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Do the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Provide Effective Security?

Due to security concerns, operations have become hasty, prioritizing immediate response over long-term strategic objectives.

Security Concerns: IDF artillery forces fired into the Gaza Strip on July 16 as part of Operation Protective Edge.

I am referring to the book ‘On War’ by Dr. Haim Assa and Prof. Yosef Agassi, which includes references to the works of Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz (1832), the Israeli philosopher Gershon Weiler (1984), and ‘War and Peace Between Nations’ (1962) by French philosopher Raymond Aron.

According to these scholars, the Battle of Waterloo marks the last example of past conflicts, thus signifying a turning point in the conception of war.

A crucial question raised in the book about whether the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is effectively safeguarding Israel’s security. This issue has been critically analyzed since the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and conclusions have been drawn over time. In my assessment, the tangible threats from Israel’s neighboring countries have decreased since then.

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It becomes challenging to envision a scenario where our neighbors, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, or Iran, would be motivated to attack Israel. It is more likely that a source of concern arises from militant militias established in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, operating within civilian populations. 

Throughout the 38 years of Hezbollah’s existence and the 36 years of Hamas’ establishment, military operations have always targeted these militias rather than states. Due to security concerns, operations have become hasty, prioritizing immediate response over long-term strategic objectives.

The apparent goal of the enemy is to trigger a military escalation that the Israeli government does not desire. As a result, Israel’s responses seem to primarily react to infringements on its sovereignty, seeking to convey a clear message to its citizens: attacks against our soldiers and fellow citizens will not be tolerated, and we will respond firmly. These conflicts have not led to the enemy’s defeat; at best, they have established short periods of calm. They have not fundamentally altered the power dynamics or achieved fundamental strategic objectives. If there was long-term thinking, it was limited to the short term.

In contrast, the militias aim for longer-term strategic objectives: to weaken Israel militarily, economically, and morally while seeking to enhance their image and legitimacy on the global stage. In most cases, the Israeli political narrative has not prevailed over its adversaries’ propaganda. As a result, a portion of the population has lost confidence in its leaders, and questions about the moral legitimacy of causing civilian deaths have intensified.

Lebanon Hezbollah missiles

Has the security strategy strengthened or weakened Israel?

The IDF is recognized as one of the most powerful armed forces in the region. It comprises approximately 621,500 active-duty soldiers and reserves (2014), with an annual budget exceeding 74.251 billion shekels, representing around 5% of the GDP. 

In addition to its obvious military responsibilities, the IDF was involved in various civilian sectors such as education, religion, justice, settlement dismantling, managing protests, and, more recently, contributing to the field of healthcare (COVID-19).

However, when comparing this military power to the IDF’s achievements since the Yom Kippur War, it appears that the significant investment made in the IDF has not yielded the expected results. One may wonder if its power is directly proportional to the success of its operations. A series of failures is evident. The robustness of the tool on which our security rests has been counterproductive. Its imposing weight hampers it while providing some with an illusion of security.

Many experts increasingly proposed transforming the IDF into a professional army, thus abandoning the myth of the “people’s army.” I do not intend to engage in this debate but rather question the relevance of the IDF’s presence. It may seem absurd to question its usefulness. I do not claim that Israel’s existence is not subject to security threats. Nor am I trying to argue that doing away with an army equates to abandoning security. This issue is not exclusive to the IDF but is relevant to most armies worldwide. I intend to highlight that the military tool in Israel’s possession proves inadequate in effectively fulfilling its mission. Its mere existence obstructs the exploration of necessary solutions to ensure a country’s defense in harmony with its neighbors despite the threats emanating from restless militias and unpredictable terrorism.

In this context, consider a redesign of Israel’s security approach. Such a reevaluation should take into account the specific challenges the country faces while contemplating a more targeted and effective approach. The substantial resources currently allocated to the IDF could be redirected toward other crucial sectors of the country, such as education, health, and economic development. Furthermore, actively seeking diplomatic and political solutions to resolve conflicts with militias and neighboring countries is imperative, rather than primarily relying on military responses. Negotiation and diplomacy have the potential to ease tensions and forge lasting agreements, thus contributing to regional stability.

In summary, although the IDF is renowned as a powerful armed forces, its effectiveness in addressing Israel’s security challenges since the Yom Kippur War raises questions. A more nuanced approach, combining long-term strategic thinking and the joint use of military, diplomatic, and political means, could prove more fruitful in ensuring Israel’s security and a peaceful future for the region.

Edge of Tomorrow
IDF Soldiers “Edge of Tomorrow” (Courtesy MoD)

Industrial Revolution and the technologies

The Industrial Revolution and the technologies it spawned transformed the nature of warfare, ushering in a new era where the civilian population became a predominant factor in defining the conflict itself. After World War II, the civilian element became crucial in leaders’ awareness. As a result, conflicting parties were hesitant to engage in open hostilities. An example is the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, which extended over 16 days and was resolved through an agreement between the two powers using the ‘red telephone,’ unlike the terrorist assassination that triggered World War I.

