Monday, October 20, 2003

JERUSALEM — Young women who are drafted into the Israeli military will be barred from most combat duties because of a medical study that has determined they are, after all, the weaker sex.

The finding comes at a time when the army already is stretched thin. Several hundred reserve soldiers were called up yesterday to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip because of rising violence and fears of a new wave of Palestinian suicide bombings.

The medical study, carried out by the army medical corps, found that women safely can carry 40 percent of their body weight compared with 55 percent for men.

The fact that military-age women weigh 33 pounds less than men on average makes the average disparity in what they can lift more than 44 pounds.

The study also determined that men could be trained on marches of up to 55 miles, but that marches of more than 32 miles were too arduous for women.

The study, carried out at the request of the General Staff, found that the amount of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in women’s blood was more than 10 percent lower than in men’s blood, limiting their ability to undertake extended physical efforts.

Given these limitations, the army doctors recommended that the army bar women from service in front-line infantry units.

They also are to be barred from tank crews, where each member must be capable of carrying out the loader’s duties if needed. That task could require lifting dozens of shells and inserting them into the gun breech during battle.

Artillery units, as well as tasks with combat engineers dealing with heavy equipment, would be closed to women for similar reasons.

The findings will complicate the job of military planners, who are faced with growing concern about political violence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Yesterday, three Israeli soldiers were killed and a fourth was wounded when Palestinian gunmen attacked a foot patrol near the West Bank village of Ein Yabrud, east of Ramallah.

A government official said yesterday that 10 battalions of reserve soldiers would be called up to fill gaps resulting from cuts in defense spending. A military source had told Reuters news agency that only five battalions would be needed.

Asked about the call-up, Israeli army spokeswoman Ruth Yaron told Israeli radio: “We are facing another wave of terror.

“Unfortunately, due to budget cuts … when we currently face a wave of alerts and attacks, we are forced to recruit reserve troops on too-short notice,” she said.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat criticized the decision.

“These actions are consistent with the daily escalation by the Israeli army,” he told Reuters. “It’s an indication that the Israeli government will continue their aggression, incursions and curfews, and this won’t lead us anywhere.”

The doctors and physiologists who conducted the medical study said there were no objections to women serving in light infantry units along peacetime borders, in antiaircraft missile units or as radar operators in intelligence units, where they have proved themselves on numerous occasions.

Nor did the medical team recommend barring women from serving as air force pilots or navigators, as a few are doing, or as naval officers.

Women serve extensively as instructors in training camps, but they are not assigned to combat units unless they volunteer for them and qualify. Women are drafted at age 18 for two years and men for three.

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