge for a quick response, however, is indicative of Israel's broader strategic approach, which is characterized by a bias for military solutions, including a preference for short-term action over longer-term strategy.

This bias for action has long defined Israel's approach to terrorism. Up through Oct. 6, 2023, Israel's general strategic approach to Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups was euphemistically called “mowing the grass”—continually targeting senior militant leaders without addressing the underlying causes of terrorism in the first place, as a way of weakening these organizations and keeping the threat of terrorism in check. The approach was more a short-term tactic rather than a long-term strategy. Nonetheless, it long served the need for an immediate solution.

The bias for action plays out in other ways as well. After the Oct. 7 attacks, Israel mobilized some 360,000 reservists—roughly four percent of the country's total population—functionally tripling the size of its force. Within days, these forces were at the front, and within weeks, some of them were fighting inside Gaza. What is all the more striking is that, prior to the war, Israel's reserve component suffered from systemic underinvestment and readiness challenges. For example, a January 2023 report from the Israeli Institute of National Security Studies found that only six percent who had finished their mandatory service met the reserve requirement of serving at least 20 days over a three-year period. During the height of the Israel-wide protests against judicial reform last year, some elite reserve units experienced absenteeism from training exercises of over 40 percent.

Contrast such rapid readiness with the U.S. system. Like Israel, the United States too relies on its reserve components to provide a significant percentage of its manpower. But, unlike Israel, its reservists train for longer—at least 38 days (PDF) each year and often longer. Even then, the working assumption is that mobilized U.S. reservists will require several months of additional training before any reserve units are ready for combat. Admittedly, Israel's tiny size and precarious strategic situation likely prohibits such a methodical employment of its reserves. Nonetheless, it does mean that the IDF entrusts a lot of firepower to soldiers who have been out of uniform for a while.

Moreover, Israel's reserve-heavy force structure actually reinforces its preexisting bias for action. By taking so many reservists out of the civilian sector—an estimated 10 percent to 15 percent of the country's technology workforce alone—Israel has a strong incentive to fight and win quickly, if only to forestall significant economic disruption. Once the war starts, the clock begins ticking as pressure mounts for the IDF to demobilize much of its force structure. And so the IDF is culturally and structurally incentivized to fight and win as quickly as possible.

While the IDF as an institution failed on Oct. 7, the day is also replete with stories of incredible personal bravery. For example, there is the retired major general who, after hearing about the attack, grabbed his pistol and headed south to rescue his son's family, but then delayed his one-man rescue mission for many hours to save other Israelis along the way. At least two other long-retired major generals—both in their 60s—also donned their old uniforms to help. There are also the all-female tank crews who—absent almost all direction—jumped into action, engaging dozens of Hamas militants and saving some of the southern kibbutzim. There are countless other, similar stories of heroism, all of which capture one of the most admirable aspects of Israeli military culture: Time and again, its soldiers run toward the sound of the guns—regardless of rank or age, sometimes without orders, and often at tremendous personal risk.

The Oct. 7 terrorist attack shook Israelis' relationship with the IDF to its very foundations.

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Although the U.S. system also promotes personal initiative, it is in a different structural context. Infantry officers are drilled on the Ranger creed about never leaving a fallen comrade behind, and they train close to the giant “Follow Me” statue near the Infantry School at Fort Moore. But unlike the IDF, the U.S. military also builds in guardrails against over-eagerness. One such guardrail is the noncommissioned officer corps—the so-called backbone of the U.S. military. These officers spend the bulk of their careers at the tactical level, maintain discipline in the force, and—most importantly—temper youthful bravado with experience. And so, in every platoon, with every eager, freshly minted 22-year-old officer, there is also the grizzled 30-something sergeant by his side.

By contrast, Israel lacks the same structural constraints of the United States' and other Western nations' militaries. Although the IDF maintains the rank of sergeant, it is primarily an officer-led military, and, because of the draft, the officers tend to be younger than their American counterparts—leaving 20-somethings leading draftees in their late teens. Perhaps it's no wonder, then, that U.S. military observers of IDF units are often surprised by the informality and seeming inattention to basic military protocol.

And this inattention plays out in combat, too. Israelis will tell you—with pride—that their officers lead from the front. But such bravery comes at a cost, and the data from the current Gaza war bears this out: Officers—from lieutenants to full colonels—comprise roughly a quarter of all combat losses the IDF has suffered in the war so far. As any soldier will tell you, when leaders are removed from the fight, it takes a toll on the unit and results in a system where bravery can slip into bravado. Indeed, if one looks at the alleged abuses reported by IDF whistleblowers, many of them revolve around incidents where soldiers' baser instincts were not checked. One cannot help but wonder whether a larger presence of older, noncommissioned sergeants—and fewer officer casualties—would have created a more disciplined force and, ultimately, avoided some of these problems.

This lack of soldier discipline matters in the conduct of the war today, particularly as the IDF clears out Hamas strongholds in Khan Younis, the central Gazan refugee camps, and elsewhere. But it will matter even more when the war winds down and the conflict moves into a reconstruction phase. In some sense, decisions about when and when not to pull the trigger become all the more important once the main fighting is over, because a single incident can upend months of stabilization efforts. Unfortunately, this is not something the IDF is currently well-structured for.

At its core, what many American observers miss—or choose to ignore—is that the IDF is not the U.S. military. Sure, the IDF may be largely equipped with U.S. weapons, and many of its officers speak English. Its leaders will even read U.S. military doctrine and write in U.S. defense publications. Despite this seeming familiarity, however, the IDF grew out of a very different societal context, and it is culturally and structurally distinct from its U.S. counterpart.

Because the IDF is a very different kind of military, it will fight a very different type of war. The United States wants Israel to go slow, when the IDF is culturally and structurally designed to fight fast and hard. The United States wants Israel to be restrained and disciplined, when the IDF is institutionally designed to be the opposite. The United States may want the Israeli strategy to be cool and detached, but for the military and its leaders charged with executing this war, the fight is deeply personal.

In other words, the United States may want Israel to fight like the U.S. military did in Iraq. But Israel views its war as an existential, society-wide struggle more akin to World War II than the Iraq War, which was a war of choice fought by professionals half a world away. With the rockets still falling on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; active fighting in Gaza, Lebanon, the Red Sea, and beyond; and surging global anti-Israel sentiment, the IDF sees itself fighting on all fronts. That's a mindset that the U.S. military has not had to confront in at least three-quarters of a century.

The World War II analogy hints at how American observers may best be able to shape the situation to better tackle the longer-term challenges ahead. The war against Hamas will transform the IDF as an institution in ways similar to how World War II created a new U.S. military. Israel has already announced that it expects the war to last through 2024, making it one of the longest in Israeli history. The burst of volunteer enlistment from all segments of Israeli society—from ultra-Orthodox Jews to retirees—suggests that Israel will at least restore the social contract with its military, if not create an entirely new one. Just what that new force looks like, though, remains an open question.

One of the United States' less talked about, but perhaps more impressive, accomplishments of World War II was that it built a force that could not only win the war, but also transition into one able to win the peace that followed. Washington began planning and building the different types of forces it would need for postwar administration and reconstruction years ahead of time. And just as importantly, the United States turned its military's mindset from one focused on defeating Germany and Japan to helping rebuild those societies.

Israel's challenge is similar but even more difficult, given Israel's troubled history with the Palestinians not just during the current conflict, but in the 75 years since its founding. If the United States can help the IDF win this crucial next fight—one that's mostly fought without bombs and bullets—then Israelis, Palestinians, and the entire region will be all the better for it.

Raphael S. Cohen is the director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program at the Rand Corporation's Project Air Force.