In the withering afternoon sun, a Spartan firing range alongside a military base in northern Israel pops with gunfire. The combat soldiers here are from a newly formed brigade, and they are midway through a basic training that will prepare them for a tour of duty along the border with Jordan in the West Bank.
On first impression, the young trainees here sound like the average combat neophytes, talking of challenges and difficulties — and ultimately a sense of camaraderie and achievement — in adjusting to life in an infantry unit.
But the soldiers in this unit are unique in the Israeli army’s landscape: they will serve the Lavi’ey Ha’bika brigade, the newest addition to the military’s growing cadre of co-ed combat units charged with security of the country’s borders.
“It’s very different here from other units,” said Sgt. Rotem Zeldis, a 20-year-old commander overseeing the training. “It’s the only place in the army where guys and girls are together 24 hours and do everything together — whether it’s lifting weights or treks or running. The treatment of women and men here is exactly the same.”
In a military with a known history of celebrating machismo and relegating female soldiers to desk jobs in service of the top brass, some consider the mixed-combat units as spurring a quiet revolution in the ranks of the IDF.
According to a report from Haaretz, the percentage of female conscripts who enlist in combat units has risen from 3 percent to 7 percent in the last four years. Women serve as pilots and navigators in the air force, and they stand guard at flashpoint locations as officers in the Border Police. The army has also initiated a pilot program to test the possibility of integrating certain tank units.
But it seems that the mixed-gender infantry units that focus on border security have become the main catalysts of what some observers say is a genuine perception that women belong in combat roles. The steadily expanding brigades are helping to create a critical mass of female combatants and spurring a change in attitudes that is opening up possibilities for young women in the military.
“This is a real change. It’s not just anecdotal; it’s not something that is spin. It’s a big and deep change in the army,” said Tali Laor, an independent journalist who writes about gender and the army and a member of the Dvora Forum, a nonprofit that promotes integration of women in national security roles.
The advent of the mixed-gender units, however, seems to be more a manpower issue than a gender revolution. Started more than 15 years ago, the units have been deployed to relatively quiet frontiers and have helped free up more elite combat units for more advanced training. In recent years, the army’s decision to shorten the mandatory service for men by four months has created more of a shortage in combat personnel, which is now being filled by women.
But Laor says the change is not merely technical.
“The mixed units brought this equality to the level of the field. You see women with guns with men on busses or trains, and it already seems obvious and unremarkable. Now we are talking about a genuine people’s army,” she said.
“We see that these brigades are getting bigger, and women aren’t only involved in these units,” she said. “Women are involved in more and more roles in the army that were closed to them. The male combat soldiers understand that women can do almost everything.”
Back at the training base, trainees in the new Lavi’ey Ha’bika battalion explained how all of the soldiering — from shooting practice to long distance marches to ambushes — takes place in an integrated environment. When it comes to living arrangements, men and women are separated on different floors in the soldiers’ dorms on the base. And when the group is camped out in the field, a curtain separates the men’s tents from the women’s.
“Awareness of the mixed units has started to pick up momentum in the last few years since I first enlisted in November 2015. There’s lots of support from the higher-ups in the army who are always trying see how to improve this,” Sgt. Zeldis said.
The training sergeant said that women in the mixed-combat units are gaining confidence, so that nearly any combat role could be within reach of female soldiers — as long as they can meet the physical demands.
To be sure, Zeldis and other soldiers here acknowledge that women and men are not created equal when it comes to physical aspects of soldiering. But their mental toughness under the strains of the job is no different.
“It’s a state of mind that they teach here,” she said. “In my experience, there’s nothing that a guy in the platoon can do that I can’t do. It doesn’t exist.”
The first mixed border unit — Caracal — was deployed to the Jordanian border in southern Israel and eventually to the Egyptian border. In 2012, a female soldier from the unit received Israel’s equivalent of a Purple Heart medal for a shootout with three terrorists from the Egyptian side. And in 2014, a female-commanded mixed unit snuffed out another border attack, killing six terrorists from Sinai.
The mixed units sent to patrol the border in the northern Jordan Valley also carry out arrests and searches in Palestinian villages.
“In my experience, there’s nothing that a guy in the platoon can do that I can’t do. It doesn’t exist.”
However, the gradual integration of women in combat has not been without pushback.
Earlier this year, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, the head of a renowned military preparatory school in the West Bank settlement of Eli, joked that combat service in the army would drain women of their “Jewish values,” touching off a storm of public protest.
And last year, two former generals came out against the integration of women into new combat roles, saying that putting women and men together in the same tank is a “crazy” idea that could ultimately harm the IDF’s fighting ability.
In a radio interview, Reserve Gen. Yiftah Ron Tal said the integration of women in combat is a mistake and a “scandal, which has the ability to harm everything, including the IDF’s abilities.”
Female combatants have yet to serve in the elite infantry units or the general staff’s storied Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance. The navy’s submarines are also staffed by men only.
“There will always be someone who says girls can’t do it… We know what our job is here, and that’s what’s important.”
Gili Cohen, a military affairs reporter for Haaretz, noted that female graduates of the mixed units have yet to rise past the rank of major. But, she said, “this is just the start.”
And when the trainees at the Lavi’ey Ha’bikah finally graduate, they will become the fourth battalion of mixed-gender units — making it hard to see how the gains made by female soldiers can be rolled back.
And when asked about the political-cultural debate going on outside the army, the female soldiers shrug it off as background noise.
“I’m not trying to prove anything here, or break stigmas. I know who I am and what I’m capable of,” said Lyn Halfon, a 19-year-old trainee. “There will always be someone who says girls can’t do it. But I don’t consider it important or serious. But we know what our job is here, and that’s what’s important.”