State asks High Court to throw out petitions for women to serve in tanks

State asks High Court to throw out petitions for women to serve in tanks

Government says IDF plan for additional trial to test viability of all-female tank crews makes suit unnecessary, okays petitioners to wait to enlist until trial starts

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

A female soldier operates a tank in the Negev desert, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)
A female soldier operates a tank in the Negev desert, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The government on Monday asked the High Court of Justice to dismiss two petitions calling for women to be allowed to serve in the IDF Armored Corps, arguing that the military’s plan to hold an additional trial program to test the viability of all-female tank crews later this year has made the requests irrelevant.

Last year, two separate groups of women filed appeals to the court asking that it force the Israel Defense Forces to allow them to serve in the Armored Corps. One petition was filed by two teenagers — Or Abramson and Maayan Halbershtat — who asked to be allowed to serve in a tank unit when they join the military, and the second appeal was filed by female soldiers who took part in the IDF’s initial pilot program in 2017-2018, asking to be allowed to serve in a tank unit as part of their reserve duty, having received the necessary training.

The proposal to create all-female tank crews has been highly controversial since the pilot program was announced in November 2016. A former IDF general called it a “left-wing” conspiracy to weaken the military. Others, however, lauded the effort as a necessary corrective. Until the 2017-2018 trial, female soldiers had only been permitted to serve as trainers in tanks, not to operate them on actual missions.

On Monday, government attorneys responded to these petitions with a 22-page letter, arguing that the court does not need to intervene, as the military was already addressing the issue.

Earlier this month, the IDF announced it would hold a follow-up trial to its initial pilot program, in which it would allow a group of female soldiers to both complete the training necessary to serve in a tank and deploy operationally along Israel’s southern borders. This new trial would begin later this year, with the participants coming from the summer or fall drafts.

Head of the IDF Armored Corps Brig. Gen. Guy Hasson, center, poses on a tank with the army’s first female tank commanders, who graduated their course on June 28, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

In its response, the government said this new test made the petitions “no longer relevant.” The state attorneys also said that, in any case, they did not believe this was a matter for courts to decide.

In a small victory for the petitioners, the government said Abramson and Halbershtat, who were scheduled to enlist in the military in March 2020, would be allowed to postpone their draft date until the summer or fall, in order to take part in the new trial. And the soldiers who completed the earlier pilot would be able to perform their reserve duty in the upcoming program.

The government noted that the IDF has made great strides in recent decades in integrating women into all parts of the military, seeing it as both an ethical imperative and a necessary effort in order to best defend the country.

“The IDF sees great importance in taking full advantage of the human capital provided by the female recruits in its ranks,” the government said in its response.

According to statistics provided by the military, approximately 86 percent of all positions in the military are currently open to women, and female soldiers made up nearly a fifth — 17% — of all IDF combat troops in 2019, compared to 3% in 2012.

A group of female soldiers take part in a training exercise in the tank commanders’ course, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

In its response, the government provided additional information about the military’s upcoming follow-up female tank crew trial, including the official reasoning behind IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi’s decision for it.

According to the letter, Kohavi determined that the previous trial, which was held over the course of 2017 and 2018, did not sufficiently resolve the issue of whether or not female soldiers were fully capable of serving in tank units.

The trial began with 15 female soldiers in July 2017 and ended the following year with 10, as five had dropped out at various stages for medical and other reasons. Four of them also completed the more grueling tank commanders course, with one being recognized as one of that class’s most outstanding soldiers.

One of the army’s first female tank operators receives a pin identifying her as such at a ceremony in Latrun, near Jerusalem, on December 5, 2017.. (Israel Defense Forces)

The pilot program was officially and publicly declared a success by the IDF, but according to the government’s letter, the military also found “certain lacunae in terms of the operational fitness needed for the mission.” This appeared to be a reference to the difficulty some of the participants had in lifting and loading heavy tank shells.

The IDF also determined that the size of the initial program was too small to give an accurate assessment of the issue, according to the government.

As a result, a far larger number of participants — several dozen — were planned to take part in the upcoming trial, and the military intended to rigidly enforce the physical requirements for the program, only allowing women who weigh more than 60 kilograms (133 pounds) and were taller than 1.65 meters (65 inches), something it did not do in the initial pilot.

The military estimated that roughly a quarter of all female combat recruits would meet those criteria.

A final decision on the future of female service in tank units is slated to be made after the pilot program concludes in 2022, the IDF said earlier this month.

Israel’s 13 first female tank operators, who completed their training on December 5, 2017, pose for a photograph at the Armored Corps’ monument in Latrun, outside Jerusalem. (Israel Defense Forces)

The military is currently only considering gender-segregated tank crews, in part due to issues of modesty, as in some cases crew members must go to the bathroom and perform other bodily tasks within the confined space of the tank.

The recruits will perform training at the IDF Armored Corps’ Shizafon training base in the Negev Desert, and, “as they have not done in the past, will be incorporated into combat duties in the south, in the Border Defense Array,” IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said earlier this month, referring to a unit tasked with serving within Israeli territory along the country’s border.

The army spokesman stressed that unlike the rest of the military’s armored brigades, the female teams were not considered a “maneuvering unit,” which could operate within enemy territory.

The recruits will train on the IDF’s Merkava Mark IV tanks and will serve within them as well.

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.

The army insists 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 manpower available to it.

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