Army chief Aviv Kohavi on Thursday railed against efforts by external groups to change the way men and women serve together in the Israel Defense Forces.
“For years, and also recently, I have encountered attempts by figures outside the military to dictate the rules of behavior of soldiers, like, for example, disseminating directives regarding the joint service of women and men in the IDF,” Kohavi said.
“I want to be loud and clear on this matter: The people who set the orders, the protocols and the norms for the IDF are only the commanders, with me at the top,” he said.
The army chief made his remarks at a graduation ceremony for new IDF officers. He lauded female soldiers’ contributions to the military throughout its history.
“Regarding the service of women in the IDF, this ceremony, with 70 female officers, speaks for itself. The women who serve in the IDF are a source of power and strength, and your contribution to every unit in the military is enormous. Women and men will continue to serve together, as a single unit, toward one goal, for the betterment of the State of Israel,” he said.
In his speech, Kohavi called on the freshly minted officers to remember to be thoughtful toward their soldiers, “to first and foremost be a human being.”
“Be considerate, be fair, be humane. There’s no force you can harness that’s stronger than that. Sit down for a conversation with a soldier who looked down during the morning roll call. Remember to encourage and praise the advancement of your platoon; give strength to the soldier who’s having trouble reaching the end of the path; and know to let the soldier who needs it to go home,” Kohavi said.
The army chief’s comments struck a dramatically different tone from the other main speaker at the ceremony, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who used his speech to warn of the threats posed to Israel by Iran.
“The area around us is turbulent and stormy. The threats are popping up in every corner — in Syria, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and also in Iraq, Yemen and directly in Iran,” Netanyahu said. “Iranian and pro-Iranian forces are working nonstop to arm themselves.”
“Iran’s brazenness is increasing because there is no response, but Israel will not turn the other cheek… we won’t hesitate to deliver a tough blow to anyone who tries to harm us.”
The issue of mixed gender service in the IDF is a constant source of tension for the military, with some religious groups calling for greater separation between men and women and secular Israelis generally pushing to further integrate the military.
In recent years the number of female combat soldiers has increased nearly fivefold, from 547 in 2012 to 2,700 in 2017. Last year, 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.
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.