Women in­creas­ingly join fight in Is­rael army

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Her face cov­ered in mud, 18-year-old Smadar crawls be­neath thorny brush, her au­to­matic ri­fle around her neck. She smiles de­spite the in­ten­sity of the train­ing, and her com­man­der, also a woman, shouts en­cour­age­ment. “I don’t re­gret choos­ing this unit,” said Smadar, who was not al­lowed to pro­vide her last name un­der Is­raeli army rules. “I wanted to do my mil­i­tary ser­vice in the most com­bat­ive unit pos­si­ble.”

Smadar is part of a dis­creet but pro­found change tak­ing place within the Is­raeli mil­i­tary, with a grow­ing num­ber of women tak­ing part in com­bat units. Just four years ago, some three per­cent of en­listed women served in com­bat units com­pared to seven per­cent to­day, ac­cord­ing to the army. That num­ber is ex­pected to rise even fur­ther to 9.5 per­cent in 2017.

The in­crease has come both due to changes in so­ci­ety, with women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in com­bat units no longer dis­missed, and a short­age in avail­able sol­diers due to re­duc­tions in the amount of re­quired ser­vice time for men. Is­rael’s mil­i­tary is an in­sti­tu­tion at the heart of so­ci­ety, with nearly all Jewish ci­ti­zens re­quired to serve, and such changes are likely to re­ver­ber­ate beyond the bar­racks.

Equal Right to Serve

Even be­fore the state of Is­rael was cre­ated in 1948, women played an im­por­tant role in the Ha­ganah, the fore­run­ner to the coun­try’s mil­i­tary, to­day the re­gion’s most pow­er­ful. Cur­rently men are re­quired to serve two years and eight months af­ter they turn 18, while women serve two years. Women’s roles had his­tor­i­cally been con­fined to such po­si­tions as nurses or ra­dio op­er­a­tors - an ar­range­ment un­der­go­ing rapid change.

The first mixed unit, known as the Cara­cal bat­tal­ion, was formed in 2000, tak­ing its name from a type of wild cat whose males and fe­males look the same. It was that year that the law was amended to state that “women’s right to serve in any po­si­tion is equal to the right of men.” Smadar, who was train­ing in the hills of the Galilee in the coun­try’s north, is pre­par­ing to join the Barde­las bat­tal­ion and will likely be sta­tioned in the semi-desert south. Barde­las is one of what are now three mixed com­bat units in the Is­raeli army. A fourth bat­tal­ion is planned for March 2017.

Women want­ing to take part in com­bat units must com­mit to serv­ing eight more months, an equal amount of time as men. It has not dis­suaded vol­un­teers. “What a man can do, a woman can also do,” said Smadar. A 25-year-old woman from the Cara­cal bat­tal­ion won­dered why all units can­not be mixed. She ar­rived in Is­rael in 2004 from Ukraine and said she wanted to do what­ever pos­si­ble for her new coun­try. “Who­ever can fight must do it,” she said. “Man or woman - there is no dif­fer­ence.”

A Global Trend

Is­rael’s ex­pe­ri­ence is sim­i­lar to trends glob­ally, said Me­gan Ba­stick of the University of Ed­in­burgh, who has stud­ied women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in se­cu­rity forces. “Across the West­ern world, there has been a gen­eral in­crease over re­cent decades in the pro­por­tion of women join­ing the mil­i­tary,” she said. She cited Aus­tralia and Canada as two coun­tries in par­tic­u­lar of­fer­ing equal op­por­tu­ni­ties. In the Mid­dle East, fighter pi­lot Ma­jor Mariam al-Man­souri led a com­bat mis­sion for the United Arab Emi­rates against Islamic State group ji­hadists in 2014, re­called Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck of the Carnegie Mid­dle East Cen­tre.

Al­ge­ria has a num­ber of women gen­er­als, while women also serve in Jor­dan, Le­banon and Tu­nisia, she said. In Syria, a num­ber of women hold the rank of gen­eral and fight in com­bat units. Ghanem-Yazbeck says that re­mains the ex­cep­tion. Within com­bat units in the re­gion, women of­ten “con­tinue to be in tra­di­tional gen­dered po­si­tions such as trans­la­tors or data-en­try per­son­nel or so­cial work­ers and so on.” “De­spite an evo­lu­tion, women re­main the aides of their male coun­ter­parts.” Is­rael’s army has served as an in­te­gra­tion tool for so­ci­ety, bring­ing in Is­raelis of dif­fer­ent eth­nic back­grounds as well as sex­ual ori­en­ta­tions, a con­trast with the con­ser­vatism of much of the re­gion. The mil­i­tary is thought to in­clude more than 120,000 sol­diers in manda­tory ser­vice - an es­ti­ma­tion since the army does not pro­vide such fig­ures. More than 41 per­cent of those serv­ing are women, the mil­i­tary says, and 85 per­cent of army posts are avail­able to women. More than half of women serve, with ul­tra-Ortho­dox Jewish fam­i­lies ex­empt.

Amos Harel, de­fence cor­re­spon­dent for in­flu­en­tial Is­raeli news­pa­per Haaretz, said the in­crease in women does not re­flect “ide­ol­ogy but a need,” with the time­frame for men to serve re­cently re­duced from 36 to 32 months. Mixed units op­er­ate along rel­a­tively calm bor­ders, in­clud­ing those with Egypt and Jor­dan, the only two Arab coun­tries with peace treaties with Is­rael. Other units are as­signed to more risky ar­eas, such as the Le­banese border and along the Gaza Strip. Forty-four fe­male sol­diers have been killed in com­bat since 1948.

Harel ques­tions whether the mil­i­tary will fol­low through and al­low women to serve in all roles at the risk of what has concerned many: one of them be­ing kid­napped. The kid­nap­ping of male sol­dier Gi­lad Shalit in 2006 by Ha­mas caused shock na­tion­wide. “One can­not help won­der whether the re­sponse to the ab­duc­tion of a fe­male sol­dier would be more ex­treme,” Harel wrote re­cently in Haaretz.


This photo taken on Sept 13, 2016 shows Is­raeli sol­diers from the mixed­gen­der Bardalas bat­tal­ion take part in a train­ing at a mil­i­tary camp near the north­ern Is­raeli city of Yo­qne’am Il­lit on Sept 13, 2016.

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