Israel to Extend Training Program Pilot for Integrating Women Into Armored Corps

Yaniv Kubovich
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Female IDF soldiers in an armored vehicle lot on the Gaza border, March 2019.
Female IDF soldiers in an armored vehicle lot on the Gaza border, March 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Yaniv Kubovich

A pilot project to train women for combat roles in the Armored Corps will be extended, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi announced Sunday. Kochavi said a decision on whether to integrate women in these positions on active duty will be made only after an additional training course is completed.

According to the IDF, the training course will not begin before August and is expected to take 18 months, meaning the decision will come only in 2022.

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IDF Spokesman Brigadier General Hedi Zilberman said Sunday that although the previous pilot course had ended successfully, there were not enough participants to draw conclusions “and additional scenarios are required.” Zilberman added that the number of participants and the length of the program would be increased. “The pilot [program] indicated real potential for women combat soldiers, along with gaps in [combat] fitness,” he added.

Zilberman said that when assessments are made at the end of the next training program, “we will make decisions based only on the needs of the army and the commanders.” The next phase of the program will include operational training of about a year, and operational activities for about four months. Some 30 women are set to participate in the program, which will take place at the Shizafon base in the Negev. The trainees will be part of all-women tank crews. 

The opening of the course might be delayed from August to November. 

On Wednesday, the period which the High Court of Justice gave to the state to respond to a petition by two women who are to be drafted in September to allow them to perform Armored Corps combat roles will end. Military and Justice Ministry officials are expected to meet soon to formulate a response. Following Kochavi’s decision, the IDF is expected to argue that the petition is no longer necessary and ask that it shuold be voided. The army is said to believe that the petition means that it will be impossible to prevent women from taking combat roles in the Armored Corps based on current arguments. 

Male and female soldiers on the Gaza border, 2017.Credit: Ilan Assayag

It is possible that the decision announced Sunday is meant to stop criticism of the program by prominent figures in the religious Zionist community.

The petition asks the High Court to order the defense minister, the army, the chief of staff and the members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to explain why women should not serve in combat roles in the Armored Corps, including as drivers of armored vehicles, shell-loaders, radio operators and tank commanders.

Last week two female soldiers who successfully completed the course for tank commanders, together with the officer who oversaw their training, petitioned the High Court to order the defense minister and the chief of staff to explain why they are prohibited from fulfilling the roles they were successfully trained for. After they completed their training they were told “the pilot has been frozen,” and were also told they could not serve in these roles in the reserves.

As Haaretz reported last week, former army chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot said that outside forces pressured him to try to thwart the integration of women into the Armored Corps. In unofficial remarks on the margins of an annual conference sponsored by the Israel Democracy Institute, Eisenkot said: “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.

According to people who took part in the conversation, Eisenkot said: “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.” Eisenkot said the pilot program had been successful and “proved beyond a doubt” that women combat soldiers could serve in tanks.

In April, Kochavi decided that the army should stop integrating women into combat roles in the Armored Corps, although the pilot program, which had been underway for two years, had been deemed successful. The army said the decision had been made because “at this time and in the face of operational needs for tanks in protecting the borders, it is not correct to continue the process, but rather to strengthen the integration of women in existing units.”

Lawyers representing the women said: “We view the army’s decision as a great victory for the petitioners on the road to achieving equality in the Armored Corps, and we are certain that this would not have been possibly if not for the High Court petitions. But the journey has not ended…the petitioners insist that women be drafted as combat troops in the Tank Corps and not only along the borders. As opposed to the army’s statement, information from those who implemented the pilot program and the actual training – the women’s capabilities are identical to the men’s” on tank crews.

The CEO of Israel Hofsheet, a nonprofit that promotes religious freedom and pluralism, applauded the chief of staff's decision. "We believe that the recruitment of dozens of other women is only natural and the only question to consider is how the integration of women into armor has not already been done to this day," he said.