Israeli Army Looks to Integrate Women Into Its Combat Engineering Corps

Until now, such position has only been filled by men. The decision comes as part of a greater push for gender equality in various Israel Defense Forces units

Women soldiers preparing for training exercise.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Israel Defense Forces combat engineering corps is looking into how women can be better integrated into combat roles which, until now, have only been filled by men.

Two weeks ago the issue was discussed in a meeting between Brig. Gen. Sharon Nir, the chief-of-staff’s adviser on gender issues, and the corps’ Brig. Gen. Ilan Sabag. It was decided that professional officers would examine several combat roles to potentially integrate female soldiers into.

Such roles include combat engineers, explosive device diffusers, robot operators, and heavy equipment operators. 

A senior officer in the IDF’s ground forces said, “this topic is now on the agenda and we’re definitely reviewing it with the understanding that it is feasible – we only have to find the right way to do so.” The officer also noted the importance of integrating female soldiers into meaningful roles which would allow them to serve in more challenging positions. 

>>Must be a joke: An Israeli soldier who can’t look at a woman | Opinion ■ No white shirts, separate smoking areas for female soldiers: Israeli army beefs up 'modesty' rules ■ Israeli rabbis go on warpath as religious women increasingly join army 

“The intent is to examine how to open up these roles as combat engineers, soldiers who deactivate explosives or operate heavy equipment to female soldiers, similar to what we have in the armed corps. We’re holding serious discussions on this topic and examining how we can integrate them into these roles, in what frameworks and on what fronts. If at the end of this process we see that it can be done, they’ll be given roles that are meaningful and challenging – we won’t do it just so we can say we’ve done it,” the officer added.

However, the officer says that the IDF is not looking to send any of the newly integrated women to the battlefield in the near future. The nature of operations in the engineering corps is such that there is extensive operational activity on all fronts, with its soldiers arriving as professionals coming to assist other forces, performing engineering work near borders or in the West Bank, dealing with minefields, demolition of structures, among other duties. 

The IDF added that on top of efforts in the engineering corps, they intend to examine how to better integrate female soldiers into more units. The decision include female soldiers in direct combat units still stands.

Despite criticism by some rabbis the army has nevertheless decided to examine possibilities of incorporating females into new roles, as was done in the armed corps to great success.

In June, four females finished the tank commanders’ course for the first time. This involved a pilot project conducted by the army, in which 15 female soldiers were trained as tank crew members. The pilot was considered a success, but the army says the women will not be deployed in tanks in the near future. Instead, they will serve as instructors for additional women soldiers.

The issue of integrating women into key positions in the army has led senior Zionist religious rabbis, including the heads of pre-military academies, to wage an aggressive campaign against the push. Safed’s Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu approached the prime minister recently, asking him to fire the army’s chief of staff. “Give back the keys and go home” said Eliyahu.

“Eisenkot has adopted a crazy feminist agenda,” said Eliyahu, in response to Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, saying on Army Radio that “if you receive an immoral order, namely to serve with women, tell your commander politely that you did not come to the army for that.”

The rabbis’ remarks were made against the backdrop of the appointment of Lt. Col. T. as the head of a flight squadron, the first female pilot to assume such a high ranking position.

MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) also responded to T.’s appointment, saying that “there are professions for men and professions for women. That’s how God made the world and that’s what is good for the world. Anyone trying to blur these simple distinctions is doing an injustice to himself and the world.”

Last February, the army’s chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Eyal Krim, spoke to young trainees at a pre-military academy in Beit She’an, just before they enlisted. He spoke about the integration of women in the armed corps, telling the young men not to bother themselves with this issue, since anyone going to a combat unit will, at most, encounter only a female clerk.

Krim added that he respected gender-mixed units, saying that “there are girls who instead of having an afternoon coffee on Dizengoff Street are doing their duty along the country’ borders. They are willing to give their lives day and night on a border across which no infiltrator has come in the last 2000 years.”

Krim further said that chief-of-staff Gadi Eisenkot had promised him that the IDF would send only soldiers who were willing to mixed units, and that joining these units would require Krim’s approval.

“Just like the chief medical officer can determine that a soldier can’t be a commander in the naval commando unit due to his medical status, so can the chief rabbi determine that a soldier cannot serve in a mixed-gender unit since he won’t be able to perform things that are important to him there.”