Israel's Army Under Attack at Home

The Israel Defense Forces, once the pride of all Israelis, is in crisis.

The recently released Winograd Report into the conduct of the 2006 conflict with Hezbollah singled out the army for heavy criticism.

In one of its opening paragraphs, the report stated: "A semi-military organization of a few thousand men resisted, for a few weeks, the strongest army in the Middle East, which enjoyed full air superiority and size and technology advantages."

The conflict during the summer of 2006 started with Hezbollah's kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers on the Lebanese border. Eight Israeli soldiers were killed in the first day of fighting.

Things were worse 34 days later when 119 Israeli soldiers had been killed. Thousands of rockets had landed in the north of Israel, more than a million civilians were living under fire and no clear military victory was achieved. It was a stalemate, with Hezbollah left weakened but very much intact.

For Israelis brought up on a diet of sweeping victories against Arab armies, it was a shocking failure. Public debate raged and searching questions were asked about the army's readiness and performance. Reservist soldiers returned from the fighting with stories of incompetence, equipment shortages and lack of leadership.

When the Winograd Report was finally released at the end of January, it pulled no punches.

"All in all, the IDF failed, especially because of the conduct of the high command and the ground forces, to provide an effective military response to the challenge posed to it by the war in Lebanon. … Responsibility for this outcome lies mainly with the IDF."

Those failures have already produced the resignation of then-chief of staff Dan Halutz and Amir Peretz, the defense minister in charge at the time.

Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the new chief of staff, has vowed a root and branch reform of the army. More training is being scheduled and a number of highly visible military exercises have been held. In its response to the criticism the IDF issued a statement admitting its failures.

"The IDF is fully aware of the failures and lessons that were revealed in the different fields … and to the perception that was created among the Israeli public, therefore it is in the midst of a comprehensive and continuing process of correction."

The demise of the army's reputation has hurt Israelis. Compulsory service in the army is one of the defining experiences of being Israeli. In that sense the IDF is truly a people's army. Israelis feel it belongs to them, and over the years it has saved this nation in the face of overwhelming odds.

Many Israelis fear the psychological deterrence once attributed to the IDF has been damaged. As the Palestinian militant organizations in Gaza continue to step up their rocket fire against Israeli towns, the prospects of a full-scale military operation in Gaza is back on the agenda. If such an operation is launched, Israelis are hoping the lessons of the war in Lebanon will have been learned.

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