Tuesday, December 30, 2003

HATZEVA, Israel — Israeli army units with the first female infantry soldiers in 50 years are being upgraded to battalion status, a milestone in the fight of female soldiers to be accepted into combat roles in the Jewish state.

For the past three years, female ground troops from Israel’s Carcal company have patrolled the quiet desert borders with Jordan and Egypt, freeing up their male counterparts for duty in more dangerous areas. Now the military is appointing its first female company commander.

The integration effort follows years of public pressure to allow women into combat jobs — prohibited since the 1948 War of Independence — and could help boost the status of women in a society that glorifies the military.

Hoping to relieve units stretched thin by the Palestinian uprising, the army created predominantly female companies three years ago to patrol the border for drug smugglers and the rare terrorist infiltrator. Only men served on the more dangerous Lebanese border and in the Palestinian territories.

“Every combat soldier aspires to reach the most dangerous areas. That is why we enlisted,” said 20-year-old Sgt. Shiran, whose full name cannot be published under Israeli military censorship rules.

“I’ve always known that I wanted to do things in the army that I wouldn’t do as a civilian. I didn’t think I could get the maximum out of it as a clerk.”

Toting an M-16 rifle with a sniper scope, Sgt. Shiran still is an exception for women in the Israeli army. Most work far from the battlefield and serve as little as half the time required of men.

Israeli army doctors recommended in October that women be barred from service in combat units on the basis of medical studies showing that they are less able than men to lift heavy objects and carry out sustained, strenuous activities.

The doctors, however, said there was no objection to women serving in light infantry units along peacetime borders, as the Carcal company does, or as radar operators in intelligence units, where they have proved themselves on numerous occasions.

The United States bans women from ground combat units, which include artillery, infantry and armor. They may, however, serve on combat ships and aircraft. And they serve as military police, a job that in Iraq puts them close to counterinsurgency operations.

Carcal company, whose name is Hebrew for wildcat, has a 2-1 ratio for women to men and requires women to sign on for an extra year of service. The four-month boot camp includes training in urban warfare and 20-mile stretcher marches, a regimen based on other infantry brigades.

Male and female Carcal soldiers train together and share patrols in Humvees. The only place where the army insists on separation is in sleeping quarters on the base.

In recent years, the army also has opened artillery, antiaircraft and the air force pilots’ course to women. Still, the idea of a mixed combat unit remains a foreign concept in Israel.

Sgt. Pini, one of the male members of Carcal, said he initially joined the company because he was promised a tour of duty on a tranquil border in a unit with “a lot of girls.”

“I thought, ‘Great, I’ll have a girlfriend,’” he said. “It didn’t work out that way. When you spend so much time together, it doesn’t make a difference. Everyone becomes one of the guys.”

The army has told the coed company that it probably will get transferred next year to a more sensitive site, which could mean the tense border with Lebanon or Israel’s hotly contested security barrier in the West Bank.

Still, said army spokesman Capt. Jacob Dallal, the integration of women into the combat forces “is an ongoing process. We’re past the beginning, but it’s a developing thing. … Until women reach higher ranks on the field, it’s going to take time.”

Sgt. Shiran said she sees the talk of a transfer as a vote of confidence. Even so, she acknowledged that it will be difficult to convince skeptics of the unit’s abilities.

“There will always be doubts. It’s human nature. People will always say a boy is strong and a girl is weak,” she said.

Maj. Itai, a Carcal company commander and a former undercover commando, said he considers the unit a success but is waiting for a “moment of truth” that will prove that Carcal is up to the job.

“The army still has difficulty with the idea of women in combat. I hear this all the time from people above me,” Maj. Itai said. “They don’t think it’s serious, that if there is an attack the girls will be afraid, or if one is taken prisoner the entire country will be in shock.”

In the 1948 war, none of that mattered because Israel needed every available fighter. In the north, women were in units that detonated bridges to block the advance of the Lebanese army. In Jerusalem, they held out during a prolonged siege.

When the war ended, a separate women’s corps was established, ending the utilization of nearly all female combat soldiers. Decades passed before Israelis began reconsidering the status of women in the military.

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