- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 5, 2002

PSAGOT, West Bank The Israeli army has deployed female soldiers to West Bank Jewish settlements for the first time, provoking a backlash from religious settlers whom they have been sent to protect.
The Palestinian intifada is stretching the army's resources at a time when many male reservists are refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Some 280 officers and noncommissioned officers have signed a petition citing "conscience" for their refusal to serve in the occupied territories. It is also part of the army's efforts to give women a more active role.
Women have been assigned to guard positions at entrances to the settlements, the first line of defense against terrorist attacks. The army is so sensitive about the deployment and potential criticism that it has barred media access to them.
The territories have become increasingly hazardous for Israeli soldiers. New concerns were raised recently when Palestinians blew up an Israeli tank for the first time, killing three male conscripts.
Some leaders in the settlements have criticized the army for deploying women and have provoked fierce debate in the Israeli press about their participation in the armed forces.
Even those who were not openly hostile to the move admit that there may be serious logistical problems, such as with joint patrols.
A resident of Shvut Rahel on the West Bank told one Israeli newspaper: "It won't work, as we will have to guard the woman soldiers instead of them guarding us."
Many religious settlers are opposed to women serving in the army, particularly because of religious rulings about modesty. Some of this criticism, however, is cloaked in a veil of chauvinism and perception that women soldiers may not be up to the job.
There is a misperception outside Israel that women serve on the front line, whereas they are usually not in combat roles. The first female fighter pilot graduated only last year.
Many military instructors are women, as are field engineers and technicians. In recent years, women have started to serve in the last all-male regiments of Israel's Defense Forces the front-line units but the numbers in these mixed units are still small.
One of the arguments used against women in combat roles is that if captured they would not be able to handle interrogation and possible torture. There are also concerns about rape.
Of the female soldiers sent to guard West Bank settlements, about 10 have been deployed in Psagot, a settlement overlooking Ramallah. They received a baptism by fire when the settlement came under heavy gun attacks from Palestinians.
Chaim Bloch, a resident for more than 10 years, said the women appeared "a little afraid" but were "excited" about the work.
"I am against women serving in the army, and most of our religious girls do not serve," he said. "Now that these women are here, though, the question is whether they can do the job. I assume that they have some experience; otherwise they would not be assigned to do this."
Women in the Israeli army are usually given secondary support roles such as secretarial and administrative work, but they have challenged their status to demand more active, high-risk positions. They are angry that the press has turned even some of the most talented soldiers into little more than fantasy objects.
Women can join the police or army, and the Israeli Border Police has been integrated for several years. Liat Pearl, a spokeswoman for the Border Police, said she hoped Israelis would come to accept the prospect of front-line women soldiers.
"I think they must be given a chance to prove themselves," she said.
"It is true that the situation is dangerous and not easy, but I don't know if the army should stop this because of some criticism. It's true not every woman can do this work, but nor can every man. It is a matter of picking the right ones for the job."

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