The New Combat Role for Women in the IDF

by Sybil Kaplan January 2, 2019
 

 

In the last century, women played a vital role in the underground struggle for Israel’s independence, including participation in signals and combat roles in the pre-state military groups: Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi.

Before the establishment of the State, women served in combat roles in the militias that would become the Israel Defense Forces. The rate of women who took part in combat istock-157725965organizations stood at 20 percent. The Haganah stated in its laws that its lines were open to “every Jewish male or female, who is prepared and trained to fulfill the obligation of national defense.” Most served as medics, communications specialists and weaponeers.

Women in Combat

The Equality Amendment to the Military Service law, enacted in January 2000, completed the Supreme Court ruling as it defined the right of female soldiers to volunteer for combat professions. This law stated that “The right of women to serve in any role in the IDF is equal to the right of men.” The amendment drafted by female lawmakers granted equal opportunities to women found physically and personally suitable for a job. The question of who and what was “suitable” was left to the discretion of military leaders on a case-by-case basis.

The five most hardcore battle roles for women were: 1) air force pilots (as of 2014, 38 female soldiers had become IDF pilots); 2) the Caracal battalion, which guards the borders with Egypt and Jordan, ambushes enemy forces and thwarts terror attacks; 3) Oketz, where each soldier is partnered to a dog and the soldiers go into the field doing everything together. The dogs sniff out explosives, track down terrorists and neutralize hostile threats; 4) the 76th battalion of the Combat engineering brigade has both male and female soldiers. They go into the heart of enemy territory with other combat troops and help protect them from unconventional weapons. They neutralize atomic biological chemical warfare threats in the battlefield during combat; 5) the Snapir unit, which presents the first line of Israel’s naval defense. They are comprised of male and female soldiers who operate small, speedy motorboats with a modified machine gun to safeguard Israel’s ports and protect the naval bases. The soldiers also dive under military vessels to ensure that no explosive or mines are attached to them.

Over the years, women began to apply for combat support and light combat roles in the Artillery Corps, infantry units and armored divisions. Many women also joined the Border Police.

According to a Jerusalem Post article (August 10, 2018) a record number of women joined combat units this summer, 1,050, more than doubling the number from 2015 when there were some 500 female combat soldiers. 2017 saw more than 1,130 female combat soldiers with close to 900 serving in combat-intelligence units, 200 in the artillery corps and another 50 in the army’s infantry units. Yet women still account for less than 10 percent of combat troops.

According to IDF figures, 38 percent of female recruits have asked to be evaluated for combat service, and an estimated 90 percent of the positions in the IDF are also now open to women.

In early August 2018, the IDF warned commanders to implement IDF policy of protecting the rights of female soldiers.

The military has also recently updated its Joint Service order, which regulates interaction between troops of the opposite sex, defining appropriate attire while on base and enforcing mandatory separate sleeping quarters.

In 2017, there was a significant increase of interest by religious female draftees in combat-intelligence units where fighters are placed in one of the IDF’s co-ed battalions—Caracal, Bardalas and Lions of Jordan.

The army also intended to make several modifications to enable more women to complete their training in accordance with operational necessity. The IDF planned to allot more time to achieve the minimum level of physical fitness needed for combat positions to female recruits and changes were to be made to the equipment of female soldiers such as replacing heavy assault rifles with lighters M-16 rifles and smaller knee pads, helmets and armored vests that better fit women’s bodies.

Caracal

Caracal was the first combat unit for women, named for a desert cat. Founded in 2000, it was formed to allow men and women to serve together in light infantry. The coed unit has two-thirds females who are deployed along the Egyptian border to deal with smuggling, terrorist infiltration and African migrants and refugees. Women in Caracal are required to serve three years, rather than two years. Caracal Battalion is a highly operational force which undergoes training like any combat infantry.

Lions of Jordan

The Lions of Jordan were joined by lionesses in July 2015. Their operational activity focuses on the northern Jordan Valley on the eastern border of Israel, tasked with securing the Jordan Valley, where threats appear from Palestinian Authority cities such as Tubas and Tayasi, Shechem and Jenin.

According to the unit’s first battalion commander, female fighters are “more motivated to prove themselves than male fighters, and they have better aim at the firing range or in exercises for the simple reason that they have higher concentration and better discipline.”

This was a mixed gender course, with more than 100 recruits to be deployed with the Lions of Jordan Battalion.

Graduates, who learned about types of villages, civilians and settlers, are involved in securing the Jordan Valley, including how to enter and search houses, how to catch a terrorist and how to shoot tear gas. The people are trained to know how to speak to Palestinian civilians who live in urban areas.

The battalion’s flag is red and white. Soldiers of the battalion wear a green beret and a warrior’s brooch designed by the founders of the battalion, a pin bearing the image of a lion with wings.

Bardalas

In August 2015, the army recruited for another coed unit modeled on Caracal and the Lions of Jordan, called Bardalas. The Bardalas base is located near Nitzana, an educational youth village and community settlement in southern Israel, in the western Negev desert, adjacent to the Egyptian border.

There are roughly an equal number of men and women, carrying out security along the border against attempts to infiltrate and threaten the border communities. Soldiers patrol the border 24 hours a day, closely coordinating with observation units and monitoring the security fence that runs along Route 10. They use Humvees and other vehicles to carry out their duties.

The women do something different every day to be ready at all times for different threats. The entire border fence with Egypt is 242 kilometers (150 miles) long from Gaza to Eilat. Some sections include coiled barbed wire on each side and an original as well a heightened section. There is another layer of fencing on the other side in places. The dirt along the fence is kept flattened so that anything crossing it can be tracked.

Slowly these units are being expanded to guard different areas of the country. Members of the Bardelas spend 11 days on base and three days off.

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