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Wednesday, April 29, 1998 Published at 12:48 GMT 13:48 UK

Israel sharpens its military strategy

Over the last half century, Israeli society has changed dramatically, as has the nature of military threats that its defence planners must confront. The BBC Defence Correspondent, Jonathan Marcus, looks at the difficulties that face the country's strategic planners.

[ image: Strategic view from the Golan Heights]
Strategic view from the Golan Heights
In 1973, on the holiest day of the Jewish religious calendar, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel.

The Syrian armies tried to recapture one of the strategically most important territories: the Golan Heights. So complete was the element of surprise that the Israeli army almost lost the area.

Israeli defence commentator Zeev Schiff: We are changing the equation of our defence policy (34")
The lesson of the attack, however, was not lost on the Israeli army. Whoever occupies this high ground holds a clear military advantage. Following the attack, the Israel Defence Forces took steps to upgrade its defences, initiated extensive training programs - and promised never to be taken by surprise again.

Land for security

[ image: Military planners are searching for new ways to defend Israel]
Military planners are searching for new ways to defend Israel
Territory is the abiding problem in Israeli security. The small country - which can take less than an hour to cross - has been surrounded by hostile neighbours for most of its 50-year history.

But territory alone can no longer guarantee Israel's future security. Achieving peace, military planners are realising, requires a much broader mix of defence tactics.

"Territory is important in the case of war," said Zeev Schiff of the Ha'aretz newspaper, Israel's most respected defence commentator. "Territory is important if you want to defend yourself in the case of war ... But by saying this I don't mean we don't have to compromise because peace is even more important."

Ultimately, Israel will be able to rely on its nuclear weapons, although no Israeli government yet has acknowledged their existence. All Arab nations have called on Israel to give up its nuclear capability. For Israel's critics, Zeev Shiff has this answer: "We are changing the equation of our defence policy by giving up territory and therefore we need to compensate ourselves with a different kind of deterrent."

Technology dominates

[ image: Israeli citizens are routinely taught about gas masks and chemical weapons]
Israeli citizens are routinely taught about gas masks and chemical weapons
Israel has its own sophisticated defence industry. It is well placed to take advantage of the dramatic changes in military technology and the application of new information systems to the battlefield.

Combining Israeli know-how and US money, the country's arms industry is developing high-tech anti-missile systems. In the background - and little spoken of - is Israel's nuclear deterrent. On the home front, gas masks and anti-nerve gas injections are routinely issued to the Israeli population.

"In the past in order to create that basic strategic resource that we lacked we had to project troops into enemy territory," said Shimon Naveh, who heads a team at Israel's Defence College, which is actively seeking a new approach to security.

"Today we can compensate for this lack by projecting ... not troops but by projecting effects." For Israel's military, this means using precision-guided weapons and better intelligence gathering to be able to strike deep into enemy territory without risking the lives of its soldiers.

[ image: Technology is the key to military superiority]
Technology is the key to military superiority
But making the transition is easier said than done. Lately, the armed forces have been a source of bad news stories. Last year, a collision of helicopters killed 73 soldiers, and a dramatic ambush of an elite army unit in Lebanon left 12 dead.

While Israel still is prepared to fight a classic armoured confrontation, its military thinking has not kept pace with the sophistication of its equipment.

Today Israel stands at a strategic crossroads where it must seek new, less traditional answers to its defence dilemmas.

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In this section

Israel celebrates half-century

The people with nothing to celebrate

Moments of joy and reflection

Israel remembers

Israel at 50: a fraught triumph

Zionism - 50 years after Israeli independence

Secularism vs Orthodox Judaism

The Jewish Diaspora and Israel

Netanyahu remembers Holocaust dead

Israel sharpens its military strategy