IDF begins to draft female recruits to elite units previously closed off to women

Starting in November, women can for the first time try out for vaunted helicopter search and rescue unit as well as combat engineering

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative: Female soldiers of the Bardelas Battalion during training, July 13, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Illustrative: Female soldiers of the Bardelas Battalion during training, July 13, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Israel Defense Forces will begin to draft female recruits to a number of elite units for the first time starting next month, the military announced Saturday.

In June, the IDF said it would open more combat roles to female fighters — including in elite search and rescue and combat engineering units — beyond the mixed-gender light infantry units where some already serve.

Starting in November, female recruits will be able to undergo various special physical and mental screenings, enabling them to serve in combat positions in the helicopter-borne search and rescue Unit 669 and the Yahalom combat engineering unit.

Recruits who do not pass the screenings will be given a chance to apply to other combat roles in which women can already serve.

The draft of female recruits to the elite units will likely serve as a litmus test for military planners who say more roles may be opened in the future, depending on the success of integration in these units.

The IDF also has plans to allow female recruits to serve as drivers in an infantry brigade. The brigade that will run the pilot will be determined at a later date.

Soldiers from the Israeli Air Force’s elite Unit 669 take part in an exercise in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The June decision was made following recommendations of an internal committee that called on the military to open new combat roles to female recruits.

The committee was formed by the IDF in 2020 to evaluate the integration of women in additional combat roles in the military, after four female recruits petitioned the High Court of Justice for the right to try out for combat units that are currently open only to men.

The committee estimated that there were likely dozens of potential female recruits who meet the physiological thresholds required for certain roles in infantry units, but decided to allow them to serve first only as drivers, in order to put their theory to the test.

The potential drivers will need to meet the requirements necessary for infantry troops.

The panel, explaining the relatively modest expansion, said it did not think more than a handful of women would meet the tough physiological requirements for other roles in elite combat units.

Women serve in a variety of roles in the IDF, in many cases alongside male counterparts.

There are also fully integrated mixed-gender combat units such as the Caracal and Bardelas battalions, which are tasked with protecting Israel’s border with Egypt and Jordan, respectively.

The IDF on Thursday declared the success of a two-year pilot program for a company of all-women tank operators in Caracal, and said the role would become permanent in the military.

In the Air Force, women and men serve together in the air defense units, including the Iron Dome — technically considered a combat unit.

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

Critics of gender integration in the military often decry it as a dangerous experiment with potential ramifications for national security, while defenders hail it as a long-needed measure that puts Israel on par with other 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 has insisted in the past that it is allowing more women to serve in combat positions out of practical considerations, not due to a progressive social agenda.

Military service is compulsory for Israeli men, who serve for two years and eight months, while women serve for two years. Some units require troops to stay on longer than their compulsory time, due to lengthy training periods.

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