Following last week’s surprise attacks and unprecedented incursion by Hamas fighters, Israel officially declared a state of war and initiated an enormous mobilisation.
Sources report that 360,000 reservists have been summoned. They will supplement an active military force of more than 150,000, giving Israel half a million men and women in uniform.
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What is the purpose of raising such a large army and how will it be used?
Three functions, one force
In most of the world’s armies that use conscripts, increasing the number of soldiers threefold would usually take months rather than weeks. Israel will achieve that much faster, at most in a couple of weeks.
Key elements that allow for such quick massing of forces include the population’s awareness of the need to actively participate in defence, intensive training during compulsory military service that lasts three years for males and two for females, refresher periods in active reserve of several weeks every year, good planning, tested and proven in numerous past international and internal conflicts, and fairly small territory with short distances between even the furthest points.
Reservists can report to their stations or barracks so quickly that the system often deliberately slows down the intake rate to be able to process all the arrivals. Nevertheless, the build-up will be fast and it can be assumed that, by the coming weekend, the Israeli army will have at least half of the declared reservists on duty at their designated locations.
Will Gaza be attacked by half a million soldiers? No, that idea has certainly not even been contemplated by the Israeli high command.
Each military force needs a certain manoeuvring space and putting more soldiers than optimally needed into any territory does not increase the chances of success, on the contrary, often it can lead to chaos on the battlefield.
But if they are not going to be used to storm Gaza, why go to the trouble of having half a million armed men and women?
Because they will need to provide three main functions: an offensive force, a defensive force and an internal security force.
The offensive force will be deployed in positions from which it can attack Gaza and achieve whatever military objectives are put before it by the Israeli command. Those will be discussed in the following days in this analysis.
The size of that force will be determined by its precise task, which is not known and is certainly one of the most closely guarded Israeli military secrets. But it will also be determined, or limited, by the size of the potential battlefield: the line of contact between the Gaza Strip and Israel is merely 51km (32 miles) long.
Conventional military calculations indicate that whatever the final aim of the forces set against Gaza, their size will be well under 100,000, possibly just half of that number.
The main purpose of the second arm, the defensive force, will be to act as a deterrent to possible attacks across its four international borders.
The least of Israel’s worries is the border with Jordan, with which it has stable and almost friendly relations. The line demarcating the southern desert border with Egypt is a little riskier due to the possibility of incursions of military groups from Sinai into the Naqab (Negev) desert.
But both countries generally want to respect the agreements signed with Israel and it is almost certain that their leaders are not contemplating unleashing their armies on Israel.
Next in the line of worry is the land border with Syria over the demilitarised zone in the Golan Heights.
President Bashar al-Assad has enough security worries in his troubled and devastated country without embarking on any adventure against Israel but any of dozens of armed factions in Syria may want to contribute to what they see as the Palestinian cause.
Lightly armed and thinly spread United Nations troops holding the demilitarised zone (DMZ) would be no match for a dedicated force, so Israel must cover that possibility too.
By far the biggest worry for the Israeli leadership is the Hezbollah fighters on the other side of the 120km (75-mile) border with Lebanon. The Shia militia is a battle-proven, tough, militarily competent, well-equipped and disciplined organisation.
It is also the only Arab combat force, even though not a national army, that was victorious over Israel on the battleground, forcing it to retreat from Southern Lebanon in 2000.
Hezbollah has an estimated arsenal of more than 40,000 rockets that can hit deep inside Israel, tens of thousands of highly motivated fighters and equipment that can deliver a hard punch. As such, Israel will likely have to deploy substantial reserves to face it, staging them in several layers to prevent any nasty surprise in the north.
The third role of the armed forces, internal security, will represent the largest zone of responsibility for the Israeli army.
To be continued.