Denying reports, IDF says no new decision in shelving of female tank operators
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Denying reports, IDF says no new decision in shelving of female tank operators

Army says there’s been no change since last summer, when the integration of women was frozen due to the financial cost, despite a successful pilot program

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

A female soldier operates a tank in the Negev desert in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)
A female soldier operates a tank in the Negev desert in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces on Sunday denied reports that it had made a final decision to block female soldiers from serving in tanks, saying that the situation had not changed since their integration in the Armored Corps was frozen several months ago.

Last year, the military attempted a pilot program to determine the feasibility of having all-women tank crews. This experiment ended last June and was determined to have been a successful proof of concept, but the army nevertheless decided that full gender integration of the Armored Corps would be shelved for the time being due to the significant costs in manpower and resources.

On Sunday morning, Army Radio reported that IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi had made a final decision on the matter and officially ruled out the possibility of female or mixed-gender tank units.

The article triggered a flurry of follow-up reports by other Israeli news outlets, incorrectly repeating that a final decision had been made on the issue, as well as denouncements from feminist organizations and statements of support by men’s groups.

Israel’s 13 first female tank operators, who completed their training on December 5, 2017, pose for a photograph at the Armored Corps’ monument in Latrun, outside Jerusalem. (Israel Defense Forces)

Those false reports appeared to be corroborated by a statement from the military, which confirmed that the integration program had been halted, but failed to clearly indicate that it was a decision made nearly a year ago, rather than a new state of affairs, as the Army Radio report had claimed.

Later, the military denied that Kohavi has issued an official decision on the matter. An IDF spokesperson told The Times of Israel that Kohavi has not held significant discussions on the topic since taking over as chief of staff in January.

“The topic of converting the Armored Corps into a coed unit is not being discussed by Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi at this time,” the military said.

As of Sunday, the proposal to form all-female tank crews remains frozen, but has not been completely ruled out — the same status it has held since last summer.

“The required knowledge regarding this [integration] process, if and when it will be decided upon, still exists,” the army said.

Last summer, with the end of the pilot program, discussions were held within the IDF Ground Forces about the potential of introducing women into combat roles within the Armored Corps.

During the assessments, “it became clear that the next trial stage would require significantly more manpower and resources to undertake,” the military said in a statement. “It was decided at the time that it would be preferable to strengthen existing coed combat units rather than establish new coed combat units,” the IDF said.

Women currently serve in various combat roles in the infantry, air force, Artillery Corps and special forces.

Last June, Lt. Col. Benny Aharon, the head of command training in the Armored Corps, said that female soldiers had achieved all the goals set for them in the pilot program, which was carried out under Kohavi’s predecessor Gadi Eisenkot.

A group of female soldiers take part in a training exercise in the tank commanders’ course, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The program was designed to see if women could make up the four-person crews necessary to operate tanks in “routine security operations” within Israel’s borders or just beyond them — not in wars or in fighting deep behind enemy lines. Female soldiers are already permitted to serve as tank instructors within the Armored Corps.

After the pilot program, the tank operators were absorbed as regular infantry fighters into the mixed-gender Caracal Battalion.

The program faced considerable criticism after it was announced in November 2016. One former general called it a “left-wing” conspiracy to weaken the military. Others, however, have lauded the program as a necessary corrective.

As the pilot program was designed to test the women’s ability to perform routine border security, their training did not include all-out war exercises.

The program was part of a growing trend of women filling combat positions in the IDF. In recent years the number of female combat soldiers has increased nearly fivefold, from 547 in 2012 to 2,700 in 2017. Last summer, some 1,000 women were inducted into the IDF to serve in combat units, the largest number to do so in the country’s history.

A group of female soldiers take part in a training exercise in the tank commanders’ course, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

Critics of gender integration often decry it as a dangerous social experiment with potential ramifications for national security, while defenders generally trumpet it as a long-needed measure, one that has already been implemented in many Western countries.

Detractors note that some requirements for the female combat soldiers have been lowered — which they say is a sign that effectiveness is being sacrificed — and that servicewomen suffer stress injuries at a higher rate.

The army insists that it is allowing more women to serve in combat positions out of practical considerations, not due to a social agenda, saying it requires all the woman- and manpower available to it.

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