The debate around the integration of IDF female personnel in combat roles that require close contact with the enemy is reignited as part of the larger discussion of border defense
Almost four decade ago, when I was drafted into the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) things were rather simple. If you were a male in good health, you became a combat soldier. A few volunteered for specialized training and became pilots, or naval officers, or submariners, or commandos, but most of us were simply divided among the infantry, armor, artillery, and combat engineering brigades.
These forces formed the core of the IDF, its heart and soul. The Chiefs of Staff all came from within their ranks and it was their ability to quickly absorb major reserve deployments that would swell their ranks three-fold and then attack the enemy en masse on his own ground that won all of Israel’s major wars. Even when surprised and woefully unprepared, with reserves not coming for days, the IDF ground forces stopped the carefully orchestrated and coordinated Egyptian and Syrian attacks in the Yom Kippur War and, suffering heavy losses, but never crumbling saved the country from annihilation.
But the last time such battles were fought was in “my” war, the 1982 First Lebanon War and even then it was on a rather small scale. Today, IDF ground forces are having an identity crisis; on one hand, the ability to maneuver in force in enemy territory is still considered essential. On the other, day to day activities require the static defense of the borders against occasional incursions, terrorist activity, and sporadic fire. The major maneuvering brigades are, to use corporate language, overqualified for this task and in any case they must maintain their readiness by nearly constant drilling. Thus were born the so-called “Batash” (Hebrew acronym for security maintenance) brigades. The men and women who staff these brigades are considered combat troops, but they undergo shorter training and are equipped with second-tier weaponry.
In the IDF, which long has had the ethos of the warrior and all the cache that comes with it, this second-class status does not do much for the morale of the critically important Batash brigades, a situation that was bemoaned by the general in charge of this part of the IDF, Brigadier General Amir Ebstein. A complicating factor in this situation is the issue of women soldiers serving in combat roles in the IDF.
Coincidentally, literally the first women soldiers who were considered “combat” served under my command in a HAWK surface to air missile battery in 1983. While such roles and more have been opened to women since that time, Israel has always resisted placing women soldiers in large numbers under enemy fire.
As much as we hate to admit it, our response to death is a mixture of the actuarial and the emotional. We are willing to accept many deaths in certain scenarios like traffic accidents, but only a much fewer number in others, such as terrorist attacks. In Israel, the loss of young women, each representing on average three children that would not be born, is acceptable within the military framework, but only in small numbers. This is why there are female fighter pilots and naval officers and border police guards, but no females serve in the maneuvering ground forces. The image of burning Merkavah tanks with charred female bodies inside them, is unpalatable to the Israeli public opinion.
The IDF has been running a pilot program for female tank crews for two years now and by all accounts the program has met with great success. Female tank crews met all the requirements that were set before them. The recommendation was to proceed with placing women in the armor battalions that would be deployed as part of the border defense or Batash forces yet the implementation of this recommendation has been delayed. No officer wants to take responsibility for the delay, fearing the inevitable public outcry, but no officer wants to see Israeli women blown to pieces or even worse taken prisoner as happened to Gil’ad Shalit in the early 2000’s when his tank was disabled by an IED and then attacked on the Gaza border. The idea of an Israeli female soldier in the hands of the Islamic Jihad is truly horrifying to anyone who knows anything about Israel.
Br. Gen. Ebstein is recommending that the morale issues of the border defense force be solved by taking it out of the Ground Forces Command where it is always destined to play second fiddle to the maneuvering forces and creating for it a separate command within the IDF general staff, the Border Defense Command. This command will doubtlessly come with its own insignia and a separate hierarchy of “coolness”, which is precisely the point.
As to women in tank turrets? There is a distinct enthusiasm gap for this idea between retired and serving commanders. The retired ones are gung ho; the serving ones, much less so. Let me leave you with a comment by one of the retirees, ex-Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen (ret.) Eizenkot: “the pilot program was a success, plus, they are not going to fight in the Bacha Valley,” he said in the political language of retired generals.
The Bacha Valley, or the Valley of Tears, is the location of a major tank battle between regular IDF forces and the Syrian Army in October of 1973. In this battle, the 100 tank strong Number 7 tank brigade, surprised and vastly outnumbered, with no reserve or resupply for three days, defeated the 500 tank strong Syrian attack losing in the process close to three quarters of its tanks and support vehicles and destroying more than half of the enemy force. The images of the burning Centurion tanks with their IDF insignia is burnt forever on the mind of every Israeli. What Gen. Eizenkot was saying, in fact, was this: thank God there were no women in these tanks and let’s make sure there never will be.
For the Hebrew story on Ynet and some very cool pictures of both male and female Israeli tank crews, please click here.