Looking to Israel for Clues on Women in Combat

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JERUSALEM -- One of her fellow soldiers lay dead, and her Humvee was being fired upon. She saw one of the attackers -- three armed men who had penetrated Israel's border with Egypt -- reach toward his waist. Fearing he was about to detonate a suicide belt, she fired two shots at his head.

"Once you come face to face, at that very moment, you don't think twice," the soldier, who can be identified under military rules only as S., told the Israeli news site Ynet when she received a citation for her performance in the skirmish. "There is no room for hesitation, and there is no room for mistakes."

The Israeli news media heralded S. as proof that integrating women into combat roles had been a success. But the next day, the story shifted: Another woman in the unit, the one who radioed in the attack, had cowered behind a bush for an hour and a half, as her comrades feared she had been kidnapped or killed.

As the United States moves to integrate more women into combat roles, some have looked to Israel, which on paper has one of the most gender-neutral militaries in the world, starting with a universal draft (although, since many do civilian service instead, only half of women enlist, compared with 70 percent of the nation's men). But the episode near Mount Harif in September highlighted some of the complex realities behind the policies of the Israel Defense Forces, where it remains rare for women to kill or be killed, and questions persist about their fitness.

While more than 92 percent of I.D.F. jobs are now open to women -- they are fighter pilots, infantry officers, naval captains and Humvee drivers -- just 3 percent serve in combat roles.

"It's not really open," said Yehuda Segev, a retired businessman and a general in the Army reserves who in 2007 headed a committee on women in the military. "They don't make the right path for women that they can volunteer and join the combat units."

Mr. Segev said the military's chief of staff rejected his committee's recommendation that all jobs -- including paratrooper and other elite units like Golani and Nahal -- be integrated, adding: "The Army has a lot of excuses."

Still, Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich said "the military really did a revolution" since she joined up more than 20 years ago, when the vast majority of female soldiers served in human resources or educational posts. Today, about half the I.D.F.'s lieutenants are women, as are 13 percent of those at or above the rank of lieutenant colonel. "You see more and more women in the battalions and the brigades," said Colonel Leibovich, an I.D.F. spokeswoman.

Women served alongside men in ground forces in the paramilitary groups that predated Israel's foundation as a state in 1948. For the next 25 years, they were mostly relegated to roles as administrators, medical assistants or trainers, but after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, they began serving as combat instructors and officers.

A major turning point came in 1995, when a woman named Alice Miller petitioned the Supreme Court for access to pilot training school. The first woman graduated from the school in 1998.

During war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, a female air force mechanic was killed in a chopper crash. In 2011, in a widely noted episode, a medic used her bra as a tourniquet after a terrorist attack on a bus near the Egyptian border.

The main combat unit for women is Caracal, named for a desert cat that looks similar whether male or female. Since its founding in 2000, the unit, which has been up to two-thirds female, has guarded the borders with Jordan and Egypt, and was the one involved in the Mount Harif episode. While most female soldiers serve two years, women in Caracal are required to serve three, like the unit's men.

Arielle Werner, 21, who grew up in Minnesota and immigrated to Israel in order to join the combat unit, said female recruits underwent the same training regimen as the men, except for occasionally shorter runs or treks with full regalia. "Once in a while we can guilt the guys into doing the heavy lifting" of huge water bottles or stretchers, she said, "but girls do the same as guys; it's pretty equal."

Still, Ms. Werner said she found herself running faster when in a coed group. "There's a lot of pressure on the women to be just as good as the men because we have a lot to prove," she explained. "There's always a question of could they shut down the unit if we don't do as well. You don't see them threatening to shut down the paratroopers."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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