Even more than most defense forces, the IDF has been a key community builder. Regional political and military conditions have necessitated a strong defense rooted in the people, with extensive mobilization in crisis and war. The popular anchorage, carried on from the liberation war, is central to the IDF’s identity. This is reflected in both recruitment, doctrine, responsibilities and ethical frameworks. Security is an overarching political issue in Israel, and the defense force plays a key social role in this regard.
Service in the IDF has long been of great importance for social reputation and careers in Israeli society, both in politics and business. A number of senior Israeli officers have joined the policy, including Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, while Benjamin Netanyahu has a past in the special forces. Military duty has also played a crucial role over the years in integrating the many Jewish immigrants into Israel. The IDF has its own educational battalion which, among other things, helps teach immigrants Hebrew language, Jewish culture and history, and Israeli community structure.
General military service – for both men and women – was introduced already from the establishment of the IDF. In the same way that Haganah, which had also mobilized widely, the IDF was to be a popular defense organization. The idea was that the people themselves would fight, there should be no institution fighting on behalf of the people. This idea also permeates today’s IDF. This is the essence of the Civil Service Act of 1949, which laid the formal basis for the close ties between the IDF and Israeli civil society. Check Computerannals to see more articles about this country and Middle East.
The law has been amended several times, most recently in 2014 when the exemption for Orthodox (Hasidic) Jews studying at a religious school (Yeshiva) was repealed. Only Jews and druggists have military service, while Christians and Muslims can volunteer. Also, some Jews without Israeli citizenship choose to serve a limited IDF military service through the Mahal program. Others participate as volunteers in support functions through the international program Sar-El, from 1983. Norwegian citizens have also participated in these programs.
The duty of protection has mostly consisted of a first-time service of 36 months for men and 21 months for women. In addition, duty service comes in the reserve forces – in principle four weeks a year, in practice less. In 2014, the first-time service for men was reduced to 32 months. There are a number of exceptions for women, who traditionally also do not hold positions in combat setups – though some have been opened – and who are mostly used for administrative functions, including as instructors.
The IDF has traditionally had widespread support in Israeli society, where earned military service – and even more so: military career – has contributed to the reputation. There has been little social acceptance for not earning first-time service. Criticism against the IDF has long been unacceptable, at the same time as military affairs are partly subject to media censorship in Israel. After the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, however, widespread protests against Israel’s war in the country came, and a peace movement emerged. Within the IDF, criticism has been particularly linked to more police service in the occupied area. The war in Lebanon and the operations in the occupied territories have weakened to some extent the moral foundation of the IDF in the population. At the same time, economic development of a more modern society has contributed to weakening the close relations between the IDF as a genuine people’s defense – by the people and by the people. Some of this original tradition, with Haganah’s roots in the political left and Palmach’s anchorage in the kibbutz movement, is safeguarded through the Nahal Brigade, which combines military defense with the development of the country. Establishment of settlements was, and is, part of the Israeli political-military strategy.
It is particularly secular Ashkenazi youth who have been the backbone of the IDF. Over the years, this group has established itself in the upper strata of Israeli society, and the motivation to serve in the IDF – the sense of duty to the State of Israel – has been declining, especially after the third Lebanon war, in 2006. A study of this, with aim of drawing lessons was carried out by the Winograd Commission. It criticized, among other things, the IDF for not being well enough prepared for the invasion, including for poor intelligence on Hezbollah’s capabilities, failing logistics and the failure to rescue the two captured soldiers who would release the operation. There has been criticism for several periods that the IDF has taken an arrogant attitude towards its own ability, as a result of the numerous military successes against Arab states.
Internationally and partly nationally, the IDF has been particularly criticized for attacks that have affected civilians. This has been the case since the first counterterrorism retaliatory actions in the 1950s and to the air strikes against the Gaza Strip in the 2000s. The Israeli Defense Forces were also strongly criticized for their responsibility for the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, and for the protection of a United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) position in Qana, southern Lebanon in 1996.