IDF forms new co-ed light infantry battalion to guard West Bank security barrier

49th battalion, named Panther, will be part of Border Defense Corps, currently tasked with defending Jordan and Egypt frontiers

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

File: An officer in the Border Defense Corps places a beret on a soldier's head, in an undated photo published by the military. (Israel Defense Forces)
File: An officer in the Border Defense Corps places a beret on a soldier's head, in an undated photo published by the military. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces on Wednesday announced the formation of a new co-ed light infantry battalion, which will be stationed along the West Bank security barrier.

The 49th battalion, named Panther, will be part of the Border Defense Corps, which uses a desert yellow-brown camouflage pattern beret.

The IDF said the decision was made following a months-long operation in the West Bank, during which numerous reservist units were dispatched to the security barrier to prevent Palestinians from entering Israel.

Several Palestinian terrorists managed to enter Israel through gaps in the fence earlier this year.

The number of Palestinians identified illegally crossing through the barrier dropped from around 30,000 a day in March to several hundred a day since April, according to the IDF.

The Border Defense Corps is currently responsible for defending Israel’s borders with Jordan and Egypt. Though Israel maintains peace treaties with Amman and Cairo, those frontiers see frequent smuggling attempts and, on occasion, other violent incidents.

In this photo taken July 5, 2017, a section of the Israeli security barrier that divides Palestinian farmers lands and surrounds the city on three sides, in the West Bank city of Qalqilya. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

In an effort to free up heavy infantry units — the Paratroopers, Givati, Golani, Kfir and Nahal brigades — which once served on these borders, in recent years the IDF has swapped them out with the Border Defense Corps’ light infantry units.

The units include Caracal, Bardelas, Lions of the Jordan Valley and Lions of the Valley Battalions. The Bedouin Trackers unit and five battalions in the Combat Intelligence Collection Corps are also subordinate to the Border Defense Corps.

Unlike the heavy infantry brigades, these mixed-gender battalions are not considered “maneuvering units,” meaning they are not trained to enter deep into enemy territory, but rather to stay largely within Israel’s borders and relatively close to their home bases. This means that the soldiers serving in these units do not need to meet the same physical requirements as troops in heavy infantry brigades, who must be capable of carrying heavy gear across long distances, something that men on average are physically better suited for than women.

The decision to form the Panther Battalion follows similar thinking to free up maneuvering units currently tasked with protecting the West Bank security barrier.

“The establishment of this battalion symbolizes the IDF’s ability to adapt itself efficiently and quickly to the changing operational requirements,” said Brig. Gen. Amit Yamin, the commanding officer of the Border Defense Corps.

Brig. Gen. Amit Yamin speaks at a military ceremony, June 14, 2022 (Israel Defense Forces)

“We have invested heavily in the planning of this battalion to ensure that the personnel recruited to it will have a significant military service that contributes to the operational goals of the IDF,” Yamin added.

The IDF said the unit would begin work sometime next year, with the first soldiers being drafted on Wednesday.

Critics of gender integration in the military often decry it as a dangerous social experiment with potential ramifications for national security, while defenders generally call it a long-needed measure in line with the policies of many other Western countries.

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 womanpower and manpower available to it.

Recent years have seen a growing trend of women serving in combat units and in other roles previously held by men, with the IDF beginning to draft women to several elite units for the first time this month.

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