Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised women serving in the Israel Defense Forces on Wednesday after Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich claimed that mixed-gender units are damaging the army’s operational capabilities.
“I am proud of our servicewomen and our female combat troops who are contributing to Israel’s security,” Netanyhau said in a short video statement. “Just last week they helped foil a murderous attack from the Gaza Strip,” he added, referring to servicewomen operating border lookout units who are often the first to detect attempted infiltration.
“The service of women in the IDF doesn’t harm Israel’s security — it contributes to Israel’s security,” stressed Netanyahu, who is also defense minister.
Smotrich responded to Netanyahu by saying that he was not referring to servicewomen in general, but specifically to mixed-gender combat units.
“The work by lookouts is fantastic and saves lives,” Smotrich tweeted. “On that there is no dispute! What is the connection between that and the mixed combat units I was speaking about?!”
Earlier Smotrich, a nationalist religious lawmaker who is third on the right-wing Yamina Party slate, told Army Radio in an interview that combat units with men and women serving together weaken the IDF.
“Mixed-gender units harm the IDF’s operationality, its competence, its ability to complete its tasks. My expectation is that the IDF will not try to advance an agenda,” he said.
Smotrich was responding to a report showing that last year there was an increase in the number of abortions among IDF servicewomen, in contrast to previous years which had seen a steady drop since 2014. Army Radio reported that the cost of the some 1,000 abortions in 2018 — which the army discreetly pays for if the servicewomen choose to end the pregnancy — was NIS 5 million ($1.42 million). In 2017 there were 839 army abortions.
Army Radio said Wednesday that the IDF medical corps was surprised at the reported increase in abortions. The army runs programs to prevent unwanted pregnancies among service personnel including distributing anti-pregnancy pills and, since October last year, the “morning after” pills to female soldiers who request it.
Two weeks ago Smotrich knocked the IDF’s reported efforts to increase its integration of transgender soldiers, saying “someone at the top of the IDF has heatstroke.”
Yamina leader Ayelet Shaked responded to Smotrich’s remarks on Wednesday by underlining her own military service and that of the female members of the right-wing party. But she also appeared to defend Smotrich from the critics, saying: “Mixed combat service in the religious Zionist community is a complicated issue. Stop inciting.”
Netanyahu and firebrand Smotrich have clashed in the past over the latter’s outspoken promotion of applying religious principles to Israeli society.
Last week Smotrich was forced to apologize for a Twitter diatribe against Netanyahu in which he accused him of being “weak” and showing “zero leadership” over the temporary closure of the Temple Mount holy site in Jerusalem to Jewish visitors and a court ruling barring a gender-segregated concert from being held at a public park in Afula.
Netanyahu was reportedly angered by the remarks and considered firing Smotrich, but after the two met and an apology was issued, Smotrich retained his post.
Earlier in the month, Netanyahu panned a call by Smotrich for the implementation of religious law in Israel as “pure BS.” The prime minister told a visiting delegation of Democrats from the US House of Representatives that the suggestion of a so-called halachic state, which Smotrich has floated, “is pure and utter nonsense.”
Women serve in a wide-capacity of roles in the IDF, in many cases alongside their male counterparts. 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.
Women also serve many border surveillance units. It was apparently one such unit that on Saturday night identified a terror group attempting to infiltrate Israel from the Gaza Strip. The Israeli military said at the time an attack helicopter and a tank were used to kill the suspected terrorists as they approached the fence.
Critics of army 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.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.