IDF weighs full gender integration of combat units as women sue to enlist

In response to petition to High Court of Justice, army chief tasks head of Ground Forces to study topic, in terms of physical capabilities and logistical feasibility

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Soldiers from the mixed-gender Lions of the Jordan Valley Battalion take part in an exercise in the Tzeelim army base on February 5, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Soldiers from the mixed-gender Lions of the Jordan Valley Battalion take part in an exercise in the Tzeelim army base on February 5, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The Israel Defense Forces formed a committee to consider allowing women to serve in combat positions, beyond the mixed-gender, light infantry units in which they already do, the military said Thursday.

The move came in response to a recent petition to the High Court of Justice by four female teenagers who asked the court to force the military to allow them to try out for combat units that are currently open only to men.

In its reply to the case, the military said that there was no need for the court’s involvement, as it was already actively considering the matter, having formed a committee to evaluate the issue last month. The IDF requested a year’s time to review the issue and reach a decision.

“In the beginning of July 2020, IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi decided to form a professional committee with the goal of seriously and thoroughly considering — from a wide, inclusive and in-depth point of view — the possibility of integrating women into additional combat positions in the IDF,” the military said.

Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick, head of the IDF Northern Command, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF said the committee would be led by Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick, commander of IDF Ground Forces, while Brig. Gen. Eliezer Toledano — the outgoing head of the Gaza Division and a former commander of the Paratroopers Brigade — would serve as Strick’s deputy.

“Men and women with senior positions in the IDF who have relevant, operational, and professional expertise in a variety of fields will take part in the committee,” the IDF said.

The military said the team would investigate a number of factors connected to having women serve in combat units, including physiological-medical considerations; human resource planning; how the women would try out for the units; how it would effect the military’s command structure going forward; how it would affect reserve service; how to have co-ed service while maintaining propriety; and others.

Six female recruits for an Israeli Navy pilot program to see if women can serve on warships, at the navy’s Haifa Base in November 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Currently, most units in the military are open to both men and women, save for infantry brigades, armored brigades, submarines, certain elite reconnaissance units, and a small number of other positions. The Israeli Navy is currently running a pilot program to assess gender integration of missile ships and the Armored Corps is slated to begin a second pilot program to considering allowing women to serve in tanks. Technically open to both genders, the overwhelming majority of air force pilots are still men, though the air force recently completed training for the first female F-35 fighter pilot.

There are 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, as well as artillery and search-and-rescue units, which are considered light infantry.

The army has insisted in recent years 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 man-power available to it. One of the landmark cases of gender integration in the IDF — the opening of the Israeli Air Force’s Pilot’s Course to women — was the direct result of an appeal to the High Court of Justice by Alice Miller in 1995.

Soldiers from the mixed-gender Lions of the Jordan Valley Battalion take part in an exercise in the Tzeelim army base on February 5, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Critics of gender integration in the military 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.

However, the move has support from some former high-ranking officers, including a former commander and his deputy of the elite Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit.

According to a report by Army Radio, Colonel Het, who for security reasons can only be identified by his rank and first Hebrew initial of his name, responded to the four female teenagers’ appeal, saying he “believes [gender] integration would contribute to the operations of the Sayeret Matkal unit.”

The commanders called on the High Court of Justice to order the recruitment of women into general infantry units as well as Sayeret Matkal.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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