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Historical Background

Ancient Jewish military tradition is deeply rooted in biblical history and begins with Abraham, who led an ad hoc military force. Joshua, who conquered Canaan, is an early hero, and David, who captured Jerusalem, is regarded by Israeli Jews as their greatest king and warrior. Solomon organized and maintained the first standing Jewish army (see Ancient Israel , ch. 1).

Little in the way of military tradition arose out of the nearly 2,000 years of the Diaspora. In fact, the lack of military prowess in the Jewish communities of the Diaspora was commonly viewed as a cause of their hardships and became a major motivation for building a strong defense establishment within Israel. As a result of the Russian pogroms of the 1880s, a small number of Jews began settling in the area of Palestine and, determined to end the centuries of persecution, created self-defense units called Shomrim, or Guardsmen, to protect the early settlements. In 1909 the Shomrim were formally organized throughout the area of Jewish settlement in Palestine and renamed HaShomer, or the Watchmen. Although HaShomer numbered fewer than 100 men at the organization's peak, these armed militias became extremely important to Israeli military tradition. Many members of HaShomer joined the Jewish Legion, which fought with the British against imperial Germany during World War I. They also established a precedent of armed self-defense of the Zionist movement, which during the War of Independence in 1948 would flower into the IDF.

Increasing tensions between the Arab communities and the growing Jewish communities of Palestine brought the need to expand the capacity of the Yishuv (see Glossary) for self-defense (see Events in Palestine: 1908-48 , ch. 1). In 1920, after serious Arab disturbances in Jerusalem and in northern Palestine, HaShomer militias were disbanded and replaced by the Haganah (abbreviation for Irgun HaHaganah, Defense Organization), which was intended to be a larger and more wide-ranging organization for the defense of all Palestinian Jewry. By 1948, when it was disbanded so that the IDF would be the sole Israeli military organization, the Haganah was a force of about 30,000.

The Haganah, financed originally through the Zionist General Federation of Laborers in the Land of Israel (HaHistadrut HaKlalit shel HaOvdim B'Eretz Yisrael, known as Histadrut) and later through the Jewish Agency (see Glossary), operated clandestinely under the British Mandate, which declared the bearing of unauthorized arms by Palestinian Jews to be illegal. Arms and ammunition were smuggled into the country, and training was conducted in secret. In addition to guarding settlements, the Haganah manufactured arms, built a series of roads and stockades throughout Palestine to facilitate defense, and organized and defended groups of Jewish immigrants during periods under the Mandate when immigration was illegal or restricted.

Arab attacks on Jewish communities in 1921 and 1929 found the Haganah ill-equipped and ineffective: more than 100 Jews were killed in 1929 alone. When renewed Arab rioting broke out in Jaffa (Yafo) in 1936 and soon spread throughout Palestine, the Mandate authorities--realizing that they could not defend every Jewish settlement--authorized the creation of the Jewish Settlement Police, also known as Notrim, who were trained, armed, and paid by the British. In 1938 a British intelligence officer, Captain Orde Charles Wingate, organized three counterguerrilla units, called special night squads, manned by British and Jewish personnel. As both of these organizations contained a large number of Haganah members, their formation greatly increased the assets of the Haganah while providing a legal basis for much of their activities. Although these nearly continuous disturbances from 1936 to 1939 cost the lives of nearly 600 Jews and more than 5,000 Arabs, Israeli observers have pointed out that Jewish casualties would have been far greater were it not for the increasing effectiveness of these paramilitary units (see The Palestinian Revolt, 1936-39 , ch. 1).

During these disturbances, the Haganah's policy of havlaga, or self-restraint, under which retaliation against the Arab community at large was strictly forbidden, was not aggressive enough for some. Under Vladimir (Zeev) Jabotinsky and later Menachem Begin, these dissidents in 1937 established the National Military Organization (Irgun Zvai Leumi, known both as the Irgun and by the acronym Etzel). Initially the Irgun waged a campaign of terror, sabotage, and reprisal against the Arabs. After the British government issued a white paper in May 1939 extending the Mandate for ten years and placing limits on Jewish immigration, however, the Irgun turned its terrorist activities against the British troops in Palestine in an all-out struggle against the Mandate authority.

With the outbreak of World War II, Irgun leaders settled on a policy of cooperation with the British in the war effort; but a hard core within the organization opposed the policy and accordingly split off from the larger body. This group, led by Avraham Stern, formed the Fighters for Israel's Freedom (Lohamei Herut Israel--Lehi), known as the Stern Gang. The Stern Gang, which included Begin and later Yitzhak Shamir, specialized in the assassination of British and other officials. At their peaks, the Irgun contained about 4,000 men; the Stern Gang, 200 to 300. Defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 precipitated a resumption of anti-British activities by both Haganah and Irgun in pursuance of their common ultimate goal, the establishment of a national home and the creation of a sovereign Jewish state.

During World War II, about 32,000 Palestinian Jews, both men and women, volunteered for the British army. In 1944 about 5,000 of these were formed into the Jewish Brigade, which fought successfully in Italy in 1945. With so many of its members serving abroad, the ranks of the Haganah were depleted, and in 1941 its leaders decided to raise a mobile force--the Palmach (abbreviation of Pelugot Mahatz--Shock Forces--see Glossary)--of approximately 3,000 full-time soldiers, whose mission was to defend the Yishuv. Trained with the aid of the British, the Palmach was the first full-time standing Jewish army in more than 2,000 years and is considered the direct forerunner to the IDF. For many years, the vast majority of IDF officers were veterans of either the Palmach or the Jewish Brigade.

Data as of December 1988

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