In late May 1948, two weeks after declaring independence, the provisional government of Israel established the Israel Defense Forces or IDF. This new army comprised elements of the Jewish Brigade, which had fought under British command in World War II, and the Haganah, a Zionist paramilitary established in 1920.
Initially, the Irgun and Stern Gang resisted the authority of the IDF. However, a deadly showdown over an arms ship led the IDF to disband these two right-wing militias and incorporate their members into its ranks.
Today, the Israeli military comprises land, air and sea arms as well as the general staff (made up of six directorates). The chief of the general staff holds the rank of lieutenant general and heads the military. The land branch includes an infantry, armored, artillery, combat engineering and field intelligence corp. Units from these corps fight under three regional commands. In 1992, the IDF added a fourth, named the home front command. The military also operates a number of elite units and reconnaissance companies.
In theory, every Jewish citizen of Israel must serve in the military – men for three years and women for two. Once finished with their mandatory service, men are then liable for annual reserve duty until age 40, while those of officer rank can be called up until age 45. However, ultra-Orthodox men and women do not serve in the Israeli military. Orthodox Jewish women often perform civilian national service instead of enlisting in the army. Almost five percent of those eligible for the draft choose conscientious objection.
Besides Jewish citizens, the military began to draft male members of the Druze religious community in 1956. At the time, the decision was met with protests. However present enlistment rates stand at 82.9 percent of eligible Druze men. In 2001, the IDF promoted its first Druze major general, who led the home front command. Though non-Druze Arabs are not required by law to enlist in the Israeli armed forces, nearly 300 Bedouins volunteered to serve in the military in 2008 alone.
Amnesty International has stated that the actions of the Israeli military in deliberately destroying Lebanese civilian infrastructure during the 2006 war against Hezbollah violated international law. Similarly, Human Rights Watch reprimanded the army for firing phosphorus and high-explosive artillery shells into densely populated areas during the Gaza offensive that started in December 2008 and lasted for three weeks before a ceasefire was reached.