Heavy Pressure Applied to Keep Women Out of Tanks, ex-IDF Head Says

Pilot program was successful but outside interests intervened to thwart integration of women into tank crews, Gadi Eisenkot states

Yaniv Kubovich
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An Israeli tank unit in the Golan Heights, July 22, 2019.
An Israeli tank unit in the Golan Heights, July 22, 2019.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Yaniv Kubovich

The previous military chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, said last month that the pilot program to integrate women soldiers to serve on tank crews was a success, and criticized outside interests that he said had interfered in the program.

Speaking to academics and security officials who caught him in the corridor after he had participated in a panel discussion at a conference, Eisenkot said: “The pilot was a success that proved beyond a doubt” that women combat soldiers could serve in tanks, a person who spoke to Eisenkot told Haaretz.

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According to this source, Eisenkot described what happened behind the scenes during the pilot program. “There was a desire on the part of various officials to hurt me, or the army, to thwart the integration of women combat soldiers” in tank crews, Eisenkot said, according to the source. He told his interlocutors that “from the moment the pilot program was made public, heavy pressure was brought to bear on me by people outside the army not to approve the integration of women” in tank crews.

Eisenkot said that in the last two months before his term ended, the pilot program was completed and there was a thorough discussion of the issue. “The pilot had difficulties but when the head of the Ground Forces Command, Maj. Gen. Kobi Barak, and the head of the Armored Corp, Brig. Gen. Guy Hasson, presented the findings from the program, it was presented as a success,” Eisenkot said according to people in the conversation. “We all came out of the meeting with the understanding that the pilot had been a success and women combat soldiers could be integrated into the Armored Corps to protect the borders, and that there could be women-only tank crews “to preserve the privacy and intimacy that exists among the tank crew.”

During the panel discussion, held at the annual conference sponsored by the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Security and Democracy, Eisenkot was harshly critical of the way the matter of women’s integration in the Armored Corps was handled. “This shows outside involvement and that a well-oiled machine was activated that built demons and ghosts,” he said, adding, “My replacements should make decisions [on letting women serve in tanks] and meanwhile I understand that it is being studied.” He said that such integration “was a prime example of manipulation and outside agendas.”

One instance he mentioned on the panel was a veiled reference to remarks by Armored Corps Brig. Gen. (res.) Avigdor Kahalani, who received a Distinguished Service Medal for his part in the famous Vale of Tears tank battle on the Golan Heights. “They enlisted heroes of Israel to tell how girls would burn in the Vale of Tears and the traumas they would undergo,” which he said were “stories and fairy tales.”

“All in all, we had a pilot program and if we found it was not suitable physiologically, then we’d backtrack,” Eisenkot said.. “The pilot was very successful. Since there are women in all functions in the army, I didn’t see it as such a big deal that women would also serve in tank crews stationed in positions along the Egyptian border and defend the country.”

But according to some people who took part in the discussion in the hallway after the panel, Eisenkot’s informal remarks were even more sharply worded than the ones recorded on camera beforehand in the conference. He said the integration of women was also being studied with regard to other units, such as the Engineering Corps, as medics in the airborne search and rescue Unit 669, and as captains of Sa’ar gunboats. “In none of these positions was there a struggle or opposition as there was with women combat soldiers in the Armored Corps,” Eisenkot said.

He added that when he was presented with the results of the pilot program, “I didn’t ask for changes or more severe conditions so that the program would fail or succeed; I only asked for reliable data about the pilot program that would state whether or not women combat soldiers could be integrated in the Armored Corps. ... This entire pilot came into being to scrutinize an operational need, and for no other reason,” he said.

Eisenkot said outside influence was being brought to bear “by interested parties outside the army to determine the character of the army.”

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