Military traditionalists say women’s combat roles in the Israel Defense Forces are exaggerated by advocates in the U.S., noting as an example a recent IDF decision to keep Israeli women from serving on main battle tanks.
As the U.S. military prepares to open most, if not all, infantry, armor and special operations units to women, activists often point to the IDF as an illustration of a military in which women are thriving in ground combat units.
But a closer look shows Israeli women are not in direct combat special operations such as the Green Berets. Nor are they in front-line combat brigades mobilized to engage in direct heavy combat.
In the infantry, virtually all of Israel’s female combat soldiers are confined to two light battalions — the Caracal and the Lions of Jordan — which are assigned to guard the borders with Egypt and Jordan, the only Arab countries that have peace treaties with Israel.
“Uniformed Israeli women patrol the borders or help to train men for combat positions, but these important missions do not involve direct ground combat, meaning deliberate offensive action against the enemy,” said Elaine Donnelly, who heads the Center for Military Readiness. “None of America’s allies, much less potential adversaries, are treating women like men in the combat arms.”
Israeli women’s assignments are far more restrictive than the roles envisioned by advocates in the United States who anticipate an American military that opens all ground combat units to women, be they Navy SEALs or Army Green Berets or the Marine infantry or Army Brigade Combat Teams. All are deployed to engage in tough, close-in fighting for hours and days at a time.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter will make decisions by Jan. 1 and already has said most, if not all, units will be opened.
U.S. advocates also want women assigned to armor units, operating M1A1 main battle tanks.
Here, too, Israel has taken a different route. The Israeli Ynet news service last week reported that the IDF studied the suggestion of women in tanks and rejected the idea based on physical shortcomings compared with men. Ynet also said the study found as problematic putting men and women in the intimate close quarters of a tank for days at a time.
Ynet quoted a defense official as saying, “Integrating female soldiers into tanks was harmful.”
“The decision not to assign Israeli women to armored tanks in the IDF is based on reality, not myths that often surround these discussions,” Mrs. Donnelly said.
The Times of Israel said the IDF provided a statement that read, in part, that the “possibility of opening additional combat positions to girls is being tested all the time.” As of today, “infantry and the armored corps were ruled out for women.”
Defending the border
The Times of Israel reported that the army announced a plan in October to train women as tank commanders, with men serving as drivers, loaders and gunners.
With that plan canceled, the IDF now wants to increase the number of women in units already opened to them — fighter pilots, field intelligence, artillery and the two co-ed border patrol battalions.
The IDF opened the Lions of Jordan to women in November. Caracal was stood up 10 years ago.
The IDF also allows women in certain special operations positions, as does U.S. Special Operations Command, which deploys women in support roles. The IDF assigns women to the special forces K-9 unit known as Oketz.
Israel is the only country that requires mandatory military service for women, who make up about one-third of the IDF’s 175,000 active force compared with about 14 percent in the U.S. The IDF says more than 90 percent of its jobs are open to women.
The IDF’s public relations arm promotes the two mixed-gender units as crucial to the defense of Israel, which faces constant threats, particularly from the Palestinian militant group Hamas in the south and the Lebanese extremist group Hezbollah in the north.
The Caracal’s role has risen in importance in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula because of increased threats in North Africa from Islamic terrorist groups that have attacked and killed Egyptian troops on that side of the border.
The IDF noted that the battalion came under fire in October. “We must provide a fast and strong response against the enemy,” said Gen. Roy Alkabetz. “The battalion stands by these standards.”
In September 2012, the Caracal Battalion engaged in a firefight with terrorists at the Sinai border who were attacking IDF soldiers.
“Among the soldiers in this Caracal force was a markswoman who rushed forward and struck one of the terrorists,” the IDF said. “Her actions resulted in the deaths of two of the three terrorists and the explosion of the explosive belt that one of the terrorists was wearing.”
‘A grave mistake’
The U.S. mainstream media also have singled out the Caracal.
“Israel holds out the Caracal as proof that women can be all that they can be in the military,” NPR reported in 2013. “The Israel Defense Forces say that today, nearly 50 percent of Israel’s lieutenants and captains are women.”
The IDF this month also promoted the news of its first transgender officer, identified on an IDF blog site as “Lt. Shachar.”
“His story of acceptance, patience and honesty is an inspiration to other transgender soldiers in the IDF and to anyone who believes that diversity and equality is possible anytime and anywhere, even in the military,” the blog said.
There is dissent within the IDF, as the tank decision shows, on how far the feminine line should be moved.
Retired Maj. Gen. Yiftach Ron-Tal is one of the IDF’s most prominent figures. He was top commander of all IDF land forces in 2006.
He supported moving women into direct land combat but in 2011 announced a change of heart, based partly on increased injury rates.
“It turns out that the amount of stress fractures suffered by soldiers is dozens of percentage points higher among women than among men. As a result, the female soldiers are not required to carry as much weight,” he told Voice of Israel, according to IsraelNationalNews.com, a product of the Arutz Sheva media outlet.
“I think that women’s service in combat roles in the IDF should not be widened,” he said. “I cannot even imagine a female soldier serving inside a tank or in elite infantry units, mostly because of operational considerations. The army must not allow this thing to interfere with its operational ability.”
Gen. Ron-Tal added: “Expanding female service will be a grave mistake that will damage the prowess of the army.”