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Women of the Israel Defense Forces: History in Combat Units

The history of female combat soldiers in the IDF can be dividend into three distinct eras:

  • 1948: Women on full combat status during the War of Independence
  • 1948-Late 1990's: No women allowed in combat roles
  • Late 1990's-Present: Majority of combat positions - including pilots and special forces - open to women

When it was first formed in 1948, the IDF was forced to use any and all available personnel as combat soldiers, regardless of gender. As Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion said at the time:

Since you rightly believe that the security of the State must be pursued night and day, I want you to know that that security will not exist if our nation’s women do not know how to fight. We are few – and our enemies are many. If, heaven forbid, a war falls upon us, the men will go to fight the enemy, and if, heaven forbid, the women who are protecting their children at home do not know how to use a weapon – what will be their end if the enemy falls upon them?

Female soliders in 1950

Following the War of Independence, however, and lasting until the late 1990’s, no women were allowed to serve in combat positions, aside from a short attempt in the 1950’s to accept women into flight school. However, women did take over almost all field instructing positions in the IDF.

That all started to change in 1994 when the High Court of Justice, under appeal by a female immigrant from South Africa, ruled that some combat roles should be open to female soldiers. Three years later, in 1997, Alice Miller filed a an appeal to the Supreme Court to be accepted into the IDF’s highly elite Air Force flight school. Miller won the lawsuit and the IDF officially began accepting women as flight candidates.

In 2000, the Equality amendment to the Defense Service Law stated that the right of women to serve in any role in the IDF is equal to the right of men. Soon after, women were allowed to serve in nearly all combat positions. Women recruited for combat units must serve for 30 months instead of the normal mandatory period for women of 21 months.

In early 2000, the IDF decided to also deploy women in the artillery corps, followed by infantry units, armored divisions and elite combat units. The Navy has also decided to place women in its diving repair unit. Altogether, at the beginning of 2004, about 450 women were in combat units.

The Caracal company, a co-ed infantry unit subordinate to the Nahal Brigade, was established in 2000 to patrol Israel’s southern border with Egypt for drug smugglers and terrorist infiltrators. Three additional mixed companies were later created: the Lions of Jordan Battalion in 2014, the Bardelas or Cheetah battalion in 2015, and the Lions of the Valley Battalion in 2017. The elite commando K9 unit, Oketz, also drafts females as dog trainers and soldiers.

To get into Caracal — which is made up of 70% women and 30% men — the female soldiers had to agree to serve an additional eight months for the same pay as conscript troops rather than the higher salaries that other soldiers who sign on for additional time receive.

Recent Developments

During the early-2000’s, additional Supreme Court appeals as well as political pressure swayed the IDF to open even more combat positions to women. Today female soldiers can be found on combat status in the Artillery Corps, Combat Engineering Corps, Light Infantry, Military Police, Border Police and other units.

During the Second Lebanon War, women were in field operations alongside men for the first time since 1948. During the fighting, Helicopter engineer Sgt.-Maj. (res.) Keren Tendler became the first female IDF combat soldier to be killed in action.

On May 26, 2011, Defense Minister Ehud Barak oversaw one of the IDF’s most historic internal events when he approved the promotion of Brigadier General Orna Barbivai to Major General and to the head of the IDF Manpower Directorate. In so doing, Barbivai became the first female ever to attain the rank of Major General in the IDF.

In October 2011, the 27 female combat soldiers completed the IDF Ground Forces Officers Training Course along with 369 male soldiers and were promoted to the rank of second lieutenant. The new female officers serve in a wide range of combat units from artillery to Caracal and tanks.

In January 2014, the IDF announced that Major Oshrat Bacher would be promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and placed as a Brigade Commander in a Combat Intelligence unit. Major Bacher’s promotion marked the first time a female soldier commanded a combat brigade.

Since 2012, the number of women in combat roles has been steadily rising.  In 2012, 600 women joined co-ed combat battalions, and the following year 1,365 joined. This trend continues today: in 2017 more than 2,700 women were recruited to mixed-gender IDF battalions (an all-time high), compared with 2,100 in 2016.

For the first time in Israeli history, a female pilot was named commander of a flight squadron in January 2018. The 35-year old known simply as Major T., was trained as a transport pilot and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. 

Graduates of Israeli Air Force flight course

The IDF’s first female tank commanders began their service in July 2018. The four women will conduct border security missions with their tank squadrons but will not be sent into enemy territory.

Sgt. Jessica Klempert became the first female machinist to serve on an Israeli Navy missile ship in 2021.

