The Israeli army’s first female combat tank operators will finish their initial training next week and move to deployment along the borders of southern Israel, as part of a pilot program to assess fuller gender integration in the Armored Corps.
The development comes amid a renewed backlash against women in combat positions and co-ed military service in general. On Sunday, dozens of former officers sent a letter to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman calling for him to scale back the integration of women into fighting units.
In March, the army announced that it was choosing 15 women from a cohort of mixed-gender combat recruits who drafted that month to take part in the pilot tank program.
Two of the candidates washed out in basic training, but the remaining 13 women then moved to the Armored Corps’ Shizafon base in the Negev where they completed training on the Merkava Mark 3 model, which they will operate.
Next month, the 13 candidates will take up positions in southern Israel for the final stage of the pilot program. They will serve in the army’s 80th Division, which is responsible for the southern Negev and Arava deserts, and help guard the southern borders, a tank officer said earlier this year, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The female recruits will not be integrated into the Armored Corps’ combat brigades — like the 188th, 7th and 401st Armored Brigades — but will serve in the newly formed Border Defense Force, which is meant to secure Israel’s borders but not cross them.
This pilot program is part of a growing trend of women taking combat positions in the Israel Defense Forces. Over the past five years the number of female combat soldiers has increased fivefold.
Critics of the gender integration often decry it as a dangerous social experiment with potential ramifications on national security, while defenders generally trumpet it as a long-needed corrective measure, one that has already occurred in many Western countries.
Detractors note that some requirements for combat soldiers have been lowered — which they say is a sign that effectiveness is being sacrificed — and that female soldiers suffer stress injuries at a higher rate.
In the letter sent to Defense Minister Liberman, the approximately 70 reservist officers, including a former brigadier general, called for an end to female combat service “in order to prevent serious and unnecessary damage to the IDF’s power, to the female recruits and the female combat soldiers who are endangering their lives to ensure the security of the state.”
Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Yuval Heled, the former head of the Institute for Military Physiology at Tel Hashomer’s Sheba Medical Center, disputed some of these claims, specifically about changing standards.
He told The Times of Israel in 2015 that while some requirements have been reduced, like how far a soldier has to run and how much they have to be able to carry, this has been true not only with female troops, but across the army, as the military reevaluates what is actually necessary for combat service and what is excessive and more likely to cause injury than prepare troops for war.
Military physiologists have also been working to better adapt equipment and training methods for women’s bodies in order to prevent injuries for female soldiers.
The army insists that it is allowing more women to serve in combat positions out of practical, not social, considerations, saying it requires all the soldiers that are available to it.
The tank pilot program in particular has met considerable resistance.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Avigdor Kahalani, a famed commander of the IDF’s 7th Armored Brigade, told the Galey Israel radio station that tanks were not the right place for women.
“The role of a woman is to be a mother, to bring children into the world,” he said.
Former IDF general and current head of the Israel Electric Corporation Yiftach Ron-Tal claimed the proposal to allow women to operate tanks was a “scandal,” and part of a conspiracy by far-left “freaks” to debilitate the army. He later retracted the comment and apologized, amid backlash.
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.
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.
The candidates will serve in all-female tanks, in order to avoid modesty issues. Serving on the southern 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 and shrinking the amount of flexibility the army has to move people between different crews.
The trial program is expected to explore how to address some of these issues.
The 15 candidates are being monitored throughout the pilot by nutritionists, doctors and exercise instructors to determine if they can handle the challenges of the position.
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.