Israeli Army Panel Recommends Women for Combat Roles

An Israeli army committee is recommending all combat jobs be opened to women, security officials said Monday — a change, that if adopted, would dramatically remake the front-line infantry, tank and special forces units that are the military's last male bastions.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the committee had not formally presented its report, something they said was expected to happen next week.

The military would not confirm the details, saying only that the committee's recommendations would be a tool for long-term planning meant to "maximize the abilities of women for the overall benefit of the armed forces."

Israel's army has drafted both men and women since 1948, when some women fought alongside men in irregular units during the war with Arab countries that tried to block the formation of the Jewish state.

Women also had filled the same roles as men in pre-state Jewish underground groups, but since the 1948 war most women in the Israeli military have been relegated to desk jobs and female combat deaths became extremely rare.

The commission, formed by the army's human resources department and made up of officers and academics, proposes that women no longer be barred from any unit because of their gender and that women serving in combat jobs serve the same length of time as men, the officials said.

At present, men are usually conscripted for three years and women for two.

Yehudit Ben-Natan, a retired general who commanded the army's defunct Women's Corps, told Israel Radio that she had long championed total integration of women in the military.

She dismissed the view that women should be kept out off the front line because they might be wounded, taken prisoner or forced to work in uncomfortably confined spaces with men.

"The heart and soul of the army is combat, and if we are in the army we need to be at its heart," she said. "Let there be tanks with all-female crews and all-woman missile batteries, because we can do it, and we must stop allocating duties by gender."

Yaakov Amidror, a retired major general, rejected that reasoning. He said women are often better than men in rear-echelon jobs like military intelligence, but insisted they will never be a physical match for men in front-line units.

"If anyone thinks women are going to fill the fighting ranks, they're wrong. The numbers of women in these units will always remain negligible," Amidror told The Associated Press.

The reformers are inspired by Canada and several European nations that have integrated women into infantry units.

Women in the U.S. military are barred from units assigned to direct ground combat. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, where fighting can erupt anywhere, they serve in military police companies and support battalions and fly jet fighters and attack helicopters.

Last year, during Israel's war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, a small number of Israeli women fired artillery, served on naval vessels and flew combat sorties as pilots and weapons system operators.

Israeli women have long served as combat instructors training male troops, and in recent years the army also integrated women into Border Police and anti-aircraft units as well as some field intelligence detachments.

But the vast majority of Israel female troops serve far from the front lines. Only around 1,500 women have combat jobs — 2.5 percent of female conscripts, according to army figures.

Some Orthodox Jews protest that mixing the sexes flies in the face of religious rules on chaste behavior.

Other Israelis have voiced concerns that the public would not tolerate women being killed or falling captive.

But the death last year of Israeli flight technician Keren Tendler, whose helicopter was shot down by Hezbollah guerrillas, did not draw a public uproar against women in battle, suggesting the policy has broad acceptance.

Aerial combat was opened to women following a successful petition to the Israeli Supreme Court in 1995 by Alice Miller, a 23-year-old who wanted to be a pilot but was barred by air force regulations.

Miller won, and though she later failed the flight school entrance exams, the ruling paved the way for others. Israel's first woman fighter pilot, Roni Zuckerman, won her wings in 2001 at age 20.

The Israeli newspaper Maariv reported Monday that a weapons system operator who graduated flight school in the late 1990s recently became the first mother to serve in the cockpit of an Israeli warplane, returning to reserve duty after giving birth five months ago.