Inside story'Across the defense establishment, men rule the roost'

For Israeli women, the IDF war room’s glass ceiling is constantly reinforced

For weeks before Hamas invaded, female soldiers tried to sound the alarm. They battled heroically that day and since. But when it comes to decision-making, women are still left outside

A Israeli soldier walks in front of a tank near the border with Lebanon, Saturday, October 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
A Israeli soldier walks in front of a tank near the border with Lebanon, Saturday, October 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked during a press conference on December 2, eight weeks into Israel’s war with Hamas, if it bothered him that there are almost no women present when the most crucial decisions are made.

He replied that he didn’t understand the question.

“We heard a lot over the last weeks about the wisdom of the female surveillance soldiers and commanders, the female tank operators, and the kidnapped women who returned from captivity with their heads held high,” the reporter stated. “Does it bother you that in all the decisions you make about the fate of the country, all the debates that you oversee, there are almost no women in the room?”

“I have to say I don’t understand the question,” Netanyahu said in response. “First of all, there are women; the key decisions, including regarding the release of the hostages, are made in the broader [security] cabinet. In that cabinet, some women are included in the decisions. You need to understand how things work during a war because I’m not sure that you do.”

Despite Netanyahu’s claim that women — plural — are involved in making and approving decisions to do with the ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza, only one woman serves on the security cabinet — Transportation Minister Miri Regev. And while Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel and MK Yifat Shasha Biton serve as observers in the cabinet, neither of them has a vote.

When it comes to the war cabinet itself, the only members are Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and minister-without-portfolio Benny Gantz. The cabinet is observed by an additional two men – MKs Gadi Eisenkot and Ron Dermer.

While women have been historically underrepresented across the upper echelons of Israel’s political and security establishment, their absence has been particularly noted in light of the October 7 onslaught, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists committed the deadliest attack in Israel’s history, slaughtering more than 1,200 people and seizing some 240 hostages.

In the wake of the massacres, the heroism and bravery of Israeli women soldiers and civilians alike have been brought to light, prompting some to call for change.

Female soldiers operate a tank in the Negev desert in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

Higher-ups ignored warning signs from female soldiers

The shock terror onslaught caught the majority of the country by surprise on the morning of Simchat Torah, leaving civilian security teams to fend for themselves in the fight against heavily armed terrorists at the entrance to their communities while the IDF scrambled to react.

However, one group of largely female soldiers wasn’t surprised by what unfolded that morning, and instead, saw the realization of an elaborate operation planned by Hamas under their noses as their higher-ups ignored the warning signs.

IDF surveillance soldiers, known in Hebrew as tatzpitaniyot, are almost exclusively women and are tasked with collecting real-time intelligence information 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Soldiers are seen monitoring surveillance cameras at a command center at the IDF’s Re’im camp in southern Israel, November 5, 2023 (Israel Defense Forces)

The job is an intensive one, as the soldiers are tasked with gathering information through a variety of cameras, sensors and maps, and are expected to be acutely aware of every small change that happens in the 15-30 kilometers of land that they are each responsible for monitoring.

The soldiers are taught that they’re the first line of defense and that ignoring a single blip on their screens could mean the difference between life and death.

At least three months before the Hamas onslaught, surveillance soldiers serving on the Nahal Oz base less than a kilometer from the Gaza border were reporting signs of unusual activity, including Hamas operatives conducting training sessions multiple times a day, digging holes and placing explosives along the border fence.

The information collected by the surveillance soldiers was relayed to their commanders and should have been passed further up the chain of command, including to intelligence officials who would have been tasked with deciding what steps needed to be taken.

But according to the accounts of former and current surveillance soldiers, no senior official ever seemed to take their reports seriously, and on the morning of October 7, when Hamas terrorists streamed through the destroyed border fence, those on duty barely had time to alert their commanders of the infiltration before their cameras were cut.

At least three months before the Hamas onslaught, surveillance soldiers reported signs of unusual activity

Fifteen surveillance soldiers were killed at the Nahal Oz base on October 7 as terrorists flooded the command center and their living quarters, and an additional six were taken hostage to Gaza.

One of the six surveillance soldiers taken hostage was Pvt. Ori Megidish, who was later rescued by the IDF during an overnight raid early in the war. Cpl. Noa Marciano, 19, was also taken hostage from the base and killed by Hamas while in captivity. The IDF retrieved her body and she was buried in Israel.

Following the deadly assault on their base, surveillance soldiers have said they believe that sexism played a part in why their warnings were ignored.

“It’s a unit made up entirely of young girls and young female commanders,” an unnamed soldier told the Haaretz daily in November. “There is no doubt that if men were sitting at those screens, things would look different.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) takes part in a war cabinet assessment in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023, as Shas leader Aryeh Deri (back right) and others look on. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Not just sexism

According to Col. (res.) Maya Heller, chairwoman of Forum Dvorah, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that works to promote the inclusion of women in national security decision-making processes, the issue at hand is more complex than simple sexism.

