MOUNT KEREN, Israel — As the sun rises over this desolate corner of the southwestern Negev, the soldiers take position. They have just completed a dry run of a large military exercise and are about to repeat the entire drill using live ammunition.
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Several dozen soldiers charge up the hilltops, aiming their rifles, while their comrades, situated across the valley, use heavy gunfire to distract imaginary enemy forces. Amid the deafening explosions and with the help of a grenade-generated smokescreen, other soldiers evacuate fake casualties from the battlefield.
At first glance, they could be 18-to-21-year-old men anywhere in Israel, partaking in a battlefield exercise. The giveaway, in this case, is the hair — specifically, the long braids and ponytails protruding from camouflage helmets. A closer looks reveals that most of the combat soldiers taking part in this particular drill are women.
Caracal, the first mixed-gender combat battalion in the Israeli army, began as a pilot project 15 years ago. With not enough room in one battalion to accommodate the growing number of young Israeli women wanting to see action, the army recently set up two new light infantry battalions based on the Caracal model, one just last month.
In these new battalions, as in Caracal, the women undergo the exact same training as their male counterparts. Ultimately, their job is to patrol Israel’s borders. Of the estimated 500 soldiers in Caracal today, 70 percent are women who, after completing their training, are stationed along Israel’s southwestern border with Egypt. The newest mixed-gender battalion will train soldiers to patrol Israel’s eastern border with Jordan.
“I didn’t want to sit at a computer and make coffee for other people, “ says Sari Yehoshua, 19, from the West Bank settlement of Kfar Adumim, when asked what drove her to volunteer for a combat unit. “I wanted my military service to be meaningful and challenging.”
“Meaningful” and “challenging” are adjectives that come up frequently in conversations with these female recruits. At times, it seems they are purposely trying to avoid more lofty terms, like Zionism and feminism, to explain their motives.
Like Yehoshua, most of the soldiers gathered on this hilly terrain, about five miles from the Egyptian border, enlisted in March. This morning’s company-wide exercise is meant to be one of the highlights of their training. Not as big a highlight, though, as the 20-kilometer march scheduled for next week, at the culmination of which they will receive their green berets.
It’s a rather diverse group congregated here under the sweltering sun. Susha, the petite blonde commander of this Caracal company, is delivering last-minute safety instructions in Russian-accented Hebrew to 60 soldiers lined up around her in a U-formation. They include three women of Ethiopian descent (two of whom have already graduated from commander training courses), a young woman from Los Angeles and an immigrant from Belarus (who, after reading about the Caracal Battalion on the Internet, decided to move to Israel and enlist).
Almost 10 years older than most of the other recruits is a woman from the Bnei Menashe community of northeastern India, which claims descent from one of the so-called 10 lost tribes of Israel.
Among the male recruits is a member of the African Hebrew Israelites, a group of African-Americans living mainly in Dimona. He is the third member of his community to enlist in Caracal. There are even two Orthodox Jewish women in the group — quite unusual for a community whose women are more likely to do civilian national service than military services.
Caracal is the Hebrew name for a desert cat without noticeable physical differences between males and females. According to the Israel Defense Forces Spokesman’s Office, the battalion tends to attract a disproportionately large number of new immigrants and “lone soldiers,” who don’t have family in Israel. Alumni of Israeli youth movements are also heavily represented. “These are groups that are highly motivated and see serving in such a battalion as a mission,” said an IDF spokesman.
As they storm the hills, the troops are loaded down with equipment and gear. They all carry Tavor assault rifles, and their vests are stuffed with spare bullets, first-aid equipment and water bottles. Their heads are covered with large camouflage helmets, and their knees with protective pads. Many wear heavy bulletproof vests under their fatigues. Some, like Ariella Azair, even have stretchers attached to their backs.
Azair, 19, graduated from Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles. “In my high school, all the girls take a year off to study at a religious seminary in Israel before starting college, but I wanted to do something different,” she explains, beads of sweat pouring down her face. “I knew that if I joined the army, I wanted to have an intense experience, so I chose Caracal.”
Azair recalls a particularly tough week when she almost had second thoughts about her decision. “We were on a 20-kilometer trek, and I’d been walking for four and a half hours, after not sleeping the night before, and we were going up and down hills with all our equipment on our backs, and I thought to myself ‘Why am I here?’ I just kept thinking that here I am, while all my friends are in the middle of their summer vacation. But in the end, I knew why I was here,” Azair recounts.
Danielle Shamol, also 19, is from Jerusalem. She says the intensive training has taught her that she’s much more capable physically than she had thought. “When I feel I can’t move on,” she says, sharing her tried-and-true method for perseverance, “I simply bite my lips and tell myself, ‘You can do it.’”
Endayehwe Ayele was 3 when she immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia with her family. She says her mother was reluctant to sign the waiver required from the parents of only children before they can join a combat unit. “But I worked on her,” she says, smiling mischievously.
Asked what attracted her to this fighting battalion, Ayele responds: “It’s about proving that girls can, too.”
About a 30-minute drive away is a training camp where the more veteran members of the battalion — those who routinely guard the nearby border — are currently stationed. One of them is Agam Nackash, from the northern town of Nahariya. After immigrating to Israel from Peru 10 years ago, she says she has finally made some true friends here in this battalion. “This was not something I ever had before joining up. We get together even on our days off,” she says. Asked if she considers herself a feminist, Nackash responds: “Not at all.”
In many ways, the driving spirit behind Caracal is Alice Miller, a South-African-born Israeli who over 20 years ago took the Israel Air Force to court for the right to apply to its combat pilot’s course. It was her successful battle that opened the way for women to assume more powerful and responsible positions in the Israeli military.
Women in Caracal undergo four months of basic training, followed by another three months of advanced training. Women serving in noncombat positions usually do just three weeks of basic training. After the seven months, they are stationed on the Egyptian border, where typically the biggest threat they encounter comes from drug smugglers. In the past few years, however, the battalion has twice been engaged in combat.
Three years ago, a female Caracal soldier killed a member of a band of terrorists that was trying to cross the border. Last year, a battalion jeep was attacked by militants from across the border. One of the two soldiers who were wounded in the incident, a female officer, returned fire after she was shot and killed one of the attackers. Such stories of female bravery, says the IDF Spokesman’s Office have added to the allure of Caracal and may explain the growing number of women seeking combat duty.
Avior Halevi joined Caracal in 2010 and is the deputy commander of a company in the battalion. Many of the widely held assumptions about women who join Caracal, he says, are simply untrue. “There’s this stigma that they’re big women, that they’re not sensitive, that they’re not feminine,” he says. “Trust me, I see them when they leave the base, when they have all their makeup and jewelry on. And even when they’re here on the base, all you need to do is look at all the stuff they bring with them when they shower to know they’re very different than the guys.”
Tal Alon, a new immigrant from Austria, says “it’s actually fun” being a guy in a battalion dominated by women. “Don’t forget, these are Israeli girls,” he says, “so they have lots of chutzpah, which means that when they get shouted at, they talk right back to their commanders.”
They seem to take other liberties as well. A case in point is the dreamy-eyed soldier who is supposed to be paying attention to last-minute instructions from Commander Susha before moving to the next phase of their exercise. Instead, she is keeping herself busy braiding and unbraiding her neighbor’s long hair.
Something to add to the list of “only in a female-dominated combat battalion.”