Israeli Army Zigzags on Integrating Female Tank Operators – and Losing Its Credibility

In 2018 IDF said pilot program was a success, but now sources say it wasn’t. Which is the truth?

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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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
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Time is running out. A few months ago the Israel Defense Forces spokesman promised that Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi would decide by the end of the year whether women could serve as combat soldiers in the Armored Corps.

On December 31 Kochavi is supposed to convene a summary discussion of the dispute, and on January 12 the time the Supreme Court gave the government to reply to the petition of two female draftees on the matter will run out.

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The previous army chief, Gadi Eisenkot, decided to examine the possibility of integrating women into the role of tank operators for two main reasons: a desire to increase the border security system in a way that would allow the infantry and Armored Corps battalions more time for training; and as a continuation of the policy of opening additional positions for women. In a pilot program over two years ago, 15 female soldiers were trained to serve on tank crews and four completed a course for tank commanders.

The intention was to establish a tank company that would engage in operational activity on the Egyptian border, alongside mixed infantry battalions, and enable the tank crews from the regular battalions to train for longer periods. The army said that women would not be combatants but would fulfill security assignments along the borders.

In June 2018 the IDF announced that the pilot had ended successfully. Senior officers praised the women’s performance. When the issue was returned to Eisenkot for summation, he and Kochavi decided to leave the decision to the latter.

Or Abramson and Ma'ayan Halberstadt, who petitioned the High Court to allow them to serve in a combat unit, September 10, 2019.Credit: Noa City Eliyahu

But the Ynet news website reported on Sunday that according to sources in the IDF, the experiment wasn’t really so successful. They said the women had difficulty loading shells onto the tank, and some suffered from “mental difficulties” during operational tasks.

This leak is interesting considering the timetable: the meeting with Kochavi this week and the Supreme Court discussion, scheduled for early February, of the appeal of the two young women, graduates of pre-army programs who want to obligate the military to let them serve as combat soldiers.

Legally the IDF has a problem: Many of its combat units have already been opened to women – and in many Western armies, women serve on tank crews. The army is afraid the Supreme Court will require the chief of staff to open a course for female tank operators in light of the legal precedent set by Alice Miller, who in the mid 1990s petitioned to open the pilots training course to women.

At the same time, Zionist ultra-Orthodox organizations, rabbis and former generals have embarked on an aggressive campaign against women’s service in the Armored Corps. Their reasons range from undermining the values of religious tank operators to concern for the young women’s health. Eisenkot recently said that there was a “well-oiled campaign of old wives’ tales” against their service.

According to an IDF spokesman, the chief of staff will make his decision based on the findings of the pilot program. Even if those who spoke to Ynet were not authorized to speak to the press, there is no reason to assume that their statements are incorrect. Apparently the army got cold feet – and someone decided to prepare the ground for a change in policy, and an end to the project.

The army has the right to make such decisions. They may believe that the service of female fighters in the Armored Corps doesn’t justify the logistical efforts involved, or even that friction with the rabbis and their followers in the IDF is too dangerous for the army. If that’s Kochavi’s conclusion, he is invited to inform the Supreme Court and the public.

But what is still disturbing here is the army’s zigzagging in its conclusions. You can’t, on the one hand, report to the public that the experiment was successful and shower praise on the participants, and then a year and a half later claim through anonymous sources that it actually failed. When did the IDF tell the truth? In June 2018 or in the claims quoted in December 2019?

The army must maintain credibility, both toward female soldiers and the general public. When circumstances are inconvenient, you can’t introduce a new trick and revise the findings of the experiment – and in effect hint at the lack of credibility of the senior command in the past.

The IDF was already in trouble last week, when serious irregularities were found in the way it counts enlisted ultra-Orthodox soldiers. This is a systemic, long-term problem that requires a thorough examination. It can’t just be blamed on the senior command.

Last week on TV, discharged female soldiers met with the two young petitioners. Their determination and their motivation to serve as combat soldiers and set a historical precedent in the Armored Corps were impressive. The officer in charge of the discharged women in the tank commanders course said they performed above the average of the men in the course. “Each of them gets my wholehearted approval,” he said.

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