Female soldier - Ilan Assayag - archive
A female IDF soldier. Photo by Ilan Assayag
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The Israel Defense Forces has effectively frozen implementation of a report that called for full equality of service between men and women.

Publicly, the army announced its support for the recommendations, which were drafted by a special military committee. But in practice it has done very little to implement them in the four years since the report was written, and the drive to expand service options for women has largely been replaced with a rearguard action to keep existing gains from being lost, in the face of both increased pressure from the religious establishment for greater separation of the sexes in the army and a rise in the number of women claiming a religious exemption from service.

The committee, headed by Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yehuda Segev, submitted its report to then-head of the IDF Personnel Directorate Elazar Stern in September 2007. The 100-page report, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz, includes a host of recommendations for better utilizing women in the IDF and giving them full equality with men. But the panel stressed that to have a significant impact, its recommendations would have to be implemented in full.

The committee called for scrapping the model that has been in place since the 1950s, under which gender largely determines a soldier's length of service and service options.

"This is an archaic model that causes underutilization of the resources ... of half of Israeli society, and closes off many opportunities, both during service and for intergrating into society after service," the report said. Instead, it argued, every job should go to the best candidate, regardless of whether they are male or female.

The panel proposed implementing this change gradually over the course of a decade. It said the initial screening and assignment process should be unified so that men and women are part of the same system and receive their assignments based on the same criteria.

Length of service should depend solely on the job, rather than on one's gender, it said. Currently, compulsory service is three years for men and two for women.

It also said the criteria for exemptions from service should be the same for both men and women.

All jobs in the army should be open to both sexes, as long as the candidate meets the relevant criteria, the report continued. "There should be no jobs or units categorically closed to either women or men," it said. "Service in all units, postings and missions would be joint, subject to the rules of appropriate integration."

The panel also recommended mandatory quotas for promoting women, with the goal of giving women a "significant presence" in the army's "senior decision-making ranks." In addition, it called for creating an effective, well-funded system to ensure proper working environments for both men and women, and for drafting a "gender code" that would lay down explicit rules for interaction between the sexes.

If applied in full, the committee said, this proposal would "strengthen the IDF" by enabling "optimal utilization of the entirety of the human capital Israeli society places at its disposal. ... This is the right way to ensure that the IDF, as the people's army, creates a direct connection between equality of obligation and equality of opportunity for women."

In contrast, it warned, the current model, "in which the number of women who aren't drafted is rising at a worrying pace from year to year, is de facto turning women's service into voluntary service, in a manner that threatens the [army's] entire manpower structure."

Without significant action, it said, the proportion of women enlisting each year would soon fall from 55 percent to below 50 percent, at which point the army would have no choice but to make service for women completely voluntary.

The report called for changing the law to make it harder for women to get an exemption, and to fight the phenomenon of women falsely claiming exemptions on religious grounds. But it proposed doing this only after the service options open to women had been expanded.

In 2007, 12 percent of all army jobs were completely closed to women, though that figure has since fallen to 9 percent. In part, the report said, this is because of the shorter length of service, which is a barrier to putting women in the most demanding and important jobs. Hence postings are "to a large extent" determined by gender rather than a soldier's talents and abilities.

It proposed opening all jobs to women aside from a handful to be determined by a special committee, whose decisions would need the approval of the chief of staff, the defense minister and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. But it also said women and men would have to meet the same criteria for acceptance into combat units.

The IDF Rabbinate's representative on the committee, Lt. Col. Eyal Krim, refused to sign off on some of the recommendations, particularly those relating to putting women on the front lines. Another panel member, Lt. Col. (res. ) Yalon Farhi, later said the committee had ignored information it received about the downsides of sending women into combat. But Stern later appointed another panel to review this issue, and it upheld the Segev Committee's conclusions.

In practice, however, the religious establishment's opposition has prevented the report's implementation. Former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi voiced support for the report in principle, but did little to put it into practice. At a meeting of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women in July 2009, Stern's successor, Avi Zamir, insisted that progress was being made. But other Personnel Directorate officers noted that changing the length of service would require legislation, and Ashkenazi didn't think it was "the right moment."

Another Segev Committee member said that aside from the rabbis, many senior officers - including both current Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Yoav Galant, who was originally supposed to get the job before being disqualified at the last minute - also "fiercely opposed integrating women into assault units."

As a result, he said, "not one of the main recommendations has been implemented: Length of service hasn't been equalized, all jobs haven't been opened up, and certainly women haven't been put in front-line units."

A senior Personnel Directorate officer rejected the claim that "nothing has been done."

"We've made progress, but we've only come partway," he said.

Nevertheless, he added, the army opposes using women as combat troops in the infantry and tank corps, as too few women can meet the physical requirements, "like marching 90 kilometers while carrying a heavy load." Women should be integrated "according to the IDF's operational needs," he said.

He admitted that the army has failed to reduce the number of women receiving exemptions, but said this requires legislation that the Knesset has so far refused to pass. As for equalizing service lengths, he said, that would mean shortening service for men, which the army does not see as feasible before 2016.

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