Israeli Woman Who Broke Barriers Downed by Hezbollah Rocket as 2006 Combat Volunteer

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Rivana Tendler holding a photograph of her daughter Keren, who was killed in Lebanon when her helicopter was hit by a Hezbollah rocket.
Rivana Tendler holding a photograph of her daughter Keren, who was killed in Lebanon when her helicopter was hit by a Hezbollah rocket. Credit: Moti Milrod

Keren Tendler was a Yasour transport helicopter squadron flight mechanic, whose commanders refused to allow her to participate in operational flights in Lebanon.

Having made history as the first female flight mechanic in Israel’s heavy transport helicopter fleet, she saw the war raging in Lebanon and she, of all people, was being kept away from the enemy lines.

“They didn’t allow her to fly and she got annoyed. ‘I’ll stop doing reserve duty – what do they mean not allowing me to fly?’” recalls her mother, Rivana, in a conversation at their home in Rehovot. “One day, she cornered the squadron commander and said to him: ‘I have to take part in the war like everyone else.”’

Keren was part of the crew of an operational flight in Lebanon on August 11, 2006. The following day, a Hezbollah rocket downed the Yasour (Sikorsky CH-53) helicopter in which she was flying along with Maj. Sammy Ben Naim, 39, Maj. (res) Nisan Shilo, Capt. Daniel Gomez and Sergeant Maj. Ron Mashiah. All the crew members were killed. Just moments earlier, the helicopter had successfully landed forces deep inside southern Lebanon, before taking off again – and then it took a direct hit.

“They asked me,” said her mother, “’Why did you let her be in this profession? But she was so enthusiastic about it and so enjoyed the work that perhaps I was not aware of how real the danger was. And I don’t know if I could have stopped her. She was special in every way and maybe this is cynical but we have the honor that she was ‘the first female killed.’ It’s nearly 10 years later – and to this day it is still is still awful. We sent a beautiful girl and we received nothing, we received a coffin.”

The monument on Kibbutz Negba, which features a female medic. It was dedicated a year after the 1948 battle for the kibbutz. Credit: Ilan Assayag

Keren’s body was found only a day after the fatal crash. The air force commander at the time, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shkedi, told the family he had given an order: “Don’t come back without Keren.” Hundreds of fighters took part in the operation to bring her back – among them paratroopers and special operations units. Her body was found in a small crevice some distance from the remains of the helicopter. She was carried back into Israel on a stretcher borne by fighters, on a march that took several hours.

“She is a heroic figure, a ground-breaker,” said her mother, “and the operation to rescue her from Lebanon was also heroic.”

Tendler was the only female soldier killed in the Second Lebanon War. According to Israel Defense Forces data, between 1962 and today there have been 535 female soldiers recognized as IDF fatalities. Added to the list during this past year was Hadar Cohen, a Border Police fighter who was posted at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem before she had even completed her training and was shot and killed by terrorists last February.

During the first decade after the War of Independence dozens of women were killed during their service in the IDF and in the defense establishment. Among them were three fighters of the Third Battalion: Leila-Naomi Yosef, Tamar Baumgart and Miriam Ussia, who were killed in a bombardment by an Egyptian plane in October of 1948. Next week a memorial site honoring them will be dedicated near the area where they fell, close to Sycamore Ranch in the northern Negev.

Sgt. Maya Kopstein, posthumously awarded a citation of merit.

“Women were in combat roles in ’48 – they were on the front line,” says Prof. Judy Baumel-Schwartz, who has researched the topic of commemoration, in particular the commemoration of women. She says that it was an incident during the War of Independence in which a woman’s corpse was abused which led to the removal of women from combat lines.

“Then, a woman took on a supporting role: She was a radio operator, she was a paramedic – near the lines but not in combat roles,” says Baumel-Schwartz.

These women, too, are commemorated at sites around the country. The Women of Valor Center in Old Nitzanim is dedicated to the Hebrew women who fought in Israel’s wars and commemorates those who fell in the battle for Nitzanim. At Kibbutz Negba, there is a female medic depicted on the memorial to the defenders. At other memorial sites there are mothers who appear as part of the commemoration of women in Israel.

Baumel-Schwartz, who heads the School of Basic Jewish Studies as well as the Institute for the Study of Women in Judaism at Bar-Ilan University, has found that women’s presence in memorials is identical to their proportion among the fallen. “There is no exclusion of women. We are a nation that remembers and the motives of commemorating a male solder and a female soldier are similar,” she says.

'The girl blossomed'

At the memorial site for the fatalities in the Beit Lid suicide bombing, there is a large metal sculpture that rises high at an angle and depicts 22 soldiers made of iron. Among the figures are two female soldiers, in memory of First Lieutenant Adi Rosen, who was a social welfare officer in the paratroops, and Sgt. Maya Kopstein, who served as a liaison trainer at the Paratroop Brigade training base. They were killed in a terror attack that also took the lives of 19 male soldiers and a civilian.

