A Woman of Valor
01 August 2007 , 12:55
A female combat soldier in training
Field Week. Photo: Abir Sultan, IDF Spokesperson
Alice Miller's appeal to the Supreme Court regarding the fact that the IAF Flight School was no longer an option for women brought about one of the most substantial events in the history of the IDF. Since 1995, the course has been open to both genders.
By Bar Ben-Ari

A year has passed since the last war in Lebanon, and the stories of the combatants who crossed the border are still often mentioned. The media in Israel and worldwide broadcasted the many stories of bravery and wonder, and the trying experiences soldiers went through when deep into Lebanese territory. For the majority of them, it was the first time they had set foot on Lebanese land. It was their baptism by fire, in more ways than one, which became more and more a part of their daily routine as time passed. "No, you don't ever get accustomed to it," says Corporal May Inbar, then 19 years old, a medic during the war. "But at a certain stage you learn how to differentiate between our fire and theirs, like music. And when a bomb hits near by-as though fear ceases to exist, everything is gone. I think neither about the Katyushas, nor about the danger. I just see the wounded soldier bleeding in front of me, and at that moment I know what to do."

R', an airborne medic in the 669 Air Force elite unit noted a short while after the war ended: "If you asked me two months ago, I would not have believed that we could reach such extreme situations. In my opinion, nobody thought that girls would go in." R's team was the first to evacuate the "Yasur" helicopter which crashed on its way back to Israeli territory. "You go in, to the same area which had been struck by an anti-tank missile barely seconds ago. The feeling is crazy-you don't know if your friends were in the helicopter, but one thing is for sure-we never leave wounded soldiers behind," she concludes. "It is a terrible feeling. I cannot even imagine how something like that could happen."

The warfare in Lebanon was a defining period for both men and women, as it was the first time (since the War of Independence) that women held central positions in field units alongside men: In regular service, professional service, and in reserve duty. Among the 119 soldiers who gave their lives in the war, there was one female. She was Sergeant First Class (res.) Keren Tendler, of blessed memory, an airborne engineer in the 'Yasur" helicopter alignment, who was in charge of the team on the helicopter that crashed.

Fourteen percent of the women who were called for reserve duty were in combat positions. Most of them were medics. "We really are not different," declares R', explaining: "If a helicopter crashes, we both have to perform the same tasks, quickly and professionally, and it does not matter who is a male and who is a female. They allowed me to go in and fulfill my purpose- and that is a really great feeling." Alongside the intense fighting in Lebanon, in a different spot on the Israeli border, the female combat soldiers of the Military Police "Sahlav" unit patrol around the Jewish community in the city of Hebron. "We frequently get responses from people who are not accustomed to seeing women in Hebron. They are not used to seeing a woman with a helmet and a ceramic vest, who is carrying a weapon," says Orli bar-Levi, a combatant in the battalion. Despite the tendency of soldiers from other battalions to blink in disbelief  at seeing the girls manning the post, says Bar-Levi, they showed respect and utter trust in them.

Not to be taken lightly 

The most difficult times for the female combat soldiers of the Karakal infantry battalion is when they execute missions in the field, which can take up to 72 hours. In the field, they remind us, there are no showers or other amenities. Those are all replaced by difficult challenges and longings. When I ask the obvious question of why choose this over a desk job in an air-conditioned office, Lieutenant Brit Kortzki looks at me straight in the face and answers: "For the difficulty of the work, and I am proud to say it. I remember when I sat on my father's lap and listened to his stories about the coldest cold, the hottest heat, the most painful pain, and his friends- today that is part of my daily routine."

A combat soldier of the Karakal Battalion.
Archive photo: Abir Sultan, IDF Spokesperson

The Karakal Battalion, a unit composed of all the Karakal companies which predated it, is currently celebrating the third year since its founding. Both genders go through a trying basic training period of four months where they go through an arduous physical training regimen, with everything else that can be expected from a military course such as this. The training includes camouflage paints, and various firearms. This all takes place at the Givati Brigade training base. Throughout the months of training, the soldiers specialize in weapons such as machine guns, advanced weaponry, grenades, mortars, etc. The next phase will be the advanced training, together with studying their future sector of operations.

