Number of Women in IDF Combat Roles to Hit Record 2,500

Women already a majority in mixed-gender units, raising questions about the way forward

A female soldier in the women's living quarters at a military base in the Golan Heights, Israel, March 1, 2017.
NIR ELIAS/REUTERS

A record number of women are expected to serve in combat roles this year, according to a senior officer in the Israeli army’s personnel directorate.

The enlistment of an additional 400 women in combat positions for the induction year beginning in July should bring to 2,500 the total number of female combat soldiers.

With women already outnumbering men in the four mixed-gender battalions that are stationed on Israel’s eastern and western borders – accounting for 60 to 70 percent of the total – the army must soon decide whether to establish additional mixed battalions or to increase further the proportion of women in existing ones.

The final say will be with Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. In March, Haaretz reported that women are set to reach numerical parity with men in mixed-gender units of the Home Front Command – a result of the high motivation of female recruits to serve in combat positions.

The shift means the number of women soldiers in combat positions will be higher than the number of women soldiers in clerical positions. Last year, Haaretz reported that the percentage of women in each category was the same, 7 percent.

In May, the IDF ombudsman’s office released a report citing a number of shortcomings with regard to the mixed-gender battalions. For example, the percentage of women dropping out of combat units falls during their third year of service, when their counterparts in noncombat positions are discharged.

The report also found that women in the initial phase of their combat training reported a high number of injuries and lack of preparedness by the army to integrate them in terms of food, equipment, medical care and infrastructure.

“We made a revolution: from just a few hundred women combat soldiers to a few thousand – in five years ... and now we are examining the issue of women combat soldiers physiologically and logistically,” the senior officer said.

“There are processes underway that are social processes; when we finish our study, we will decide further,” he added.

The report also found that commanders in the mixed battalions ignored medical directives and were overly hard on women soldiers, whose motivation to serve declined.

In response to the finding, the IDF said that due to the rapid growth in the battalions in question, commanders were brought in from other units.

“I’m sure that very quickly we’ll see excellent commanders from within the battalions taking command of them; these things don’t happen in a day,” a senior woman IDF officer said.

Among the shortcomings in infrastructure, women soldiers were having to use the men’s showers because of the almost nonexistent facilities only for women.

In recent months, since Haaretz reported last November on the IDF’s intention to integrate women as members of tank crews, the army has faced harsh criticism over the integration of women as combat soldiers, particularly from the right wing and religious groups.

According to critics, the integration of women in combat roles has meant that gender segregation is not being maintained as required; the IDF has had to make things easier for women so they can complete their training; and the integration of women in combat roles has impaired the operational capabilities of the army.

According to a senior IDF officer responsible for integrating women in combat as part of the border protection system, adjustments have indeed been made so that women can serve in combat positions – but this is done according to operational needs.

Adjustments are made, an officer said on a previous occasion, not according to needs of women soldiers, but according to operational needs for both sexes.

“I reduced the number of ammunition clips that must be carried from six to four, for both men and women; there is no need for more,” the officer said at the time.

Another example is a decision that neither male nor female soldiers will carry the heavy grenade machine gun or MAG machine gun anymore; instead it will be carried by a specially outfitted vehicle.

Despite the criticism, the first women tank crew candidates will begin their training in July, in a pilot program to test the suitability of women for service in the Tank Corps.

Fifteen women soldiers are expected to complete their training in November and be integrated into three crews.

“To say that the girls won’t be in the Tank Corps just because they’re girls – there’s no place for such a statement,” the senior personnel officer said. “We are looking at it, we’ll look at it in the most professional way possible without being influenced by any agenda from either side,” he added.