A Birthday for the Israel Defense Forces

The birthday of a child is usually a time for celebrating a very special, happy occasion in the life of a family. In the case of the Israel Defense Forces, however, its birthday came in the midst of an existential fear for the ability of the newborn State of Israel to even survive.


On May 14, 1948, the leader of the reborn State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the Israeli Declaration of Independence. His first order, thereafter, was to establish the Israel Defense Forces, commonly known as the IDF, or Tzahal, as it is known according to its Hebrew initials.

On May 26, 1948, the Provisional Government of the State of Israel issued Defense Army of Israel Ordinance No. 4. This ordinance, signed by Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, established the Israel Defense Forces, which would be comprised of “land forces, a navy and an air force.” In fact, it was not until May 31 that the IDF was officially set up.

Tzahal was not exactly created out of thin air. Before the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, there were a number of armed Jewish defense organizations that were operating. In addition to the Haganah and Palmach, which answered to the elected leadership of the Jewish national institutions, other armed defense groups, including the Lehi (Lohamei Herut Israel or Fighters for the Freedom of Israel) and the IZL (Irgun Zevai Le’ummi or National Military Organization), operated independently

While in May 1948 the IDF became the only legal armed force in Israel, the true integration of all the fighting forces was stretched over a period of months, not without controversies and friction in the process.

Among those who were the early troops in the IDF were immigrants from Europe, some of them Holocaust survivors and others veterans from WWII. There were also volunteers, WWII veterans, who came from the US, Britain, South Africa and other countries to help defend the new Jewish state.

Following the declaration of independence in 1948, Arab armies invaded Israel. Egypt came from the south, Lebanon and Syria from the north, and Jordan from the east, backed by Iraqi and Saudi troops, in what Azzam Pasha, Arab League secretary, speaking on Cairo radio, called “a war of extermination and a momentous massacre.”

In the initial phase of the war, the IDF was inferior in both numbers and armament. Due to a number of reasons, the Arabs never managed to exploit their superiority in numbers. The Israelis managed to successfully defend themselves in virtually all battlefields with the notable exception of East Jerusalem. After the first truce from June 11 to July 8, the Israelis managed to seize the initiative due to new troop enrollments and supplies of arms. Notable achievements of the IDF included the conquest of Eilat (Um Rashrash), Nazareth, and the capture of the Galilee and the Negev.

The war continued until July 20, 1949, when the last armistice was signed with Syria. By then, the IDF had managed to repel the Egyptians to the Gaza Strip, while Jordan took over the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

In all of the ensuing years, the IDF has fought many battles and wars with surrounding nations and with bands and individuals affiliated with terrorist groups. It is the IDF citizens’ army that has successfully provided the protective cover that has allowed Israeli society to progress and flourish and to make its mark in the world community of nations.