Sword of Israel:
The Israel Defense Forces, Part One

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
November 2023

Immediately after declaring the State of Israel’s existence in May 1948, David Ben-Gurion ordered the establishment of the Israel Defense Forces to protect it. Fighting had already broken out between Jewish and Arab inhabitants of the Palestine Mandate, and the declaration prompted an open invasion by the armies of neighboring Arab states.

The new state’s Jewish inhabitants were far from defenseless, but lacked the direction that Ben-Gurion hoped to give them through the new IDF. At the core of the new force would be veterans of the British Army’s Jewish Brigade, a unit recruited from Palestinian Jews that saw action in Italy and afterwards served in the occupation forces in northern Germany. Those men provided the discipline, order and training that would meld the other diverse elements into an effective fighting force.

The Deir Yassin massacre in early April 1948, conducted by members of the Irgun and Lehi militias, highlighted the need to bring Jewish forces under some form of central control. Up to 254 Palestinian Arab civilians were murdered, including women and children beheaded, disemboweled and hurled into wells. Four days later, 78 Jewish medical personnel and patients, and one British soldier, were murdered in an assault by Palestinian Arab militiamen on a clearly-marked medical convoy.

IDF soldiers outside Hebron, October 1948.

The new Israeli state’s regular army would attempt to halt the cycle of massacre and counter-massacre by enforcing a strict moral code:

The soldier shall make use of his weaponry and power only for the fulfillment of the mission and solely to the extent required; he will maintain his humanity even in combat. The soldier shall not employ his weaponry and power in order to harm non-combatants or prisoners of war, and shall do all he can to avoid harming their lives, body, honor and property.

Two of the four militias brought into the new army, the Haganah and Palmach, already had the makings of a formal structure. The largest, known as the Haganah (“Defense”) had been formed in 1920 to coordinate the armed protection of Jewish settlements in Palestine against Arab attacks. Ben-Gurion, chairman of the Jewish Agency, authorized the Haganah to begin conscripting both men and women in November 1947. By the time Israel declared independence it numbered about 30,000 troops, most of whom had received at least some training.

The Palmach had been formed by the Haganah in 1941 to fight alongside the British if Axis forces crossed the Sinai and invaded Palestine. The British at first provided funding, and afterwards the force continued to grow using a model of combining military training with agricultural work. In the years just after the Second World War, Palmach troops participated in attacks on the British occupiers, Arabs (a Palmach mortar unit took part in the attack in Deir Yassin) and other Jewish groups; its last independent action was a battle with the Irgun in June 1948.

The Irgun split from the Haganah in 1931, its members advocating more violent action against the British and Palestine’s Arab community. Irgun fighters conducted numerous attacks against the occupation forces and Arab residents during the years after the Second World War; both the United States and the United Kingdom condemned the Irgun as a terrorist organization. Menachim Begin commanded about 4,000 men at the time his group was integrated into the IDF.

Lehi, a splinter group from Irgun and sometimes called the Stern Gang, broke away in 1940 on the grounds that Nazi Germany was a lesser enemy of the Zionist cause than Palestine’s British occupiers, and the group attempted to ally with the Nazis to fight the British. While the IDF inducted some members, others continued to operate separately and in September 1948 they assassinated United Nations mediator Folke Bernadotte, leading world governments including Ben-Gurion’s to condemn Lehi as a terrorist organization.

M4 Sherman tanks in Palmach service, 1948.

The initial IDF order of battle included 12 brigades. Irgun and Lehi members were not trusted to form separate units and were instead spread across other formations.

1. Golani
Five infantry battalions numbered 11 through 15, drawn from Haganah defense forces and all stationed in northern Israel.

2. Carmeli
Initially, Moshe Carmel’s brigade had three battalions (numbered 21 through 23) detached from the 1st Brigade; one more (the 24th) was formed in the course of the 1948 war.

3. Alexandroni
Five infantry battalions (numbered 31, 32, 33, 35 and 37) and also drawn from Haganah defense forces. In the 1948 war the brigade initially besieged Jaffa, and later fought the Iraqi regular army and was mauled by the Arab Legion.