“Maya was very attached to her red beret and her trainer’s aiguillette. She found her calling in training rookies and was very beloved there, where she felt she was contributing, doing something. The girl blossomed,” says Eitan Kopstein, her father.

In the double terror attack in January of 1995, first a suicide bomber blew himself up near a group of soldiers. Minutes later, another terrorist blew himself up, causing casualties among soldiers who had come to help those hurt in the first explosion.

For eight years Eitan Kopstein led a fight to have the soldiers in the second group recognized and awarded citations of merit. “I took this on as my life’s project,” he says. “I swore to Maya that – as long as I live and breathe – this will not be ignored and in the end it was concluded that there was an act of heroism.”

When asked about what Maya had done, he replied: “It was in character for her: Maya wouldn’t see someone who had fallen down, or had received a blow, without going over to him, and giving him a hug and a hand. According to the stories, she threw down her bag and ran over to help. Everyone was running away and she ran towards what had happened.”

Kopstein was among the few female soldiers to have received a citation of merit for their actions during military service, and the only one whose citation was awarded after her death. “This is a girl who believed in peace and coexistence,” says her father. “It’s simply unbelievable and there were a lot like her — but this is the reality in which we are living. I am proud of this girl, I am really proud of her. I wouldn’t have expected her to get killed, of course, but if they were to have told me that she had fled, or hidden, I would have said: ‘That’s not possible. No way.’”

Signs of change

Baumel-Schwartz says Israeli society began to relate to the death of female soldiers differently at the start of the first intifada. “Terror attacks don’t differentiate between a male and a female soldier. Before then, in albums they showed female soldiers on parade, and were proud of that, but nowhere was it mentioned that female soldiers also fell. They really did play it down. “What kind of country doesn’t protect women and children? Initially, when we think of a fallen male soldier and a fallen female soldier – it does exactly the same thing to their mothers. But society as a whole thinks in stereotypical patterns: It is necessary to defend a woman’s honor and a man is less vulnerable. Society doesn’t change in these matters – the army changes. It is going to take many, many years until society changes.”

In the meantime, the IDF is continuing to establish more combat frameworks that integrate women. Since 2005, when there were 435 women in combat roles, the number has quadrupled. Last week, the establishment of the fourth IDF brigade in which both women and men do combat service was approved.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Gila Klifi-Amir, who served as the Chief of the General Staff’s advisor on women’s issues (now gender issues) between 2009 and 2012, cites two developments that have opened combat positions to women. The first was the decision to allow women to cross enemy lines, which had been prohibited until 1982. The second was triggered by a High Court petition by Alice Miller, who (successfully) fought for women to be admitted to the pilots’ training course, which led to a change in the Military Service Law in 2000.

“Wars and operations are a dangerous business. When we take an oath on our weapons and on the Bible, it’s a vow even to sacrifice our lives in order to fulfill a mission and to defend the homeland and protect the security of the citizens of the state of Israel,” says Klifi-Amir. “Therefore, let’s not expect that if we integrate more and more women in combat roles there isn’t going to be a price. It is the highest price – but it is the price of defending the homeland.

“We are exposed to the same risks – irrespective of whether we are men or women. So it’s true that in the outdated social perceptions we still somehow tend to protect women – but this is something we have to let go of. A male soldier’s blood and a female soldier’s blood are the same color and just as I am anxious about a male combat soldier fulfilling his mission, I am equally anxious about a female soldier fulfilling her mission.”

Klifi-Amir notes that women participated in the fighting in 1948 and also in the recent fighting in the Gaza Strip in various capacities such as paramedics or liaison and logistics officers. “There is a kind of change in the social trend and in the understanding of the centrality of women’s roles, whether as fighters or in essential roles in combat units. It’s a qualitative equality – men and women can carry out the same missions and in a natural way women are being integrated into essential and key positions, and they cross the lines when this is required,” she says.

Nevertheless, and despite the Defense Ministry claims that it is “blind” to matters of gender, the body responsible for commemorating Israel’s fallen is called “the unit for commemorating the serviceman,” with no indication that this applies to women as well.

“Though this is indeed historically based, because it has always been the case that in the collective memory it has been about the male combat soldier while the female soldier was an auxiliary. But even semantics perpetuates some sort of reality, in both the unconscious and the conscious mind,” says the former IDF advisor on women’s issues, who expects that the name of the unit will be changed. Even the reading of the IDF Yizkor memorial prayer, she says, begins with the words: “May the nation of Israel remember its sons and daughters.”

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