The army has taken a significant but cautious step toward moving women into the combat ranks of the Armored Corps.
In the coming months, the army plans to begin training female recruits as tank commanders, liable in an emergency to a summons to the front lines, but deploying them, at least initially, as combat instructors and drill sergeants, the Israel Defense Forces website reported on Monday.
“Cognitively, physiologically, mentally, women are as fit for the task as men,” Brig. Gen. Yigal Slovik, the head of manpower in the IDF Ground Forces, told the army’s site. “And yet, during generations of drafts, the IDF has missed 50 percent of quality manpower.”
The decision comes amid ongoing angst and frequent friction over the issue of female service in the army, where religious soldiers have risen to prominence in the combat units and ultra-Orthodox soldiers are expected to serve in an increasingly greater capacity.
In March, the Knesset passed into law the Equal Service Bill, which calls for the drafting of ultra-Orthodox young men from 2017, in numbers to be determined by the IDF and the Defense Ministry. If the quota is not met, those who have not been exempted from service — 1,000 students per year — will face economic sanctions and perhaps criminal charges.
The decision to draft the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, has already forced the army to change its norms. This year, for the first time, the army announced that it will adhere to the Haredi interpretation of the laws of the Sabbatical year, prompting local agriculturalists to claim that the Defense Ministry had “declared war” on Israeli farmers, but also allowing Haredi soldiers to eat along with the rest of the troops in the same mess rooms.
Additionally, as the role of women in the army has increased — ever since the Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that Alice Miller must be granted entry into the Israeli Air Force Flight School — so too has the friction surrounding female integration.
Public singing, for instance, has been a hot-button issue, with several religious soldiers choosing to disobey army orders and walk out of events in which women were allowed to sing on stage. Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, the head of the hesder yeshiva in Elon Moreh, reportedly told Radio Kol Hai in 2011 that if male soldiers were forced to sit through ceremonies in which women sang alone on stage, rabbis would instruct soldiers to leave the hall “even if there is a firing squad outside.”
In adapting to this reality, the army has created several Haredi battalions that are entirely off-limits to women and, at the same time, pushed women forward in different roles, including in the mixed Karakal unit, the Artillery Corps, the intelligence directorate, the air force (as fighter pilots) and elsewhere.
The plan to integrate the Armored Corps, if authorized, calls for training women soldiers as tank commanders. These women will, after the eight-month training period, be equipped to serve in a mixed-gender tank, where the driver, loader, and gunner are male.
The proper integration, Slovik said, would be handled just as it was during Operation Protective Edge this summer in Gaza, where religious combat soldiers from hesder yeshivas all served under men alone.
Additionally, the IDF Ground Forces has opened all positions within the Artillery Corps to women, including the Skylark UAV unit, which has become an increasingly central part of the fighting forces and was in high demand this summer — in the West Bank, while looking for the three murdered teens; and in Gaza.
The Ground Forces is also aiming in 2015 to form an ultra-Orthodox combat company within the Givati Brigade and to increase the presence of the Haredi rear-echelon, combat-support troops in the Judea and Samaria Division of the Central Command.
In the interview with the army site, Slovik noted that “the world over, women constitute two-three percent of the fighters in the army. In the IDF they constitute three percent, but our aspiration is to develop.”