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IDF to integrate women into elite air force unit

In another victory in the principle of gender equality, the Israel Defense Forces will now open its air force elite Rescue Unit 669 to women.
Female soldiers from the Israeli army's Caracal battalion take a break in their Hummer between patrols on June 12, 2007.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced Friday morning that Chief of Staff of Aviv Kochavi has decided to expand the integration of women in the military by opening the air force’s elite Search and Rescue Unit 669 to female recruits. Kochavi is expected to make other, similar decisions over the next few days, including a decision to integrate women into the mobile unit of an infantry brigade.

Regardless of his final decision, however, Kochavi has until June 1 to respond to petitions submitted to the Supreme Court over his failure to integrate women more fully into the IDF.

His decision would set an important precedent. For years, the IDF refused to allow women to serve in its elite units, including infantry brigades. Senior officers argued that the inclusion of women in certain operational roles in these units would interfere with the units’ overall mission and the health of women serving in combat roles.

The truth of the matter is that even now, the IDF did not volunteer to open additional combat units to women. It was ordered to do so as a result of two Supreme Court rulings. The first was by a woman whose participation in a pilots’ course was interrupted, and the second by four young women before their enlistment, who wanted to serve in combat roles, which are currently barred to them.

The IDF asked the court to postpone its decision so that an army panel formed for this specific purpose could investigate the issue in depth. The panel was headed by Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick, former head of the IDF’s Land Forces. Its four sub-panels investigated the physiological effect of women serving in the IDF, an analysis of combat roles and their particular characteristics and requirements, the impact that the assignment of women to combat roles would have on human resources, and issues pertaining to military activities in mixed (male and female) units, among other things.

Over the last few months, the members of the panel and people working with it hinted that the panel’s final conclusions will not signal some major breakthrough, nor will they open combat units to women overall. As far as the IDF is concerned, the guiding principle is that the IDF must remain on mission. The success of military missions prevails over the principle of gender equality. In other words, equal service by men and women is secondary in importance to accomplishing military goals.

Nevertheless, as abovementioned, Chief of Staff Kochavi did decide to integrate women in Unit 669 and, apparently, one infantry unit. In order to determine whether this marks a genuine revolution in the IDF or if it is nothing more than a minor change with no serious impact, it is necessary to look at how women served in the IDF over the years.

Until 1995, the absolute majority of women in the IDF did not serve in combat units. Then, one brave woman named Alice Miller fought to be the first woman to enlist in the elite pilot course by petitioning the Supreme Court to declare her eligible. Despite stubborn opposition from the IDF, the Supreme Court ruled that women should be allowed to apply for that course. Nevertheless, even this did not signify a major shift. Since its 1997 ruling, only 70 women have completed the course, and only five of them went on to serve as combat pilots.

The court’s ruling in the Alice Miller case did, however, lead to a dramatic turnabout in the IDF’s attitude toward women serving in combat positions. It started enlisting women in existing combat roles and even created mixed formats in which men and women serve together. These include a light infantry brigade named Caracal, which is stationed along the country’s peaceful borders.

Given its success, and the need to make combat brigades available for training, the IDF formed three additional light infantry brigades in which men and women serve together. At the same time, the IDF also began integrating women in its Sailors’ course, Air Defense units, the Homefront’s Search and Rescue Unit, the Artillery, Border Police, etc. As a result, thousands of women in the IDF now serve in combat positions.

In 2017, the IDF launched a pilot program to assess the integration of women in armored divisions defending the country’s borders. This pilot program was stopped abruptly, however. It was only after two participating female tank commanders petitioned the Supreme Court over this that the chief of staff decided to put the women back in their tanks. The first female tank crews to complete their training were stationed along the Egyptian border about a year ago. It goes without saying that these women are not an organic part of the tank brigades conducting maneuvers in the IDF. Their mission is entirely defensive.

As of now, the decision to integrate women in Unit 669 is little more than a headline. It is not at all clear when women will actually be allowed to join the unit. It is worth noting that Unit 669 is one of the IDF’s most elite units. Its mission is to extract pilots downed in enemy territory and wounded soldiers from the battlefield under changing conditions, as well as the rescue of civilians in extreme cases.

Given the complexity of these missions, physical demands of soldiers in the unit are especially high. Just this morning, the IDF made it clear that it has no plans to compromise on the mission just to integrate women, nor does it plan to harm the health and well-being of its women recruits. As a result, the air force will require extensive work to assess the effective integration of women, even despite Kochavi's dramatic announcement. It could take months before women are actually allowed to join the elite unit.

The bottom line is that the announcement that women would be integrated into Unit 669 and one of the infantry brigades may be significant, but it may not be the big change that women recruits have been hoping to achieve. Despite major progress in the integration of women over the last 20 years, some 10% of IDF positions remain closed to women recruits. While this seems like a low number, the positions that remain closed are major combat positions that lie at the core of the IDF. They are the positions from which future brigade and battalion commanders, generals and chiefs of staff all get their start.

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