Interview'No one can defend the border better than us'

After heading coed battalion, an IDF officer sees women soon leading the charge

As he leaves Caracal, Lt. Col. Erez Shabtay hails performance of mixed-gender units over same-sex ones, says his troops cut smuggling on Egyptian border by 80%

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Soldiers of the Caracal Battalion prepare for a hike as part of their training on September 3, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Soldiers of the Caracal Battalion prepare for a hike as part of their training on September 3, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

ISRAEL-EGYPT BORDER — In two years, Lt. Col. Erez Shabtay believes, the Israel Defense Forces will, for the first time ever, elevate a female officer to be head of an infantry battalion.

“There’s a good chance that in another two years, we’ll see the first female infantry battalion commander. I can’t tell you the name, but it’s going to happen,” Shabtay told The Times of Israel recently while driving in his jeep near the Egyptian border, where his battalion serves.

Shabtay could not say for sure who the woman will be, though he had “a few names of people who I believe will get there.” But he was sure who she will replace: Lt. Col. Guy Basson, who himself replaced Shabtay on Wednesday as the commander of Caracal, the IDF’s first mixed-gender foot battalion.

Neither Shabtay nor Basson started their careers in mixed-gender. Shabtay served in the all-male Kfir Infantry Brigade and counter-terrorism Duvdevan Unit before applying to become commander of the Caracal Battalion, which today is one of four mixed-gender infantry battalions.

“I didn’t know anything about Caracal beforehand. I first learned about it in this position,” Shabtay said.

“What I’ve seen in this battalion opened me up to a totally different world. We have female fighters and officers who are amazing, in terms of their cognitive ability, their creativity, their bravery and their courage,” he said.

Outgoing commander of the Caracal Battalion Lt. Col. Erez Shabtay addresses soldiers in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

Basson has more familiarity with mixed-gender units, having just served as the chief operations officer of the Jordanian border-focused Valley Division, which commands two other coed battalions.

In his final months in command of Caracal, Shabtay oversaw two major issues in the unit — a crackdown on drug smuggling along the Egyptian border and preparing for the arrival of female tank operators.

Outgoing commander of the Caracal Battalion Lt. Col. Erez Shabtai directs soldiers during an exercise in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The latter has come alongside a debate over whether women can serve in combat units. But Shabtay brushes aside the thorny issues of gender and ability.

“There’s a bar…. If you pass, you can be a combat soldier. If you don’t, you can’t,” he said. “And I didn’t set the bar; the IDF did it.”

No one does this better

Caracal was formed in 2000 as a small company of male and female combat troops. Four years later, it was turned into a battalion, with hundreds of troops.

For a decade, it remained the only mixed-gender infantry battalion in the IDF, until the Lions of Jordan Battalion was formed in 2014, followed shortly thereafter by the Bardelas, or Cheetah, battalion in 2015, and the Lions of the Valley Battalion in 2017, bringing the number of female combat soldiers from a few hundred in 2012 to several thousand today.

The units primarily defend Israel’s borders with Jordan and Egypt as part of the IDF’s Border Defense Corps.

The dramatic rise in the number of female combat soldiers has been accompanied by ongoing debate — and occasionally court cases — about gender integration in the military.

Illustrative: Male and female combat soldiers of the Caracal Battalion train to fight an Islamic State assault on southern Israel in late March 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

Last week, Defense Minister Benny Gantz reportedly said he opposed full gender integration. He had been challenged in a cabinet meeting by Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, who had called for the military to open up all units to all genders, determining who can serve where purely by ability.

“There won’t be a company of female soldiers in Golani,” he said, according to the Kan broadcaster, referring to the infantry brigade. He maintained, though, that he encouraged the military to offer more roles to women.

“I can’t speak about Golani,” Shabtay said when asked if he shares Gantz’s view. “I can speak about my battalion. I have no question about the ability of women to be combat fighters. If you want, I’ll take you to see a live-fire combat exercise with explosions and tanks. Female soldiers crawling, attacking, shooting, giving orders. And we’ve also been tested under fire. Our soldiers, under fire, did their job amazingly. We don’t let up on them about anything — about physical fitness, about marksmanship. Whoever can’t cut it is out, just like a man.”

He noted that his battalion recently came in third in an IDF-wide physical fitness evaluation, with one of his soldiers placing first among female troops.

