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Israel debates women's place on battlefield

Panel studies integration of combat forces

JERUSALEM -- When Alice Miller petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court in 1995 to let her become an air force pilot, the country's president, himself a famous airman in his younger days, laughingly compared women flying planes to men darning socks.

But the court ruled in her favor, opening combat jobs to women for the first time. One of them was Keren Tendler , a flight technician killed last summer when her helicopter was shot down by Hezbollah guerrillas over Lebanon.

The fighting Israeli woman soldier may endure as a stereotype, but in reality, a female death in combat is extremely rare. Save for isolated cases in the Jewish state's 1948 war for independence, women traditionally were confined to clerical and support jobs. But things have changed, and now an army-appointed commission of academics and officers is studying whether to integrate the army's last all-male preserve: infantry, armor, and special forces.

Commission member Naomi Chazan, a prominent feminist and a former lawmaker, says the focus will be on "increasing the equality" of women in uniform -- and that means admitting them to tank and infantry formations.

The move is not crucial for the army, Chazan said, but for Israeli women. The army plays a central role in Israel, Chazan said, and "If the army consciously creates inequality on any basis, these values get into Israeli society."

But Yaakov Amidror , a retired major general, says such principles cannot drive military policy in a country that feels its national survival is at stake.

"As we've seen in other armies, gender integration causes sexual tension and is detrimental to combat performance, and it's just not worth it," Amidror said. "It's not coincidental that throughout human history, men have done the fighting."

Feminists might call his views old-fashioned, but they face a question: Do Israeli women even want to be on the front lines?

Lieutenant Colonel Liora Rubinstein, a women's affairs adviser to the military chief of staff, acknowledges that few women volunteer for combat units. Many are turned off by having to sign on for an extra year to serve in most combat jobs.

"My son does soccer and judo, and my daughter does ballet. But then we tell her, 'Go to the army, be equal to the men, go ahead.' But of course it doesn't work like that," Rubinstein said.

Lieutenant Sivan Ben-Ezra, 21, commands a platoon in a mixed-gender "light infantry" unit, currently the closest women can get to front-line infantry. She isn't surprised more women aren't interested in jobs like hers.

"We have girls who come for the boots and the cool uniform. Those girls don't last," she said.

All Israelis except Arabs and ultra-orthodox Jews are drafted -- men for three years, women for two.

Ben-Ezra's unit is 70 percent female, and its main duty is to patrol Israel's peaceful borders with Egypt and Jordan. Another mixed unit operates remote cameras and sensors to police the more sensitive Syrian and Lebanese borders, and women also serve in the border police and checkpoint units that maintain the occupation of the West Bank.

During last summer's Lebanon conflict, a small number of women soldiers fired artillery shells and cluster bombs, served on navy vessels, and flew combat sorties as pilots and weapons system operators. All told, about 1,500 women serve in combat jobs -- about 2.5 percent of female conscripts, according to army figures.

The turning point was Miller's Supreme Court petition, which provoked then-president Ezer Weizman to belittle her in a phone conversation as a "maidele," Yiddish for a young girl, and ask whether she could imagine a man darning socks. He later said the comment was in jest.

Miller, then 23, failed the flight school entrance exams, but the court ruling forced the army to open all jobs to women or present a good reason not to.

Some Orthodox Jews protested that mixing the sexes was immodest, and other Israelis voiced concerns that the public would not tolerate women being killed or falling captive.

But even the grim circumstances of Tendler's death last summer -- rescue forces spent a day and a half in enemy territory searching for her body, then carried it on a stretcher back to Israel -- did not draw calls to reverse the policy, suggesting that it has won broad acceptance.

The military has taken the precaution of making strict separation of barracks and bathrooms mandatory, and many commanders bar all physical contact save for shaking hands and patting shoulders.

The reformers are inspired by Canada and several European nations that have integrated infantry units, and from the apparent easing of the US military's ban on women in ground combat.

Says lawmaker Chazan: "People ask me, do you really want your daughter to serve in a unit like that? Well, I want my daughter to be able to decide, just like your son."

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