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Shulamit Binah

Iron Swords’ Women of Valor

(IDF)
(IDF)

The Gaza war has demonstrated how female soldiers could, and did, fight courageously in the front lines alongside male soldiers. It was a forthright response to all those who belittle and oppose, sometimes vehemently, the role of women in combat and their claims for equality. 

On the morning of October 7, 2023, Israel awakened from a long, somewhat sweet dream of “absolute strategic superiority” to a security (and political) nightmare that it has not yet overcome. The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) was able to halt the murderous attack of Hamas and even move the battle to enemy territory but at an enormous price of 1500 dead, mostly civilians. Among the fallen were 52 women. Both the IDF and the general Israeli public had thus discovered the fighting capabilities of women. the prominent role of women in combat, which was characterized by bravery, initiative, resourcefulness, and excellence, both on the part of female soldiers, officers, and policewomen and on the part of civilians who served as medical staff and saved lives in the kibbutzim and other civilian communities.

There has been an old dispute over women’s service among the Israeli public. Still, this debate is conducted mainly on civil rights versus conservative and religious views but not necessarily on the important factor of the army’s needs. The IDF fully understands women’s abilities in combat and combat support roles. Today, against the background of a long-standing debate, there is a willingness to examine the suitability of women for various positions from which they were barred. Based on the amendment to the Security Service Law: Equality in Service (Amendment No. 16a 2001), which determined that every woman has the right, equal to the right of a man, to fulfill any role in military service according to her individual abilities. Indeed, the number of women in combat units who have proved their abilities in the current war is increasing, and they have demonstrated professional skills and courage. Women are currently integrated into combat roles in the Border Defense Corps, armor, air defense, search and rescue units, Unit 669, “Oketz” (“Sting” canine operational unit), “Skylark” airborne artillery assistance, field-artillery, Border Police, electronic warfare and Intelligence gathering and collection.

The war in Gaza honed women’s ability as a fully equal sector. Several women have even joined as pilots and skippers, and for the first time, women are assigned to special units. In recent years, roles for women have been added amid a public debate within the IDF and in the political arena that reached the courts as well, with the help of civil society organizations such as the Dvora Forum and other groups working to strengthen and promote the status of women, including in the army. The prominent role of civil society organizations in the Iron Swords War was also prominent in enhancing equality. On the other hand, the political strengthening of extreme religious parties still challenges these processes because of their desire to religionize more elements of the Israeli experience. There is no doubt that the “Iron Swords” war honed the ability of women as a sector equal to males, and here are some examples of their heroism, as reported in the media:

Zikim training base: On that Saturday morning, 90 recruits from the Home Front Command, who had just enlisted, were stationed there. Their superiors immediately realized that a massive massacre might take place, given the lack of soldierly readiness of the new recruits. The instructors then sheltered them, fought singlehanded with an excess force of terrorists, protected the new recruits with their own bodies, and saved them. Seven of the commanders were killed, including three officers and NCOs: Adar Ben Simon, Eden Levy, and Or Moses. Their commanding officer, Lt. Yannai Kaminka, a young man, also fell in this battle.

The all-women tanks of the “Caracal” Battalion of the Southern Brigade in the Border Defense Corps: Upon receiving the initial report of what was happening, they rushed on the road-wheels of their tanks in the direction of the Gaza Strip Envelope, already in the morning of October 7. They managed to halt the terrorists at the entrance to Kibbutz Holit, thereby saving several other communities.

The “Caracal” battalion commander, a mixed gender unit, Lt. Col. Or Livne Ben-Yehuda, led her fighters under fire to the occupied outpost “Sufa.” As the senior officer on the field, she conducted the battle until the outpost was returned to Israeli control. Or was the first female cadet in the infantry officers’ program and was decorated in 2015. Both the army and the public have thus “discovered” the female fighting force, following women’s prominent heroic role in combat.

The IDF Chief of Staff accepted the initiative to assign female soldiers to combat units, and the successful functioning of the armored fighters in the Gaza Strip Envelope surprised military circles who initially opposed the integration of women in the armored units. However, the public’s support for the integration of women has risen significantly. The insistence on integrating female soldiers into armor units was achieved through a determined social and legal struggle over the past few years that had even reached the Supreme Court. The question of their integration on the battlefield is still being looked at. Women participated in the ground fighting in Gaza in various fields: A mixed force of the Home Front Command’s Rescue and Training Brigade fought alongside infantry units in scanning buildings and locating weapons. A precedent was created when reserve soldier Sharon Perry voluntarily joined the combat engineers, becoming the first woman to operate heavy D9 engineering equipment in Gaza territory. It should be noted that, until that battle-field emergency, women were only allowed as instructors in the School of Military Engineering but not in active combat. Their status is still under observation. However, the urgent need on the battlefield prevailed.