The general perception of Karakal, that it does not post females on the forefront in battle, is something that Lieutenant Kortzki would like to contradict. You might say she gives it an outright 'negative'. "What if they don’t fall into our arms? We will go out and attack, because that is what we train for, and know how to do." She herself was part of a 16 hour chase which brought about the arrest of two wanted terrorists. It began when they discovered footprints, followed by a patrol of the area, lead by one of the main scouts in the south of israel. Just like in basic and advanced training, and in routine guard duty, both the males and the females shared the work equally. No compromises. Operations test the basic principles of the battalion; combat camaraderie between the genders. Part of the conditions of equality is the fact that all of the combat soldiers of the battalion serve for three years in the military.

This concept also exists in the Nachshol Battalion of the Field Intelligence Corps, which also operates in southern Israel. Unlike Karakal, the battalion itself is not co-ed. The girls, who are Intelligence gathering combatants, are trained at the 03 training level (non-infantry), and as part of their classified service, they learn how to operate advanced scouting and observation equipment. Their service differs from regular Intelligence gathering in that they gather their information from the field. They gather their information for operations in the field while in the field, not from a command center.

The formation of the battalion at the beginning of the year is a direct indicator of the release of administrative and professional restrictions in the IDF. In the past decade, various positions have been opened to women, such as anti-aircraft combat positions, combatants in the Artillery Corps, combat soldiers in the "Oketz" elite canine unit, ABC warfare soldiers, Border Police soldiers, telecommunications, parachuting instructors, and of course-pilots. "The element of quick, sharp thought, together with the physical effort which the female combat soldiers are demanded to display at any given moment," stresses Captain Shirli, the commander of the Nachshol Battalion, which has accompanied her since the beginning of the year, when it was founded, "is what attracts girls to come to the Field Intelligence Corps." She sees a special quality in the atmosphere the female combat soldier brings to the field. It is something that is difficult to put your finger on, it may just be that 'woman's touch.' Captain D', a former company commander in the Sahlav unit, agrees. He admitted that, "the female combat soldiers are cooler and more calculating than the boys, they are calmer, and hold their weapons in a professional manner. If I have to send a girl to arrest a female terrorist, I have no problem with that. I believe in the female combatants in the company one hundred percent."

The only army which drafts by law

"Every day is international Woman's day in our military," declared the British Minister of Defense on March of 1999. In the English military, women can serve in all positions which are not directly defined as combat positions. As of 2002, 17,040 women serve in the English military, which amounts to 8.3 percent of the whole. Focusing on the aspect of combat, female snipers from Chechnya were part of the guerilla effort of Chechnya. In Eritrea women fought alongside men in their war for independence from Ethiopia. 34 percent of the IDF are women in regular duty, and it is the only military in the world which drafts women by law. In Norway and in Denmark all military units are open to women; however, they make up a very small portion at 5 percent, according to statistics gathered a number of years ago.

From pigeons to airplanes

In the first days of the IDF, ten women were drafted for a unique position- pigeon handling in the postal pigeon unit. They would continue the position which they occupied in the Hagana. There, they were the authority in anything pertaining to caring for the pigeons. This included training them for duty, and sending them off on their important missions, delivering messages to various far away destinations. They were known as the "Pigeon Trainers." In 1945, a slightly larger group of women was gathered for this purpose, an extremely classified position at the time. The girls trained the pigeons for approximately three months, at the end of which they would serve as a means of communication with besieged settlements. As the IDF was founded and women were drafted, these girls maintained their position as pigeon trainers, and continued to do so as reservists.

If we look even further back in time, at the years before the establishment of the IDF, military service for women existed in the lines of the "Shomer' and "Hagana" organizations. The "Hagana" stated in its law that its lines were open to: "Every Jewish male or female, who is prepared and trained to fulfill the obligation of national defense." Most served as medics, communications specialists, and weaponeers. During WWII approximately 4,000 females volunteered for service in the British assisting forces. One of them, Alice Hatzor-Hirsch, was about 16 when she joined the Hagana. In 1942, she joined the British army-as a driver. "We were more connected than the others," she recalled years later. "A girl becoming a driver in the British army was considered the height of boldness at the time."

