When a group of young Israeli women were woken up at 6:30 a.m. on October 7, they had no idea they would be making history as the first female armored crews in Israel, and perhaps the world, to participate in active battle.
In an interview with Channel 12 this week, the combat soldiers spoke of thundering along main roads to get to some of the 20 southern Israeli communities that came under massive assault that morning, running down terrorists, and securing breaches on the border with the Gaza Strip.
One of the officers in the unit, identified as Hagar, told Channel 12: “[My commander] comes into our room at 6:30 a.m., wakes me up and tells us that there’s a terrorist infiltration. We didn’t really understand the enormity of the event.”
The soldiers are part of a company of all-women tank operators, which was made permanent in the Israel Defense Forces in 2022 after a two-year pilot program. The company, in the Caracal mixed-gender light infantry battalion, usually operates along the Egyptian border — not in wars or in fighting behind enemy lines.
On the morning of October 7, they left their base at Nitzana, on the Egyptian border, and drove north as fast as they could, in tanks and an armored Humvee. In one of a number of highly irregular decisions IDF commanders were forced to make that day, the tanks were given the okay to drive on civilian roads — at speeds far higher than recommended.
At first, they discovered breaches along the border with Gaza, along with dozens of terrorists. Leaving a tank there to protect the border and prevent more Gazans from flooding into Israel, they headed to Kibbutz Holit, while also sending a tank to battle Hamas terrorists at Kibbutz Sufa.
Israel is the first country that incorporate women as warriors in tanks. via Keshet 12 News pic.twitter.com/9HgmQowGkv
— Niv Calderon (@nivcalderon) November 26, 2023
Another of the armored crew commanders, Karni, spoke of the devastation they witnessed on the approach to Kibbutz Holit: “We realized we’re at war.”
“They told me there were terrorists in all the trees around me, so we just started firing. We started firing bunker busters at the terrorists that were up close, and then mortar shells at those further away,” Michal, another officer in the unit, said in the Channel 12 report.
“I could see the hits, I saw [the terrorists] fall down,” she added.
Hila, also a commander, told Channel 12 that none of them had been trained on the weapons system installed on the armored Humvee. “Within 10 minutes, we’d all become experts: how to run it, how to fire, how to slam the brakes,” she said.
“We approached the border and saw burned bodies of terrorists hiding in the trees. We were still firing as we went through to make sure we got everyone,” Michal said.
Another commander, also called Michal, described her experience at one of the border breaches at the southern end of the Gaza Strip. “As we continued we realized that those 50 terrorists — that was just the beginning. Then we started getting eyewitness reports from Kibbutz Holit, so I left a tank at the border, told [the operator] she had permission to fire at will, and then set out for Holit.”
“We saw terrorists everywhere, and I told the driver — just run them down… We get there and the gate is closed, a shell-shocked soldier runs out shouting “terrorists, terrorists!… So we smashed through the gate,” she said.
Asked about their first time shooting at terrorists, the soldiers were stoic.
“I feel like it’s exactly what we trained for. We were really prepared for everything,” a commander identified as Tamar told Channel 12. “We just did what our brains and our hands knew how to do.”
“In the moment you don’t think, ‘Am I saving that person, or that home?’ You understand — there’s a terrorist and I have to kill him before he gets into one of the border communities,” she added.
The newly appointed commander of the Paran Brigade, Col. Shemer Raviv, couldn’t be prouder of his female armored crews, who battled terrorists for some 17 hours straight on that day.
“When the tanks arrived, they broke up the battles,” Raviv told Channel 12. “Once they took those two positions… the terrorists understood they could either run or they would die. And the girls in those tanks, the warriors, with three tanks at that point in the attack, they fought in a most impressive way. They operated in such a way that they were seemingly not trained for. They fired inside Israeli communities, drove on main roads, and I believe that thanks to their actions in that area, we prevented the attack from moving further south.”
But these soldiers weren’t quick to accept accolades for their “historic” battle.
“So what? What does it matter? Did the terrorist know there were girls in the tanks? No. You think they saw Michal’s hair sticking out of the helmet? No. Boys, girls — what does it matter?” Hila said.
Tamar agreed. “You keep saying ‘heroines’ and ‘historic’… I don’t feel like a hero. I feel like I’m a soldier that was given a job, and I did my job. I think anyone would have done that.”
“This was not a battle with human beings. There was no humanity here, and my aim is to protect people. Their aim was to kill people,” Hila added.
For her part, Hagar said that there was no time to be scared. “You think about the civilians trapped in their homes and the people that needed us. You understand that there was no room for fear.”
Critics of gender integration in the military 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 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.
For Raviv, the battle was proof that female combat soldiers are in the IDF to stay.