Medical teams: Some 70 women have served in Gaza, including medical doctors, paramedics, and other medical staff; they are attached to the combat forces and work intensively to treat and evacuate the wounded. According to experts, a combination of rapid, at-the-scene treatment of the wounded and an immediate supply of “full” (fresh) blood led to saving the lives of seriously injured soldiers who, in the past, did not survive until the evacuation. The women of the medical staff, both reserve and regular service, serve long and intensive periods, working under fire with a sense of mission to save lives.

The Observers – an “Ungrateful Role”: The story of the spotters in Nahal Oz is tragic and unique, even in the catastrophic complexity of October 7. Since the observation systems were installed along the country’s borders, the line is largely manned by young female soldiers in regular service. On October 7, Hamas shut down the communication systems, broke into the base, and began a gleeful killing spree. Sixteen of the spotters were killed on sight, including the commander, Capt. Shir Eilat and Capt. Eden Nimri, who tried to fight the invaders. Only in the afternoon did a fresh force arrive to rescue the soldiers and the wounded. Five spotters were abducted to Gaza; one, Noa Marciano, was later murdered in captivity. Observer Ori Magidish was rescued by the IDF. According to testimonies, the observers warned about unusual activity near the fence for some time, but their commanders did not take their warnings seriously.

The issue of the commanding level’s disregard for the warnings of the observers should be investigated in depth to draw much-needed lessons as part of the overall investigation into the October 7 failure. Still, it is worth examining a special issue: Does the direct command’s response, which did not address at face value the observers’ reports of unusual behavior by Hamas on the part of the commanding echelons, reflect disapproval based on gender and hierarchy? Indeed, these young women (aged 18 years to 20 years) are soldiers in their initial compulsory service. However, they are highly motivated and well-educated high school graduates with relatively long training. One of the observers maintained that it was an “ungrateful job” because they were doing intense and strenuous shift work, compensated by only a few vacations and a short time off. In the past, too, there have been allegations of harsh conditions of service, including “disrespectful treatment by commanders” and punishment for disciplinary problems. Although they are aware of the weight of responsibility as “the eyes of the state,” when they reported unusual activity in the observation areas as part of their duties and even shared with friends their fear of infiltration from the Gaza Strip, but their words were overlooked.

  • The Border Protection Corps began to look for lessons derived from the October 7 events: changes in the training program have occurred, including improving their service conditions and, hopefully, improving access by the observers and spotters to the commanding echelons. At the same time, some of the observers noted that despite the difficulties at the beginning of their service, they “fell in love” with the most responsible and satisfying role. Ori Megidish, who was released from Hamas’ captivity and returned to serve in the IDF, said that she did it out of a “sense of mission to serve the country.” It should be noted that this is not the first time that women have encountered such treatment, as was evident from the distant historical stories of radar operators in the Battle of Britain during World War II – an extremely vital service staffed only by women, who sat day and night in front of the primitive screens.
  • The NCO alert: The story of the Non-Commissioned Officer from Unit 8200 is a single but significant episode that deserves an in-depth study of the circumstances that led to the intelligence failure despite the availability of quality information. However, here, too, it is worth examining the question of gender combined with the hierarchical gap between the NCO, who, though not a commissioned officer, was an expert on Hamas. However, she had limited access to the senior echelon in her unit and, as reported by the media, the blocking of warning information up the ladder of information and decision-making. This NCO read and translated valuable intelligence material received in mid-2022, including an operative and detailed plan for a large-scale attack on the southern communities (identified in intelligence jargon as operation “Jericho Wall”). As an expert specializing in Arabic language and culture, she understood the meaning of the heading: “The Flood of Al-Aqsa,” given by Hamas. She trailed Hamas’ activity, and from all the flowing listening material, including certain war-inspiring Qur’anic verses, she understood the value of this material as an advance warning for an attack. The signal traffic analysis officers garnered and processed this information and evaluations but never reached senior appreciation levels or the unit’s leadership. As was reported, she did appeal to both the divisional and the Southern Command intelligence officers, but to no avail. There may have been some issues of gender and rank, as the NCO was a junior female functionary who had to tackle a group of ego-based, self-confident men, which turned out to be an impassable barrier for a young, non-commissioned officer. However, it should be mentioned that this female NCO’s professional opinion was shared by Arabic-speaking male associates, but nobody proved capable of overcoming the system blockages. This seemingly professional failure would probably be scrutinized by an inquiry to be eventually launched.
  • Activities of Women in Regular and Reserve Service: As the fighting continued on both fronts, it became intensive in all IDF units, for women and men. In the Air Force and Intelligence Corps, regular servicewomen, including mothers, continued maneuvering in a busy shift schedule. Some of them are assisted by Red Magen David’s (MDA) “milk bank,” which has expanded its activity in collecting donor breast milk for distribution to babies in need of breast milk, including babies of mothers who kept on volunteering in military functions.