The assessment of civilian casualties versus military losses has become a crucial parameter in conflicts. The destruction of Hiroshima gave birth to a new form of war between great powers: the ‘Cold War,’ a 45-year period marked by the absence of direct combat and civilian losses. The US managed to outperform the USSR without resorting to direct military confrontation. This war played out on scientific, economic, social, and ideological fronts, thus redefining the very nature of future conflicts.

Henceforth, potential wars involving Israel must distinguish between the military notion, which loses meaning, and the need to consider the civilian element. As Haim Assa and Yosef Agassi’s book (p. 102) highlights, ‘The war space in which Israel operates is dominated by elites primarily attached to military components, tending to neglect the civilian element. Over time, this phenomenon has intensified.’ Having studied their work, I draw certain conclusions from their research, which approach war as a new phenomenon in human consciousness.

Hamas militia
Hamas militia. Photo Wikimedia Commons.

From the Yom Kippur War to mid-2014, twelve conflicts, generally called ‘operations’ due to their scale, have shaken Israel’s security and disrupted its civilian tranquility. Among these are Operation Litani (March 1978), the first Lebanon War known as ‘Operation Peace for Galilee’ (June-September 1982), Operation Order and Law, Operation Judgment and Retaliation, Operation Grapes of Wrath (1985-2000), the First Intifada (1987-1993), the Second Intifada (2000-2005), Operation Defensive Shield (March-May 2002), the Second Lebanon War (July-August 2006), Operation Cast Lead (December 2008), Operation Pillar of Defense (November 2012), and Operation Protective Edge (July-August 2014). 

Additionally, American conflicts that exposed Israeli civilians to tensions include the first Gulf War (January 1991) and the second Iraq War (March 2003). Notably, Israel hasn’t initiated major military operations since 2014, but the IDF has continued to face threats from enemy forces along Israel’s borders.”

In the United States, the situation remains parallel. The conflicts initiated by this global superpower since the 1950s have all led to resounding failures, resulting in the loss of millions of civilian lives. The United States has become embroiled in five deadly wars that starkly highlighted their vulnerability:

  • The Korean War (1950-1953)
  • The Vietnam War (1964-1975)
  • The First Gulf War (January 1991)
  • The conflict in Afghanistan (2001-2014)
  • The Second Iraq War (2003-2011)

None of these campaigns strengthened the United States or solidified its influence; on the contrary, they inflicted significant harm on civilian populations.

US 10th Mountain Division soldiers in Afghanistan

The military operation in Afghanistan, launched in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, is particularly symbolic. Professional and ideologically determined terrorist cells caused major damage to the ultimate symbol of American power, the Pentagon, and other military installations. 

Despite their strength, the United States was taken aback by this devastating attack and failed to find an adequate response. The harm inflicted on the moral power of the United States led to a crisis of confidence, prompting a decision to intervene. Afghanistan was designated as the target without a direct enemy, even though more relevant options, such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, could have been considered.

Since 2009, the last two American presidents have recognized the situation and refrained from engaging in new military operations. On the other hand, Putin chose to intervene in Crimea, understanding that Ukrainian resistance would not lead to a major conflict. Faced with American setbacks and the exposure of their vulnerabilities, China and Russia have strengthened their global positions, just like Iran and Turkey, which have also avoided any warlike involvement. Even the threatening rhetoric of Netanyahu and Ehud Barak towards Iran, despite its audacity, didn’t push the Iranians into a surprise attack on Israel. 

Netanyahu hesitatation

Netanyahu himself hesitates and refrains from triggering a conflict with unpredictable consequences. He also didn’t exploit Syria’s fragility for an invasion or an alliance with the actors in the conflict. Preferring air power to demonstrate strength within the country, he encounters Iranians who refrain from military reactions. Even Hamas and Hezbollah militias have avoided triggering a new conflict with potentially devastating outcomes.

Until the 18th century, European nations clashed almost every year. This dynamic has radically changed today, with an instinctive reluctance towards any military solution to conflicts. It’s not insignificant that France chose submission to the Germans at the beginning of their invasion rather than resistance. After World War II, most wars resulted in few concrete solutions and did not strengthen those involved.

Abandoning the military path is not a trivial step. How can a country defend itself in an attack if it lacks armed forces? In the past, this seemed unthinkable. However, the world is gradually moving towards renouncing the use of deadly violence against soldiers and civilians to triumph over an adversary. This evolution is driven by humanitarian considerations and the recognition that victory doesn’t depend as much on the number of lives lost among the enemy as on other parameters.

So, why not apply this realization to the Israeli army? Theoretically, it’s achievable. Nevertheless, such a powerful army would need help to revise its structure. 