4. Kiryat
Three battalions (42, 43 and 44) formed in Tel Aviv from suburban defense organizations, the Haganah Youth Corps and Jewish members of the Tel Aviv police force.

5. Givati
Five battalions (51 through 56), with a sixth (57th) added later, all drawn from Haganah troops in central Israel. It saw action in 1948 around Jerusalem.

6. Etzioni
Also known as the Jerusalem Brigade, it formed four battalions in Jerusalem (numbered 61 through 64) including one based on students from Hebrew University and another of 16- to 18-year-old recruits. One battalion was overrun and destroyed by the Arab Legion within weeks of the brigade’s establishment.

7. Hateva Sheva
The IDF’s first mechanized formation. Initially it had three battalions, the 71st Infantry, mostly Sabras transferred from the first six brigades, the 72nd Infantry including Holocaust survivors and non-Jewish foreign volunteers, and the 73rd Armored with armored cars and half-tracks. It earned a reputation in the 1948 war for harsh treatment of prisoners and Arab civilians.

8. Armored
The IDF concentrated its tanks in this brigade’s 82nd Tank Battalion: ten Hotchkiss H39 light tanks purchased from a scrap dealer in Marseille, two Cromwell cruiser tanks stolen from a British depot, and one M4 Sherman found rusting in an abandoned British repair shop. Two more Shermans, rebuilt from salvaged wrecks purchased in Italy, joined the battalion later in the year. The “medium” tank company was manned by English-speaking troops, the “light” tank company by Russian speakers. The 89th Mechanized Battalion, led by Moshe Dayan, had three jeep-mounted companies including one of former Lehi members; the 88th Mechanized Battalion, also mounted in jeeps was formed later in the year.

9. Oded
A scratch brigade with two battalions (92nd and 93rd) thrown together from Haganah recruits and Druze, Bedouin and Circassian defectors from the Arab Liberation Army. The 11th Battalion came from the Golani Brigade to round out the formation.

10. Harel
A Palmach brigade, with three battalions: the 4th “Burglars,” 5th “Gate of the Valley” and 6th “Jerusalem.” It saw intense fighting in the Jerusalem hills, where about 10 percent of its men were killed in action.

11. Yiftach
Another Palmach brigade, commanded by Yigal Allon and initially having just two battalions (1st and 3rd), later adding the 2nd Battalion from the 12th Brigade. Like the other Palmach formations it was considered elite and handed the toughest assignments, and suffered casualties accordingly.

12. Negev
As the name hints, this brigade had responsibility for the Negev desert region of southern Israel. It initially had two battalions, the 2nd “Beasts of the Negev” and the 8th, and added two more, the 7th and 9th, during the course of the war.

Soldiers of the Negev Brigade wield a Napoleonchik 65mm artillery piece.

Despite facing enemies with a far greater population, the Israelis often had superiority of numbers thanks to mass mobilization of their own manpower (including womanpower) and the small size of the invading Arab armies. The Arabs made things worse for their side by operating without a central command or much of a plan. In addition, Jordan with easily the best formation on either side (Sir John Glubb’s British-trained and -equipped Arab Legion) was playing to annex pieces of the Palestine mandate, not to establish a Palestinian Arab state, and did not wish to see the Israelis annihilated.

When the Israelis signed separate armistice agreements with each of their enemies in early 1949, they had taken firm control of 78 percent of the Palestine Mandate (not counting the area east of the Jordan River, which became the independent Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan, later Jordan, in 1946). That was about half again as much territory as the Jewish state had been allotted in the United Nations partition plan. As wars go, it had been very successful from the Israeli point ofview. To Palestinian Arabs is became known as al-Naqba, The Catastrophe.

The IDF reached a strength of 65,000 by the end of the conflict in early 1949, and lost about 4,000 men and women killed in action. Ben-Gurion’s vision of a professional army built on the British model, backed by ample reserves, had triumphed. But the rag-tag Israeli forces could not expect to face such a disjointed and badly-led enemy again. The IDF would have to improve.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his new puppy. He misses his Iron Dog, Leopold.

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