The Israeli Defense Forces is a Misnomer

Unless one defines defense as attacking others with overwhelming force, the Israeli Defense Forces have never been a defensive force. As scholar and author Haim Beshreeth-Zabner makes clear in soon-to-be published history An Army Like No Other, the IDF was designed to be an offensive armed force intended to take and keep territory. In the years after the 1973 war-the one war in Israel’s modern history in which it was attacked—the role of the IDF was expanded into that of an occupying force as it worked to keep the Palestinian people under control. Indeed, except for the occasional illegal air raid on Syria or attack on Lebanon, the repression of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is the primary task performed by the IDF.

Bresheeth-Zabner’s text begins with a summary of the Zionist movement, its settling of Palestinian lands, and its understanding that the only way it would be able to build its Jewish state was through armed force. This understanding meant that Zionist settlers in Palestine would have to build a powerful military force that was as ruthless as it was strong. From its beginnings in groups like Hagana and the Stern Gang to its present-day existence as an occupying army, the Zionist army has always operated via deceit, subterfuge and blatant brutal force. Israel’s founders knew that the only way they would achieve the Zionist dream was by manipulating its allies and keeping its foot on the neck of the Palestinians. This strategy has only been refined since the 1948 date given as Israel’s birthdate.

An Army Like No Other describes each major war Israel has fought, providing a brief discussion of the military strategy and its effectiveness. Underlying these descriptions is an ongoing discourse regarding the internal and international politics motivating the decision to go to war and the goals of each military operation. One thing that is quite apparent in Bresheeth-Zabner’s telling is that the belief in the Zionist myth of a nation-state for Jews was and is greater than any political differences inside Israel. This was the case in the days before 1948 and is the case now, even as the Israeli left diminished in influence and numbers, making the current right-wing nature of Israeli politics a fait accompli. Indeed, it is hard to believe that there was a time when Israel was populated by socialists in the kibbutzim and in the government, especially when one considers today’s political spectrum which goes from the extreme right to fascist.

Behind it all are the falsely named Israeli Defense Forces. In a state without a constitution or other such documents and where its entire existence has been under a self-imposed and created “state of emergency,” the only place real and lasting power can come from is the military. In a planet with way too many governments beholden to their armies, Israel defines a government where the military is the government, even as it pretends to be a democracy. It’s almost too obvious to state that such a government would make war and the preparation for war its raison d’etre. The author describes how such a scenario plays out in the chapter devoted to the Israeli military-industrial complex—considered to be a leader in surveillance and military technology while also one of the world’s most profitable such industries. Indeed, Israel is ranked in the top ten of the world’s arm exporters. Its weaponry comes battle-tested and its surveillance technology has been tried and perfected in its illegal occupation and repression of the Palestinian population. Other arms manufacturers are known to provide Israeli companies with prototypes to perfect by using them in precisely those ways. Meanwhile, municipal and regional governments send their police departments to get trained by the IDF in techniques used against Palestinians going about their daily lives.

Many of the police trained in these techniques are from the United States. Besides these and other “exchange” programs, the United States provides billions of dollars in grants, loans and purchases to Israel every year. Before the 1967 war, France, Britain and West Germany were Israel’s main donors. It’s been a long time since then. Washington’s undying and bipartisan support for Israel (and by default, the IDF) stems from a mutual understanding that Israel is a beachhead for US interests in the Middle East. When combined with the money of the Israeli Lobby and the persuasive power that money has, Tel Aviv is guaranteed a substantial check every year from the officials in Washington, DC. It is the very rare US politician who attacks Israel’s actions, no matter how brutal and incendiary, even when the UN Security Council condemns those actions.

Bresheeth-Zabner has written a comprehensive and well-researched history of the Israeli military. In doing so, he has also issued an indictment of its brutal tactics, its political power and its destructive effects on the Israeli state. What comes across in his text is this simple fact: the IDF is the essence of the Zionist state and, because it is, not only will Israel never be a genuine democracy, the state of Israel may very well implode, unable to bear the weight of its contradictions. I can also not help thinking An Army Like No Other is a warning that should be heeded by other nations whose military demands the worship of its citizens.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: