Rejecting criticism, Gallant says female and male IDF fighters ‘one and the same’

Defense minister says women involved in country’s defense at all levels, after conservative voices denounced mixed service following killing of man and woman together in guard post

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks during a meeting with his Greek counterpart Nikos Panagiotopoulos, in Athens, May 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks during a meeting with his Greek counterpart Nikos Panagiotopoulos, in Athens, May 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Wednesday pushed back against criticism that has resurfaced in recent days over female combat soldiers and mixed-gender military units.

The controversy came up after an Egyptian police officer killed three troops from the mixed-gender light infantry Bardelas and Caracal battalions on the border over the weekend. Two of the fatalities were a man and a woman who had been stationed in a guard post together overnight.

Several right-wing media personalities and politicians maligned the mixed-gender arrangement, including by alluding to impropriety on the part of the soldiers. Those comments sparked outrage from the families, opposition politicians and swaths of the public.

Gallant, speaking in the Knesset plenum, said, “Female and male IDF combat soldiers are one and the same. There is no such thing as a [difference] between men and women in my view,” though he noted a handful of exceptions in certain units.

“We have female pilots, sailors, commanders, combatants,” he said. “We have entire formations in the IDF in which women carry out a central role in border defense. Female commanders make daily decisions about thwarting terrorists.”

“I am very proud of the female IDF combatants and what they are doing,” Gallant added, adding that his daughter was an IDF combat soldier in the Caracal battalion.

Staff Sgt. Ohad Dahan, 20 (left), Sgt. Lia Ben Nun, 19 (center) and Staff Sgt. Ori Yitzhak Iluz, 20, combat soldiers in the IDF’s Bardelas and Caracal battalions who were shot dead on the Egyptian border on June 3, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

On Sunday, right-wing Channel 14’s military correspondent Hallel Bitton Rosen said on air that “putting a male combat soldier and a female combat soldier alone for 12 hours at night… is problematic.”

“This is unprofessional and a disgrace to the army’s values, and it’s being driven by crazy left-wing agendas,” the panel’s moderator, Boaz Golan, added.

Later that evening, the network’s pundit Yinon Magal made a similar point, saying: “I’m hearing about an atmosphere of partying, including in these battalions, about the whole issue of men and women.”

Bitton Rosen, the Channel 14 military reporter, denied implying inappropriate conduct and accused his critics of defamation. He said his complaints were purely about the long overnight guard shifts, even though his colleagues and coalition lawmakers evidently understood his remark the way his critics had. “It is irresponsible to do something like this,” he added during the broadcast. “Let’s say it’s two men or two women — 12 hours, alone, on the border, without contact?”

The Second Authority for Television and Radio regulator opened a preliminary probe against Channel 14 after more than 2,000 complaints from the public were received by Monday afternoon. The probe could result in a fine for the network.

Several right-wing coalition members voiced support for the charges leveled by some of the network’s on-air staff.

During Sunday’s broadcast, Channel 14 hosted Religious Zionism MK Zvi Sukkot, who said he agreed with Bitton Rosen’s “every word” and that it was “unacceptable that under our watch… these left-wing agendas persist inside the army.” He said that “these things must change” — an apparent reference to mixed-gender battalions in general or to posting male and female soldiers together on guard duty.

Family and friends attend the funeral of Sgt. Lia Ben Nun who was killed on the Egyptian border the day before, at the military cemetery in Rishon Lezion, June 4, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

On Tuesday, MK Ariel Kallner of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party told the Ynet news site: “This thing, with a man and a woman who are together in one place, is something that needs to be examined from an operational and social aspect.”

He noted, however, that “at least according to the IDF’s initial investigation, it seems like there was no connection” between the mixed-gender issue and the pair’s death.

Another Likud MK, Danny Danon, told Ynet that he saw “no problem with a male and female soldier being together on shift.”

On Monday, the sister of Sgt. Lia Ben Nun, 19 — the servicewoman who was killed at the post alongside comrade Staff Sgt. Ori Yitzhak Iluz, 20 — rebuked the network in comments to reporters as the family sat Shiva, the traditional mourning period.

Ofir Ben Nun said her grandfather had been particularly pained by the comments: “Grandpa said someone on Channel 14 said: ‘How do they put a man and a woman in the same guard post? They must have done stuff.’ The person who said this should be ashamed.”

However, she added, the family was focusing on its grief: “It’s simply not interesting right now. The girl isn’t here anymore. The other things are not interesting. The result is the same result.”

Labor party chairwoman Merav Michaeli dedicated much of her speech at the beginning of her faction meeting on Monday to the issue, saying that “the coalition’s media channels see a young man and woman alone at night on guard duty, and all they can think about is sex. Not responsibility, not service, not courage, not camaraderie. Just sex.”

“The coalition’s disgusting poison machine is not ashamed to insult them and their memory,” said Michaeli, referring to Channel 14, which is closely affiliated with Netanyahu and his right-wing and far-right government. “Shame on the media and shame on the country,” she added.

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