Israel High Court Rejects Petition to Force Army to Allow Women Into Tank Units

Court says chief of staff's decision to extend pilot program for integration of women in tank units preempts petitions

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Four women who petitioned the High Court to allow women to serve in combat units at the hearing in Jerusalem, February 3, 2020.
Four women who petitioned the High Court to allow women to serve in combat units at the hearing in Jerusalem, February 3, 2020.Credit: Oren Ben Hakin

The High Court of Justice on Monday rejected petitions by female soldiers and draft-age women to force the military to integrate them in tank units. The court cited the army chief’s decision last month to expand a pilot program for just that purpose.

The women were challenging Israel Defense Forces chief Aviv Kochavi’s decision in April against integrating female troops as part of tank units, despite the success of a two-year pilot program.

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Kochavi decided last month to extend the pilot and delay any further decision for two years.

Court President Esther Hayut wrote in her decision that “the new decision by the chief of staff preempts the petitions to a great extent. You have many arguments against the new decision but these are not the petitions before us.”

The first petition was filed in September by women about to be drafted. Or Abramson and Maayan Halberstadt had petitioned the court to order the authorities to explain why women are prevented from enlisting in combat duty in the Armored Corps, and why they cannot fill such roles as driving tanks and other tank crew jobs.

Abramson, 19, from the Karnei Shomron settlement, asked for a leadership role in the corps but was told this wouldn’t be possible and instead was placed in the Home Front Command. Halberstadt, from Jerusalem, also asked for a role in a tank unit but was rejected and placed in the Artillery Corps. Both are due to be drafted in March.

The second petition was filed last month by two female soldiers, Osnat Levy and Wanga Sheina, who had successfully completed an Armored Corps commanders’ course, as well as a pilot program aimed at integrating women into the Armored Corps. A few months after completing the commanders’ course, they were told that the pilot program had been frozen. They were also told that they wouldn’t be able to perform the roles for which they were trained in the reserves.

Members of the tank training pilot, June 28, 2018.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

The petition says the corps’ commander said at a meeting witnessed by the commander for female soldiers, Afik Shema, that “the pilot program had great success and Levy and Shaina are capable of serving as tank commanders.” The petitioners said the IDF’s decision contravened the principles of the Declaration of Independence, a law mandating equal employment opportunities, a law governing the compulsory draft and the spirit of the IDF and its values.

Former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot said in an informal conversation in December that there were some people out “to hurt me or the army in order to thwart the integration of women in the Armored Corps.”

Sources involved in that conversation, which took place on the sidelines of the Israel Democracy Institute’s annual conference in Jerusalem, said the former army chief added that “from the moment the pilot was publicized, I came under strong pressure by forces outside the army, not to allow the integration of female soldiers.”

Eisenkot said the attempts to integrate women in the Armored Corps “ended in success and showed unequivocally that it’s possible to integrate female soldiers in the Armored Corps under the conditions that had been set.”

Despite the declared success of the pilot program, the IDF said in April it would not continue to integrate female soldiers in the corps, maintaining that “at this time, given the need for tanks for missions in defense of the borders, it wouldn’t be right to continue the process of integrating the female soldiers in existing units.”

A few months ago the IDF spokesperson’s unit said Kochavi would decide on the issue by the end of 2019. On Sunday the spokesperson said Kochavi had not yet made a decision and that “this issue will be decided in the future based on the pilot program’s findings.”

Haaretz reported in December that legal officials had warned Kochavi that “cost efficiency considerations” would not stand up in court, because the data show that women are capable of performing in a tank crew.

The IDF has applauded the pilot program, and the head of the Armored Corps, Guy Hasson, said, “It is clear that a crew of female soldiers serving a tank commander are capable of conducting duties in defense of the nation’s borders.”

Thus, senior army officials wondered whether Kochavi’s indecision was due to political pressure, since right-wing activists and prominent rabbis had mounted an aggressive campaign against the female soldiers and against Kochavi’s predecessor, Eisenkot, the initiator of the pilot program.

The principles of integrating women into IDF roles were set by the court in the 1995 Alice Miller case, in which it ruled on a young woman’s petition to enter an air force pilots’ training program. That petition opened the door to women’s service in air force crews, and later in a wider variety of roles, some of them involving combat.

The justices also determined that the promise of equality has financial costs, so it would be illegitimate to cite the economic costs of altering infrastructure as a reason to deny women equal service. As a result of that decision, the national service law was amended to say that women have the same rights as men to fill any role in the army, except for cases where women’s’ rights may be superseded by the substance or character of a particular post.

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