Shabtay also stressed that his female soldiers had to be motivated in order to get into the Caracal Battalion. To get into the combat unit — which is made up of 70% women and 30% men — the female soldiers had to agree to serve an additional eight months in the IDF at the pay scale of conscript troops, not at the higher salaries that other soldiers who sign on for additional time receive.

Soldiers of the Caracal Battalion prepare for a hike as part of their training on September 3, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“When you have good people, you can do anything,” he said.

One of the most common arguments against gender integration in the military is that women are physically weaker than men on average. In order to accommodate for those differences, the IDF has lowered some fitness standards for female combat troops. In one oft-raised case, the military permitted female soldiers to use a low stool to help them climb over a wall, something their male counterparts can’t use.

Shabtay acknowledged those issues, but rejected them as ultimately insignificant.

“Yes, in general, if you take men and you take women, by mass, men are stronger. They run faster, they lift heavier weights, and so on. But you need to understand that we are preparing people for a mission. We are a border defense battalion. And I say to you with a clear conscience that there is no battalion in the heavy infantry brigades who can do the job of defending the border better than we can. That’s the most important thing,” he said.

Indeed, a contentious 2015 study by the US Marine Corps on the efficacy of mixed-gender units found that all-male units were unequivocally better suited to physical tasks, being faster, more accurate and less prone to injury. But the same study also found that mixed-gender teams excelled in complex decision-making and had fewer disciplinary issues.

“A coed battalion like ours has more benefits than a homogeneous battalion would,” Shabtay said. “The heterogeneity and the differences only make us stronger.”

Unlike Golani and the other heavy infantry brigades, Caracal is not expected to operate deep behind enemy lines, nor is it trained for it. Rather, it is meant to patrol and secure the frontier.

A male soldier from the coed Caracal Battalion applies camouflage paint to a female soldier’s face before an exercise in 2011. (Ori Shifrin/Israel Defense Forces/Flickr)

“I need my male and female soldiers to shoot well, to hit their targets, to use machine guns properly, to respond to incoming fire in the best way, and they need to know how to operate in a desert environment,” Shabtay said.

“In terms of border defense, we’re experts. That’s our expertise. I don’t need my battalion to deal with carrying heavy packs for 40 kilometers (25 miles) like in Golani. That’s not a level of fitness we need. It doesn’t interest me,” he said.

The ‘peaceful’ Egyptian border

What does interest him is smuggling. The past two years have seen hundreds of smuggling attempts along the Egyptian border, bringing billions of shekels’ worth of drugs and contraband into the country each year according to official estimates. In some cases, these drug runs can turn violent, with smugglers opening fire at the Israeli soldiers or police attempting to stop them.

“We have a war here with a criminal cartel,” according to Shabtay.

In general, the smuggling attempts look like this: A group of men drive up to the 10-foot-high stainless steel fence from the Egyptian side of the border. They put up ladders, climb up to the top and throw over sacks of drugs — sometimes dozens of kilograms’ worth — to smugglers waiting on the other side. The men on the Israeli side quickly collect the packages, load them into trucks and drive away.

“It’s all over in a minute and a half,” Shabtay said.

תחת אש: כך ניסו להבריח עשרות ק"ג סמים בגבול מצרים • תיעוד

תחת אש: כך ניסו להבריח עשרות ק"ג סמים בגבול מצרים • אלמוג בוקר עם התיעוד המלא >>

Posted by ‎חדשות 13‎ on Sunday, January 20, 2019

Despite the speed of these drug runs, the Caracal commander said that while they do not always make it in time to halt the smuggling attempts, it is extremely rare for his troops to miss them entirely.

According to the IDF’s assessments, Bedouin smugglers made about 300 attempts in 2020 and roughly the same number in 2019. The beginning of 2021 was on track to match those years, with approximately 100 smuggling attempts recorded by April.

Since then, the Caracal Battalion and a number of other military and law enforcement units have significantly stepped up their efforts to halt the smuggling efforts, and they have borne fruit.

The past three months have seen only about 20 smuggling attempts, an 80 percent reduction, a figure that Shabtay called “phenomenal.”

There is no battalion in the heavy infantry brigades who can do the job of defending the border better than we can

Of these, the majority have been prevented by troops on the border. According to the military’s figures, troops on the border have prevented roughly the same number of smuggling attempts in the first half of 2021 — 50 — as they did in all of 2020. In all of 2019, the IDF prevented just 26 drug runs.

“When you have operational successes, and you seize the cars, seize the drugs, and capture the people, this diminishes their ability to act freely. This makes it very difficult and onerous for them. That’s the primary reason for the decrease,” Shabtay said.