“There’s a good chance that in another two years, we’ll see the first female infantry battalion commander. I can’t tell you the name, but it’s going to happen,” Lt. Col. Erez Shabtay commander of the Caracal Battalion told The Times of Israel. “What I’ve seen in this battalion opened me up to a totally different world. We have female fighters and officers who are amazing, in terms of their cognitive ability, their creativity, their bravery and their courage,” he said.

Female infantry instructors prepare for a combat exercise

Allowing women into combat roles remains controversial. Some Israelis have a traditional, some might say sexist attitude that women need to be protected and that a country as small as Israel cannot afford to risk the lives of potential mothers. Another argument is that women are weaker than men and the IDF unfairly lowered its fitness standards for females to make it easier for them to qualify for combat units.

In July 2021, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said he opposed full gender integration. “There won’t be a company of female soldiers in Golani,” he said.

“I can’t speak about Golani,” Shabtay said when asked if he shares Gantz’s view. “I can speak about my battalion. I have no question about the ability of women to be combat fighters. If you want, I’ll take you to see a live-fire combat exercise with explosions and tanks. Female soldiers crawling, attacking, shooting, giving orders. And we’ve also been tested under fire. Our soldiers, under fire, did their job amazingly. We don’t let up on them about anything — about physical fitness, about marksmanship. Whoever can’t cut it is out, just like a man.” He added, “I need my male and female soldiers to shoot well, to hit their targets, to use machine guns properly, to respond to incoming fire in the best way, and they need to know how to operate in a desert environment,” Shabtay said.

Shabtay acknowledged that men are stronger and faster, but he explained that his troops were suited to their mission. “We are a border defense battalion. And I say to you with a clear conscience that there is no battalion in the heavy infantry brigades who can do the job of defending the border better than we can. That’s the most important thing….I don’t need my battalion to deal with carrying heavy packs for 40 kilometers (25 miles) like in Golani. That’s not a level of fitness we need. It doesn’t interest me,” he said.

Shabtay’s unit will also be incorporating all-female tank crews after the soldiers completed their training in June 2021.

The number of women in combat roles has been steadily rising. In 2012, 600 women joined co-ed combat battalions. By 2017, more than 2,700 women were recruited to mixed-gender IDF battalions. Approximately 7% of women in the IDF serve in combat roles today, as opposed to 3% in 2012. Today, 90% of the combat assignments are open to women.

Some women are “lone soldiers” from countries such as South Africa, Italy, Germany, Australia, and the United States who don’t have family in Israel and are taken in by host families in Ra’anana and kibbutzim.

Sources: Israel Defense Forces.
Israeli Government Press Office.
“Women in the Israel Defense Forces,” Wikipedia.
“Orna Barbivai,” Wikipedia.
The Jewish Week, (January 2, 2004).
Bar Ben-Ari. “A Woman of Valor,” Israel Defense Forces, (August 1, 2007).
Lauren Gelfond Feldinger, “Skirting history,” Jerusalem Post, (September 18, 2008).
“New Female Combat Officers of the IDF,” IDF Spokesperson (October 27, 2011. January 2, 2014).
Gili Cohen, “Israeli Woman Who Broke Barriers Downed by Hezbollah Rocket as 2006 Combat Volunteer,” Haaretz, (May 10, 2016).
Yossi Yehoshua. “Number of female combat soldiers highest ever,” YNet News (August 5, 2016).
Amos Harel. “Rate of Female Israeli Soldiers Serving in Combat Roles Doubled in Four Years,” Haaretz (October 23, 2016).
Michael Blum. “Women increasingly join the fight in Israel’s army,” Yahoo, (November 20, 2016).
Yossi Yehoshua. Number of women in combat roles reaches record high, YNet News, (November 16, 2017).
Yaniv Kubovitch. Israel Military Appoints First Female Squadron Commander, Haaretz, (January 17, 2018).
Yaakov Lappin. First women tank commanders begin their duties in the IDF, JNS, (July 8, 2018).
Record enlistment of women in combat units, Jerusalem Post, (August 8, 2018).
Yaakov Lappin, “IDF’s pioneering all-women tank crews to provide protection of Israel’s south,” JNS, (February 20, 2020).
Bat-Chen Epstein Elias, “Israeli Navy embarks on new traditions,” Israel Hayom, (December 15, 2020).
Judah Ari Gross, “After heading coed battalion, an IDF officer sees women soon leading the charge,” Times of Israel, (July 8, 2021).

Photo: Top - IDF.
Female soldierrs - Théodore Brauner, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
IAF graduates - Israel Defense Forces, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Instructors - Israel Defense Forces, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.