Despite substantial reductions in its budget and influence since the 1970s, its essence remains unchanged. When a security problem arises, the army is the automatic recourse to which one turns. This means that it’s not the nature of the problem that triggers military usage, but rather the mere existence of this option. 

The presence and strength of the army influence security decision-makers. An institution of such magnitude, with a significant budget, large personnel, and public prestige, tends to persist. It’s complex to explain why one of the most effective armies has struggled against paramilitary militia tactics like Hamas and Hezbollah. The obvious answer is that the army isn’t the ultimate security solution. As long as it exists, generals and politicians will struggle to consider non-military alternatives.

Since the digital communications revolution of the 1980s, many sectors have undergone profound transformations worldwide. Our daily lives have been disrupted to such an extent that it’s hard to imagine the world of yesterday. 

Although the Israeli army has made adjustments, mainly through integrating new technologies, it has yet to dare to go further. Even though the old adversary has vanished and new threats have emerged, the nature of the army remains unchanged. The army’s ability to learn from its failures and better manage past conflicts is mentioned, but it must understand that its soldiers and arsenal must fit a conflict-free world.

What should we do if shells bombard us and we don’t have an army?

Let me tackle a question that’s been on people’s minds: What should we do if shells unexpectedly bombard us and we don’t have an army? Or, what alternative to the military do you suggest?

I don’t have a perfect answer. However, it’s important to consider whether the army is truly the most effective solution to combating militias and terrorism in a world without war. This is a crucial question that requires thoughtful consideration.

Our government cabinet’s security professionals must question the tool’s effectiveness for us to find suitable solutions in a changing world.

Let’s take concrete examples in this field to illustrate this reflection. A simple walk in Tel Aviv and its surroundings reveals many walls lined with fences, enclosing military quarters where offices house people bent over their computers. These defense measures are visible to all and indicate the presence of sensitive material behind them.

 Are the fences, barbed wires, control towers, and current security symbols still effectively protecting information and secrets? Does the overt exposure of different branches of the army, its units, and its geographical distribution contribute to its effectiveness, or does it hinder it? Is it necessary to make the location of military camps public to ensure our safety? Could they potentially jeopardize it? 

Are rank symbols displaying hierarchy necessary during covert operations? Does military symbols, ranks, training camps, and airports contribute to the desired discretion in the fight against terrorism? 

Wouldn’t it be wiser to conduct these activities away from all eyes, in discreet offices and facilities protected by advanced means? My goal isn’t to turn the IDF into Shin Bet or Mossad but to stimulate a mental transformation that these organizations should adapt to.

Imagine that all administration of military security is entrusted to civilian organizations, and their employees work discreetly in unidentifiable offices protected by sophisticated means. The walls and barbed wire fences should disappear, as should the insignia and military uniforms of those responsible for our security. 

The world and the enemy have changed, and our needs have changed, so it is imperative to get rid of these archaic tools quickly. Imagine Israel without an army, military camps, and soldiers in uniform. 

SUBMARINE SCANDAL Netanyahu IDF submarine Photo Kobi Gideon, GPO)
SUBMARINE SCANDAL: Netanyahu. Photo Kobi Gideon, GPO)

Submarines won’t win the fight against terrorism

Tanks, cannons, fighter jets, and submarines will not win the fight against terrorism. The entire military apparatus is ill-suited for this fight.

Isn’t it necessary to reconsider the effectiveness of the “Iron Dome” or “Arrow Project” missiles for our defense? The operational cost of an Iron Dome battery reaches one hundred million dollars. In comparison, each rocket or shell the enemy decides to launch has practically no cost. They force us to waste resources of dubious effectiveness, leading to disastrous economic consequences. Some argue that if we invested the cost of each missile in building a house for a Palestinian, we would have long since solved the terrorism problem.

It is undeniable that we live in a post-war era in our world. Yuval Noah Harari already pointed this out in his book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” as early as 2011, causing a change in mentality among many readers. Wars of the past were cruel and violent, but today, we face new realities. Terrorism is not conventional warfare, and traditional military approaches are inadequate to combat it.

The future wars will no longer take place on the battlefield but rather in economic, scientific, media, cyber, and above all, social strength and ideological dynamism. 

A country’s ability to develop a strong scientific and social infrastructure will be decisive for the progress of humanity. Investing in science, quality of life, and international cooperation will be an effective alternative to investing in weaponry.

Israel is a significant player in the Middle East and the geopolitical world of Afro-Asia. Ignoring this reality and remaining detached from the region would be a mistake. For Israel to thrive, it must overcome the ethnic, religious, and communal barriers that hinder its development and engage in a regional and global policy based on alliances and a civic and progressive vision.

The author, Yigal Bin-Nun is a research associate at Tel Aviv University’s Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas. 



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