The Israeli army’s first female combat tank operators completed their training on Tuesday, earning medals marking them as such, as part of a pilot program to assess fuller gender integration in the Armored Corps.
The 13 operators, of 15 picked for the program from female combat recruits, will shortly be sent to the borders of southern Israel to begin a four-month trial deployment.
“We’re standing before a bit of history. For the first time, a tank operator medal will be pinned on the uniform of female IDF soldiers,” said Col. Moran Omer, head of the corps’ training brigade.
In the ceremony at the Armored Corps’ monument in Latrun, outside Jerusalem, Omer lauded the female tank operators for finishing the intensive training program, which began earlier this year.
“We demanded you complete the full and long training program… after you were fully trained as fighters in the Border Defense Force — no simple mission in itself — and you did so successfully,” the colonel said.
“You stood up to the difficult physical challenges, learned the profession and no less importantly, you learned to love the power of metal,” Omer said.
“Remember that no matter how advanced it is, the weapon isn’t what matters, but the person in the tank — that’s who wins!” he added, referring to the corps’ motto.
In March, the army announced that it was choosing 15 women from a cohort of mixed-gender combat recruits who drafted that month to take part in the pilot tank program.
Two of the candidates washed out in basic training, but the remaining 13 women then moved to the Armored Corps’ Shizafon base in the Negev where they completed training on the Merkava Mark 3 model, which they will operate.
The 13 candidates will soon take up positions in southern Israel for the final stage of the pilot program. They will serve in the army’s 80th Division, which is responsible for the southern Negev and Arava deserts, and help guard the southern borders, a tank officer said earlier this year, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The female recruits will not be formally integrated into the Armored Corps’ combat brigades — like the 188th, 7th and 401st Armored Brigades — but will serve in the newly formed Border Defense Force, which is meant to secure Israel’s borders but not cross them.
This pilot program is part of a growing trend of women taking combat positions in the Israel Defense Forces. Over the past five years the number of female combat soldiers has increased nearly fivefold, from 547 in 2012 to 2,700 this year.
Critics of the gender integration often decry it as a dangerous social experiment with potential ramifications on national security, while defenders generally trumpet it as a long-needed corrective measure, one that has already occurred in many Western countries.
Detractors note that some requirements for combat soldiers have been lowered — which they say is a sign that effectiveness is being sacrificed — and that female soldiers suffer stress injuries at a higher rate.
The army insists that it is allowing more women to serve in combat positions out of practical — not social — considerations, saying it requires all the soldiers that are available to it.
The tank pilot program in particular has met considerable resistance.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Avigdor Kahalani, a famed commander of the IDF’s 7th Armored Brigade, told the Galey Israel radio station that tanks were not the right place for women.
“The role of a woman is to be a mother, to bring children into the world,” he said.
Former IDF general and current head of the Israel Electric Corporation Yiftach Ron-Tal claimed the proposal to allow women to operate tanks was a “scandal,” and part of a conspiracy by far-left “freaks” to debilitate the army. He later retracted the comment and apologized, amid backlash.
Within the Armored Corps, there has also been some opposition voiced to gender integration.
Before the army announced its plans to consider allowing women to serve in the tank brigades, head of the Armored Corps Brig. Gen. Guy Hasson, who attended Tuesday’s ceremony, told The Times of Israel he was concerned that such a move would harm the “image” of the unit.
“We’re fighters. We’re trying to keep an image as fighters,” he said.
“There are still people who look at us and say, there’s infantry and then there’s armored. You’re less ‘fighters.’ You’re less,” he said.
Until now, women have been barred from serving in the tank brigades as it was believed that they could not physically handle the rigors of the Armored Corps. Female soldiers have, however, served as tank instructors.
The candidates will serve in all-female tanks, in order to avoid modesty issues. Serving on the southern borders, they will be less likely to need to cross into enemy territory.
However, all-male and all-female crews would come with their drawbacks, creating two distinct forces and shrinking the amount of flexibility the army has to move people between different crews.
The trial program is expected to explore how to address some of these issues.
The 13 candidates are being monitored throughout the pilot by nutritionists, doctors and exercise instructors to determine if they can handle the challenges of the position.
By March 2018, the pilot program will officially end, and the military will review the results, the tank officer said.
“We’re doing a test. After the test, we’ll have answers — if it’s possible or impossible for there to be girls [in the Armored Corps],” he said.