Putting women in tanks, IDF treads new ground
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Putting women in tanks, IDF treads new ground

15 recruits set to begin training for all-female tank crews; will learn on Merkava Mark 3, eventually deploy on Jordan and Egypt borders

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative. A female tank instructor peeks out of her vehicle during an exercise on May 4, 2012. (Israel Defense Forces/Flickr)
Illustrative. A female tank instructor peeks out of her vehicle during an exercise on May 4, 2012. (Israel Defense Forces/Flickr)

In the next month, 15 female Israel Defense Forces recruits will begin the process of becoming the first women to serve in the Armored Corps, as part of a pilot program to assess fuller gender integration in the unit, a tank officer said Thursday.

The IDF announced in November that it was considering allowing women to serve in the Armored Corps, drawing blowback from former high-ranking officers and religious groups.

The 15 soldiers will be picked from a crop of new recruits drafted into mixed-gender combat battalions. They will go through standard basic combat training, before advancing in August to specialty tank training, where they will learn how to operate the Merkava Mark 3 model.

In December, they will take positions in the army’s 80th Division, which is responsible for the southern Negev and Arava deserts, and help guard the borders with Egypt and Jordan, the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A female IDF tank instructor during an exercise on January 1, 2013. (Cpl. Zev Marmorstein/IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
A female IDF tank instructor during an exercise on January 1, 2013. (Cpl. Zev Marmorstein/IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

They will serve in all-female tanks, in order to avoid issues of modesty. Serving on the Egyptian and Jordanian borders, they will be less likely to need to cross into enemy territory.

However, all-male and all-female crews would come with their drawbacks, creating two distinct forces.

Today, in an emergency, a soldier from one tank crew can be switched with a soldier from another crew; not so if one of the soldiers is from a male crew and the other from a female crew. Such practical issues will also be investigated during the trial program.

By March 2018, the pilot program will officially end, and the military will review the results, the tank officer said.

“We’re doing a test. After the test, we’ll have answers — if it’s possible or impossible for there to be girls [in the Armored Corps],” he said.

A military official told the Haaretz newspaper last month that if the program is successful, female tank operators will likely help guard Israel’s borders, rather than take part in fighting behind enemy lines.

Until now, women have been barred from serving in the tank brigades as it was believed that they could not physically handle the rigors of the Armored Corps. Female soldiers have, however, served as tank instructors.

Israeli soldiers load shells into their tank following the first death on the Israeli side of the Golan since the eruption of the Syrian civil war more than three years ago, near the Israeli village of Alonei Habashan, June 22, 2014 (AP/Oded Balilty)
Israeli soldiers load shells into their tank following the first death on the Israeli side of the Golan since the eruption of the Syrian civil war more than three years ago, near the Israeli village of Alonei Habashan, June 22, 2014 (AP/Oded Balilty)

The 15 candidates will be monitored throughout the pilot program by nutritionists, doctors and exercise instructors to determine if they can handle the challenges of the position, Ynet reported last week.

Since the army’s initial announcement about reconsidering the integration of the tank brigades, the argument over female enlistment has continued to rage. On Tuesday, Channel 2 news broadcast footage of a prominent rabbi saying that army service turns Jewish girls into gentiles. His comment sparked a frenzy of denunciation by politicians, though one religious lawmaker said the rabbi was “brave” for making his remarks.

Within the Armored Corps, there has also been some opposition voiced to gender integration.

Before the army announced its plans to consider allowing women to serve in the tank brigades, the head of the Armored Corps, Brig. Gen. Guy Hasson, told The Times of Israel he was concerned that such a move would harm the “image” of the unit.

“We’re fighters. We’re trying to keep an image as fighters,” he said.

“There are still people who look at us and say, there’s infantry and then there’s armored. You’re less ‘fighters.’ You’re less,” he said.

Getting the guys, too

In recent years, the Armored Corps has become one of the least popular units for recruits. In 2016, just 0.7 percent of drafted soldiers requested a spot in the IDF’s tank brigades, Hasson said at the end of last year.

In December, a group of 86 recruits who were meant to enlist in the Armored Corps refused to do so and were sent to army prison.

Most were later convinced to join the tank brigades, but the incident prompted a need for additional efforts to market the corps, the officer said.

Yaakov Selavan, a former officer in the Armored Corps, speaks with a newly inducted soldier who was jailed after refusing to serve in the tank brigades, in the army's Prison 6 on November 30, 2016. (Courtesy Yaakov Selavan)
Yaakov Selavan, a former officer in the Armored Corps, speaks with a newly inducted soldier who was jailed after refusing to serve in the tank brigades, in the army’s Prison 6 on November 30, 2016. (Courtesy Yaakov Selavan)

“In Golani, you go home with the Tavor [assault rifle]. In Armored, you don’t go home with a tank for the weekend,” he said.

The tank brigades have therefore stepped up their efforts to “expose” people to the units.

“Yesterday, we had a prospective recruits conference, where we invited them to find out about the corps and we showed them the tanks and let them go in and try them out,” he said.

The next draft date for the Armored Corps is on March 19, and with it, another possibility of an embarrassing mass refusal to serve.

To combat this, representatives from the unit have been “meeting with people in their homes,” he said, in order to convince them that the Armored Corps offers its soldiers meaningful military service.

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