The public debate regarding women’s combat service: The first exposure to women’s heroism in the war against Hamas brought about a sense of a breakthrough regarding women’s abilities on the battlefield. Gen. Yehuda Segev, former chief of the personnel division of the IDF, chaired a committee that recommended equal service for women in the IDF (2007); this, despite some vehement opposition among senior officers and civilian and religious pressure groups. Segev noted that the performance of female soldiers, who have proven that they can charge and attack without fear, constituted a decisive answer to those who oppose women’s service in combat units. Over the years, and especially after the Joint Service Ordinance was enacted in 2016, the debate was focused on the disagreement between conservative and religious elements, who see the very presence of women as contrary to Jewish law and offensive to their faith, and the women themselves, who wish to serve in combat units based on gender equality and equal opportunities. However, the debate almost completely ignored one main factor: the need for capable soldiers. By the way, even though rabbis are involved in the debate over women fighters, it turns out that the number of religious recruits who graduate from the state-religious education stream increases yearly. Some young women who graduated from the national religious education system and, though exempted by law from service and could volunteer only if they so choose, prefer military service to available civilian national service. About ten percent of this group wish to serve in combat units. The current war proved that the army needs professional and motivated women in various occupations due to a human-resources shortage. Due to the prolonged reserve service of combatants, many casualties were let go from the circle of combat, and preparations for further fighting, possibly in several arenas, increased the urgent need for more fighters and other military professionals. Extending reserve and regular service and recruiting preparatory students before graduation attests to the distress trained suitable women may address.

Equality of burden and status of women: The war in Gaza has brought back to the public arena the question of equality of burden-sharing and the need to recruit ultra-Orthodox men. This idea is also supported by some religious circles. This is due to the sweeping exemption they have received until now, and the number of exemptions from service expands yearly. The recruitment of Haredim (ultra-orthodox) into separate units, such as Netzah Yehuda (Judea Eternity) battalions, did not significantly increase the number of recruits. Still, it did create havoc due to the attitude of rabbis and some of the recruits to the question of the presence of women in IDF bases. Abusive incidents were reported when female soldiers were asked to “vanish from view” during encounters with ultra-Orthodox units. Assuming that the number of ultra-Orthodox recruits to the IDF keeps growing, there should be clearer that will avoid harm to women or their opportunities in the IDF.

Today’s IDF must be a “big and clever army” with much manpower. Women constitute about half of the country’s population, and even if some of them do not enlist for religious reasons, etc., the IDF, for its part, cannot give up on female recruits. Their rights and status in the army must be preserved, and it is hoped that many will reach the decision-making levels, even at the highest echelons. At the same time, women, on their part, cannot and should not give up military service, which in a combat-challenged society like Israel is still an important entry ticket to senior positions in the economy, society, and politics.

Postscript: since October 7, 52 IDF female fighters have been killed in defense of the realm. May their memory be blessed!

The article was published initially in Hebrew in MABAT MALAM, the bulletin of IICC (The Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center), no. 97, May 2024.

About the Author
An expert in Middle Eastern affairs, Shulamit Binah’s book, UNITED STATES – IRAQ BILATERAL RELATIONS, Confusion and Misperception 1967 to 1979, has been published by Valentine-Mitchell (London 2018). Dr. Binah retired from government service after a full career in analysis and evaluation. She lives in Israel.
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