“In my opinion, it’s impossible to look at this in a clear, single-issue way,” she told The Times of Israel. “Obviously since only women operate as surveillance soldiers, on the face of it it seems that it should only be examined through the lens of gender. The sexist side didn’t listen to women? Ok, so it’s easy to label it. I think things are much more complex.”

In addition to the warnings delivered by the tatzpitaniyot from the Gaza Division, two low-level IDF soldiers from the prestigious signal intelligence Unit 8200 delivered a report to their senior officers, warning of the atrocities that Hamas was preparing to unleash. They were told that their concerns were “fantasies.”

Col. (Res.) Maya Heller, chairwoman of Forum Dvora. (Anat Geva Sharon)

Heller, who retired from the IDF in 2020 after 19 years as a military judge, pointed to the fact that one of the Unit 8200 soldiers who delivered the warning was a man and that he too was ignored.

“That’s why I think that there isn’t just a gender issue here,” she explained. “I think it’s definitely built into things — I mean, you can’t ignore it — but that’s not all that there is to it. I think it’s much, much deeper in the sense that the senior commanders in the army, as well as the people in politics, all had a certain conception. They didn’t let anyone distract them from it, and of course, anything that opposed their conclusion was discarded. So that’s also part of it.”

The notion that the surveillance and intelligence soldiers were ignored not because they were viewed as inferior due to their gender, but because of the single-minded focus of powerful politicians and military men on an idea they were already convinced of, may only make the glaring lack of women in office more lamentable.

A 2017 study conducted by Forbes Magazine found that while teams make better decisions than individuals 66% of the time, decisions made by a diverse team will lead to better results 87% of the time.

While businesses have realized this, and as a result will hire from a diverse pool of people to achieve optimal results, in the world of politics and security there’s still a long way to go, Heller said.

“Across the Israeli establishment, in its various areas, those who rule the roost are men, and in particular, men who grew up together during their military service or in the security forces, and it’s really much, much harder for women to find a way in.”

As a result, she said, “There’s really no diversity of views or opinions because the men all grew up in the same systems and actually share very similar worldviews.”

“I’m convinced that if there were women who reached those places where decisions need to be made, they wouldn’t be biased from the start like the men who grew up together on the same path. Then obviously they could ask much more basic questions, to really challenge the decision-makers,” she added.

Fighting as equals

As men continue to preside over crucial issues such as whether to prioritize the goal of getting the hostages back over the destruction of Hamas, the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza and the evacuation of more than 200,000 Israelis from the north and south of the country, women have been making their presence felt where it matters most — on the frontlines of war.

In 2022, a company of all-women tank operators was integrated permanently into the IDF after a two-and-a-half-year pilot program. The company operates within the Caracal mixed-gender light infantry battalion rather than the Armored Corps and is usually stationed along the Egyptian border, not behind enemy lines.

On the morning of October 7, however, as scenes of death and destruction began to emerge from the areas close to the Gaza border, the company left its base at Nitzana, on the Egyptian border, and drove north in tanks and armored vehicles, as fast as they were able to.

When they reached the Gaza border, the soldiers discovered the shredded border fence and the dozens of terrorists who were still in the area,  and realized they were at war.

From there they split up, and while one crew remained at the border to prevent more terrorists from flooding in, the other two were sent to the battles raging in and around Kibbutz Holit and Kibbutz Sufa.

For 17 hours, the first all-female tank crews, who have long been at the center of fierce debate about the role of women in combat, took out more than 50 terrorists, leading Paran Brigade commander Col. Shemer Raviv to conclude that they successfully prevented the Hamas assault from moving further south inside Israel.

Israeli soldiers from the Caracal Battalion working near their tank near the Israeli border with Egypt and Gaza, in southern Israel, November 13, 2023. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

This alone, combined with other acts of bravery and heroism committed by Israeli women on October 7 and beyond, is likely to have done more to change the way that women are viewed in the IDF than any stormy debate or pilot program could have.

On December 6, the IDF reported that 12% of women who enlisted into combat units after October 7 requested to do so after initially being slated to serve elsewhere in the army.

At the same time, two female recruits completed screening tests for the Air Force’s elite Unit 669 on December 6, paving the way for them to enter the unit for 20 months of training, at the end of which they will be the first female soldiers to serve in the elite airborne search and rescue unit.

“I don’t think there’s a dispute anymore about the heroism that women demonstrated on October 7 and since then,” Heller told The Times of Israel, highlighting the bravery exhibited by both female soldiers and civilians.

“The story of the tank crews is a story that has already been repeated and is very prominent, but there were many, many stories of heroism. There were women in Sderot and Ofakim who got into their cars and evacuated wounded people back and forth to the medical clinics or the hospital. They discovered power, and resourcefulness, and courage… It can no longer be ignored.”

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