IDF to open its top commando unit to female recruits for first time

Starting in late 2024, women can try out for Sayeret Matkal; pilot scheme also to open in elite mobility unit; chief of staff sees low chance of program starting in Armored Corps

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

Illustrative: Female soldiers during training, in an undated photography published by the military on June 7, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)
Illustrative: Female soldiers during training, in an undated photography published by the military on June 7, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces on Tuesday said it would begin to draft female recruits to the military’s most elite unit, Sayeret Matkal, as well as two other units that were previously closed off to women, as part of the latest pilot programs aimed at opening more combat roles to female fighters.

The moves come after the High Court of Justice in June demanded that the IDF explain why it had not opened all units to women.

Starting at the end of 2024, female recruits will be able to undergo various special physical and mental screenings, enabling them to potentially serve in combat positions in the Sayeret Matkal commando unit, the IDF said.

However, the pilot program would only be carried out if the military has enough female recruits who meet the criteria for Sayeret Matkal, which would be decided before the first recruits are drafted in late 2024.

Separately, the IDF plans to open up the elite Unit 5515, a combat mobility unit, to female recruits, starting in 2025, provided the IDF has enough women soldiers who pass the various screening tests. The unit is tasked with special driving-related operations and often works in tandem with other elite units.

The IDF believes there is a significant chance there will be enough female recruits for Sayeret Matkal and the combat mobility unit, learning from an ongoing pilot program allowing women to serve in combat positions in the helicopter-borne search and rescue Unit 669 and the Yahalom combat engineering unit.

Finally, the IDF said it aims to begin a pilot program for female soldiers to serve in the Armored Corps sometime in 2024.

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

Currently, female soldiers can serve in tanks in the IDF’s Border Defense Corps, as part of an all-female tank company in the Caracal mixed-gender light infantry battalion, which operates along the Egyptian border — not in wars or in fighting deep behind enemy lines.

The 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.

It remains unclear if the Armored Corps pilot program would actually open, as the IDF would require a large number of women to pass the screening tests for it to make logistical sense. An all-female Armored Corps company is on a much larger scale than the company in Caracal.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi believes there is a low chance the army will have enough women that will be able to pass the screening tests to serve in the Armored Corps, and the IDF would use that as a response to the High Court’s demands to open up the unit for female fighters.

Still, the IDF is pushing forward with the plans, and will present the court with a response on the matter closer to the time of the program’s possible opening, sometime in 2024.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi speaks at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, on September 11, 2023, at the Glilot military base. (Israel Defense Forces)

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 IDF first announced it was allowing female recruits to try out for Unit 669 and Yahalom last June.

The first 12 female soldiers were drafted to Yahalom in March, and another draft is set to be held in November. The first female soldiers in Unit 669 will also be drafted this November.

That 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 for the right to try out for combat units that are currently open only to men.

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.

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

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

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.

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

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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