Roughly one-sixth of the attempts have been violent, with smugglers opening fire at the soldiers trying to stop them.

Part of the fence along the Israeli-Egyptian border, north of Eilat. (Idobi, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

“In the past two years, we’ve had a number of shootouts that we’ve taken part in, where at the end we were able to hit [the shooters] and prevent the smuggling attempt,” Shabtay said.

In April, two such encounters took place, with soldiers shooting dead gunmen who opened fire at them in both cases.

Preparing for Islamic State

While the Caracal Battalion deals with smuggling on a day-to-day basis, it is not the unit’s primary concern.

Though Israel and Egypt are no longer at war, the border region still presents weighty challenges for the military, largely due to the presence of Sinai-based terrorists.

“There’s the Sinai Province [of the Islamic State terror group] and we must be prepared, in the best way possible, for an attack by it should it chose to do so,” Shabtay said.

The so-called Sinai Province is a relatively small branch of the Islamic State, but one that has presented a significant threat to the Egyptian military since 2014, carrying out major attacks against Egyptian soldiers and civilians in that time and firing a number of rockets toward Israel on at least two occasions.

The attacks also predate Islamic State. In August 2011, terrorists in Sinai carried out a series of cross-border attacks, killing six Israeli civilians, one police officer and one IDF soldier in the span of a few weeks.

A year later, terrorists snuck into Israel to attack a group of soldiers providing aid to African migrants stuck at the border fence. Troops from Caracal, both male and female, responded and killed the attackers, the first time the battalion saw combat. One female officer was awarded a medal for killing a terrorist. A second female soldier, who hid in the brush rather than engage the terrorists, was reportedly disciplined.

“When a soldier goes out on a mission, that’s what they’re thinking about. They are thinking about an attack on the border, an attack on soldiers, an attack on a community in the Nitzana area,” Shabtay said, referring to a small Israeli border town.

All-female tanks

Though Shabtay hails the importance of his mixed-gender unit — bringing together the capabilities of men and women — the tank crews that are due to join Caracal in the coming days will be made up of female soldiers alone.

“There are senior commanders, committees and so on. They decided how it would go. It was their decision,” he said.

The female tank crews are part of a new pilot program to assess the possibility of opening certain armored units to women. A previous trial in 2017-2018 was initially deemed a success but later found to have been inconclusive, failing to fully evaluate all aspects of operating a tank, according to the IDF. As such, and following a petition to the High Court of Justice by a number of teenage girls who wanted to serve in tanks, the military announced it was launching a fresh trial last year.

The participants completed their training last month and will now be deployed along the Egyptian border to test their mettle in the real world, Shabtay said.

In addition to them being the first operational all-female tank crews, their arrival will also make Caracal the only infantry battalion to have tanks directly under its command. Elsewhere in the IDF, while armored units often work with infantry units, they do so in a separate hierarchy.

“This turns the Caracal Battalion into the first multi-corps battalion in the IDF. I have infantry capabilities, intelligence-collection capabilities and armored capabilities under my command, organically. No other battalion commander in the IDF is infantry and has tanks that are his,” Shabtay said.

Family life

Shabtay’s time as commander of the Caracal Battalion has not been easy for his family, requiring large amounts of time on the unit’s base near the Egyptian border and away from his home in the central city of Modiin and his wife and three children, aged 7, 6 and 3.

“These past two years as a battalion commander have been challenging for my family,” he said, estimating that he had spent half his weekends over the last two years on base. “One weekend on, one weekend off. I had one time in two years where I was off for two weekends in a row.”

Outgoing commander of the Caracal Battalion Lt. Col. Erez Shabtay addresses soldiers in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

“Sunday is a hard goodbye. Putting them down to sleep on Saturday night — it’s hard for the kids to fall asleep because they know that I’m going to be gone for a few days and they won’t see me,” he said.

For his wife, who moved to Israel from the US following the 2006 Second Lebanon War, his time as commander of Caracal has been even more difficult, with no close family in the country to lend a hand.

“But even when we pay hard prices for it, she knows the importance of defending the State of Israel. A lot of this position was only possible because of her,” Shabtay said of his wife.

In his next position, Shabtay will command the Border Defense Corps training base, known as Sayarim, deep in the Arava desert.

The new job is even farther from Modiin, but the Shabtay family has decided to change tack: His wife and kids are moving to the Ovda Air Base, just a few minutes from Sayarim.

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