In Tel-Aviv of the 1940's, a battalion was established in which women filled positions in security, weapons transport, and manned anti-aircraft posts. "The Combat Girls Battalion" was established in Haifa a year later. In the winter of 1948, the time in which the War of Independence was waged, women joined the combat soldiers of the Palmach, who traveled from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem with their weapons concealed in their clothes. The Palmach arm (thirty percent of which were females) trained nine female platoon commanders, and other female squad commanders.

Years before joining the IAF Flight School was the dream of aerospace enthusiasts, and the symbol of the struggle for equal rights, in May of 1940 Rachel Markovski received her Pilot's license. She became a pioneer as the first female pilot. Another pioneer was Hava Inbar, a lawyer, who was appointed the judge of the military court in Haifa in September of 1969, thus becoming the first female military judge in the world. "I do not know if I want to be a military judge my whole life," she said in an interview, "but I am glad that I was appointed; it proves that the IDF leaves almost all doors open for its female soldiers."

Miller's revolution

Women now amount to 26 percent of all officers in the IDF, reaching the ranks of lieutenant colonel, colonel, and brigadier general. 88 percent of all military positions are available to women.

The wide range of opportunities available is thanks to a number of milestones along the way. In the Yom Kippur War, when men were sent to the front, the training positions for field units were opened to women out of necessity. Alice Miller's appeal to the Supreme Court regarding the fact that the IAF Flight School was no longer an option for women brought about one of the most substantial events in the history of the IDF. Since 1995, the course has been open to both genders. Miller, coincidentally, did not ultimately pass all of the assessments of the military- "and it was for the best," as she explained ten years later. "I was exhausted by the whole ordeal, the public exposure that I had at the time. Dealing with that was far from easy. For two years I held onto the flag, I was forced to defend the honor of women whenever I walked in the street. The military's approach towards women is changing for the better," she added, "and the more they become part of specializations that are not conventional, their position in the IDF will become stronger."

Five years after the revolutionary judgment, the law of military service as of 1949 was amended. It stated that equality would be maintained throughout the military, except in such areas where certain issues precluded this, such as physical restrictions. In 2000, medical studies proved that women would not be physically able to undergo the requirements needed for the training of the Air Force 669 Special Forces unit. However, the closing of that unit to women brought about a positive promise-it opened the option of an airborne combat medical position. As the female airborne medics bore witness as they returned from Lebanon, this was a decision of much importance, which proved itself in the field.

Lieutenant D. the first airborne technician.
Archive photo: Dan Bronfeld, IDF Spokesperson

Additionally, many administrative positions in the military have been "conquered" by women. At the head of the IDF spokesperson's Unit stands Brigadier General Miri Regev- this being the second term in which a female holds this position. Until five years ago, the position was manned solely by male officers. Brigadier General Orna Barbibai was appointed the Chief Adjutancy Officer, and became the first officer to command a position which is not the Women's Corps. In 2001, the Advisory to the Chief of Staff on Women's Issues unit was established, as the Women's Corps, which existed since the early years of the IDF, was disassembled. The third female to receive the rank of Brigadier General who is currently in service is Brigadier General Yehudit Grisero, the Advisor to the Chief of Staff on Women's Issues, as of September of last year. In a letter which she wrote as she assumed the position, Brigadier General Grisero described utilizing human resources, as well as women, as a "long-distance run" and noted that the journey is still significantly long.

Looking to the future: more equality

In recent years, the number of female soldiers becoming secretaries has drastically declined. From 1998 until this year, the number of female secretaries has dropped by 33 percent. The number of secretaries reached its highest numbers in the 80's, where it stood at 65 percent. In 2004, clerks were just 20 percent of all women serving in the IDF, and the downward trend seems to be continuing. In the coming months, a committee headed by the former Chief Human Resources Officer, Major General (res.) Yehuda Segev will be submitting its recommendations regarding women's service in the military in the next decade. The Segev committee will present a vision with new directions for improving equal opportunities for women in the IDF.