Analysis |

Opening Elite Israeli Unit to Women: A Small Step on the Road to Equality in the Army

The initiative of a few women, attempting to open all IDF doors, began to take shape four years ago when they filed a petition with the High Court of Justice regarding women’s service in the armored corps as combatants. Many decisions will have to wait for the next military chief

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
women soldiers
Women soldiers are increasingly being incorporated into IDF combat units.Credit: Michal Fattal
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The Israel Defense Forces’ decision to allow female soldiers to try out for its special air force rescue team, unit 669, is part of its attempt to appease the High Court of Justice ahead of a hearing in which four women are demanding full implementation of gender equality in military unit placements. Even though the latest decision is a step in the right direction, there is no fundamental change in the prevailing situation. The general staff is still trying to gain time, rolling the issue forward without making any sweeping decisions. Furthermore, the impression is that the decision on unit 669 is a last-minute compromise, reached without the full consent of senior air force officers and with no long-term and detailed plan having been formulated, as required.

Since the court ruling in the mid-1990s in the matter of Alice Miller, which allowed women to volunteer and undergo the selection process for becoming fighter pilots, there has been slow but substantial progress in the IDF. Thousands of women are now serving as combatants (4,400 having enlisted this year, a 12 percent increase over last year). The integration of women into systems such as border defense, combat-related intelligence and the Home Front Command enables the directing of thousands of men in each annual cohort to front-line tasks in the infantry or armored corps.

But the road remains a long one. The initiative of a few young women, attempting to open all IDF doors to women, began to take shape four years ago. A petition was filed with the High Court of Justice in 2019, regarding women’s service in the armored corps as combatants. Another petition was submitted a year later, regarding selection processes and the channeling of female soldiers into special units or the infantry. Even though the army knows that the potential of female soldiers is not being fully utilized, it prefers to advance slowly and cautiously. This creates fewer headaches, with fewer chances of political ricochets.

There are also some objective difficulties. In navy submarines of the current generation, there is no room for installing gender-based bathrooms. In infantry and other special units, there are constant concerns that carrying very heavy loads could cause women irreversible physical damage. On the other hand, the army is finding it difficult to explain why it doesn’t open up more positions for women, on equal terms, as is now the practice in the American and other Western armies.

But the greatest difficulty lies with religious soldiers and their rabbis. According to several estimates, close to 30 percent of front-line troops (infantry, armor and special units) come from religious Zionist circles. This is more than double their proportion in the general population. Their rabbis exploit this fact, issuing warnings stating that they will not send their pupils to mixed-gender units. When arguments broke out regarding women serving in tanks, retired generals were sent into the fray, warning about impediments to the performance of armored units that would result from such a move. In recent weeks, ahead of the resumption of court hearings, prophecies of doom are again being sounded in religious newspapers, which accuse the senior brass of capitulating to feminists.

In practice, the power of women’s organizations is negligible. It appears that the generals are more worried about the rabbis than about the feminists (and possibly also more than they are concerned about the High Court of Justice). The army has long been zigzagging between possible solutions, delaying the opening of all its ranks to women. The pilot project incorporating women in tank units has been held twice, under two different chiefs of staff, and was spread out over four years. It seems that the current chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, is especially cautious about making any move that might lead to political complications, certainly when facing the vocal lobbies of the right and the religious. These groups embraced him when he assumed office, but they make sure to periodically remind him that this is a conditional embrace.

Urgent sessions were convened again, ahead of the cut-off date mid-week for submitting the army’s response to the High Court. The result brings to mind that definition of a camel, as a horse planned by a committee. The IDF officially announced last Friday that selection for unit 669 would be opened to women. Apparently, this will soon be followed by another announcement about a pilot project that would examine a limited opening for women in specific infantry units. Women hoping to enlist in other units will have to wait.

The decision about unit 669 was concocted at the last minute. Senior air force brass opposed this for a long time, and it appears that the decision was imposed on them by the chief of staff. On Thursday night there was still a lively discussion on whether to issue an official announcement, which ultimately came on Friday. The choice of unit 669, in contrast to other special units, such as the general staff’s reconnaissance unit or the naval commandos, was explained on the basis of the fact that this unit carries out very short missions behind enemy lines, not remaining there for extended periods. In contrast, senior officers continue to oppose letting women join the general staff’s commando unit, even though a former commander of this unit (Col. H., who retired in 2019), wrote a report favoring such a decision. The current command of this unit tends to agree with him.

The IDF’s response, which consists of the opening of unit 669 and a small infantry pilot program, will be submitted to the court in the coming days. Will the High Court, with a panel of three women judges, make do with this or demand more flexibility on the army’s part? Usually, the eloquent arguments of the chief of staff and his attempts at persuasion are sufficient. In practice, it seems that this is but a small step toward equality of women in uniform. A wider move, which is politically controversial and raises germane concerns, will have to wait. There is still a long way to go, but these decisions will await the next chief of staff, who assumes office next January.

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