A Lion’s Pride: An inside look at coed IDF combat unit preparing for battle

As Israel faces terror in the West Bank, a new coed group of combat soldiers finish training for their unique role in the Jordan Valley.

December 12, 2015 09:34
The Lions of Jordan Battalion

The IDF's new coed combat units are the result of a long struggle for the integration of women into fighting roles in the army. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

It’s not Las Vegas. The muddy soil cakes on the boots. The blanketing rain has stopped from the night before, but a dampness still hangs in the air at seven in the morning.

Nineteen-year-old Hannah Moses, who grew up in America’s Sin City, appears to feel at home after eight months in uniform. She coddles her M16 with its elongated metal sight and short barrel.

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“I wanted to do the army because I’m Jewish. I’m also a feminist in a sense; I wanted to prove that a woman can do the same job as a man in combat.”

Moses is one of slightly more than 100 recruits who are finishing up their training to be deployed with the Lions of Jordan Battalion. Unlike most combat units in the army, such as Golani or Givati which are all-male, the Lions of the Jordan Valley is a mixed-gender battalion, which makes it part of a relatively new phenomenon in the IDF: the integration of women into fighting roles.

This has been a long, hard-fought process.

Although women served briefly as fighters in the War of Independence, afterward they were barred from combat duty. (Women are conscripted to the IDF, like men, but serve only 24 months, compared to men’s 3 2 . Women constitute around 34 percent of the army’s manpower.)

Things began to change in the 1990s when Alice Miller, an immigrant from South Africa, challenged the army’s ban and won a Supreme Court case. In 1997 a committee chaired by Brig.-Gen Yehuda Segev argued that women could be integrated based on ability tests rather than gender discrimination, and in 2000 an Equality Amendment to the Defense Services Law stated that women should be equal to men in the IDF.

The amendment led to the creation of the Caracal Battalion, a coed light infantry unit that was to be deployed along the Egyptian border to deal with smuggling, terrorist infiltration and, increasingly over the years, African migrants and refugees.

The army website still describes the unit as being created to “concede to public pressure for the creation of an intensive combat unit for girls.”

When the Lions of Jordan was inaugurated in the fall of last year, all the stories about “conceding to the public” were gone. With almost 2,000 women enlisting to combat units this year, and some 40 percent of women expressing interest in these units, the lion, as it were, was out of the cage. “Welcome the IDF’s newest infantry battalion, the ‘Lions of the Jordan’!… Women in the unit will train and fight alongside men,” said an IDF Facebook post from last November.

“At first it was really hard,” recalls Moses.

Learning Hebrew while training was one barrier, but so was the intense training.

“My commander tried to kick me out. It’s difficult due to mental stress, and there are no showers [sometimes] and you’re shooting [during training] and it sucks,” she recalls.

But she seems to have integrated well; she’s all smiles and energy today.

“When you are with your fellow soldiers, you forget, even if you’re running with 10 kilos. It’s hard as heck and I wanted to leave, but at the end of the day I’m here, and I have my friends.”

Moses is looking forward to the “cool stuff” up ahead, which will entail securing the Jordan Valley. “We might have to search houses, and it is combat, but it’s not war. I’m a little worried – like if I was in an Arab village. But I am trained and know how to speak [to the Palestinian civilians].”

Today, Moses and her platoon of around 40 recruits, NCOs and officers, will be running exercises in a mock Palestinian village, which they have yet to see.

“This is the first time in this fake village, and we have learned how to catch a terrorist, we learned to shoot tear gas,” she says as she thumbs through photos from last week’s training. “We aren’t Caracal; we won’t be sitting on the border.”

THE LIONS of the Jordan Valley may have been approved as a unit before last year, but when it finally got down to selecting the recruits for its first company of 100 or so fighters, it was an orphaned unit, looking for a base to train in. It wandered the land, from the Paratroop Brigade training base in the Jordan Valley to the Kfir Brigade training base closer to Beit She’an.

Chai Kampoo was called up to serve in Thailand where his ancestors were from, but chose to serve in the IDF (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

Operation Protective Edge had just ended, and there was some operational chaos as units moved from place to place. The Lions needed a home, and they eventually settled down in the Nahal Brigade training base near Arad.

When they were sent to Lachish base to complete the final segment of their training and learn about the types of villages, civilians and settlers they would deal with, expectations were high.

The land here near Beit Guvrin has soft soil. In the old days the pagan civilizations carved out the caves and built temples and tombs in the area.

The looming stone apse of a Crusader church pokes out of the landscape.

This is also the Shfela, the ancient land where the Israelites fought, where Samson slaughtered the Philistines with a jawbone. So it is befitting to train here.

But October was a month of terrorist attacks, with 40 stabbings, many directed at soldiers and security forces in the West Bank. These women and men are being flung into a crucible, and their last crucial days of training before deployment weigh heavily.

“Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot wants to build units with men and women together,” says platoon commander Daniel Dabush, who is organizing the days of training.

With a slight build and confident demeanor, he seems to speak with his head cocked to the right always, as if he’s inspecting something.

“In the old days every unit used to rotate in and out of the area [in the Jordan Valley]. Now there will be one unit [the Lions] and it will learn the area and protect it.” Twenty-one-year-old Dabush, who is from Ashkelon, spent two years in Caracal before being invited to help inaugurate this battalion. After completing an officer’s course, he has been working on training these men and women.

“The big difficulty is the girls; they came here and they have difficulty running with weight and the process of teaching them that they can do what the boys can, and after four to five months they build their confidence.”

He hopes the work has paid off. “In two days we will go to the border… on Sunday we will be doing ambushes and arrests,” dealing with the real thing.

Like the other soldiers, he contrasts the situation the Lions will face with that of Caracal.

“We are dealing with Palestinians in an urban area; we will be stationed among houses. You have to learn how to enter a house and deal with the populace.”

There are dozens of Palestinian villages, such as Tubas, Tayasir and Tammun, in this area, interspersed with Jewish communities. The killing of the Palestinian family at Duma took place in this area, and the battalion must be prepared for widespread disturbances or terrorist attacks on Jewish communities such as the 2013 murder of Sraya Ofer near Shadmot Mehola or shooting attacks such as the one at the Bekaot checkpoint in June.

They won’t be “watching sand,” as some soldiers derisively describe the work of their sister unit, Caracal.

The Lions seem to have attracted a diverse set of soldiers. As a new unit, it doesn’t have the ethnic, economic or religious stereotypes of the older units, some of which are seen as preserves of different groups.

Chai Kampoo was born in Thailand but came to Israel at the age of three. His parents were foreign workers, but he describes finding Israel to be an open society.

He was supposed to go home to join the Thai army, which like Israel has conscription, but chose to stay here. Kampoo is an Israeli citizen through his father, who received citizenship through a previous marriage.

He first served in Kfir, a territorial brigade that is responsible for security and combat in the West Bank. In that sense, it was similar to the work of the Lions, but it was an all-male unit.

“It’s harder for the girls in the training. We have six girls and two boys in my squad,” says Kampoo, who is a sergeant.

He says some dropped out due to the difficulty, but those who remain are highly motivated.

Debbie Tovman came from Sweden to serve in the IDF, a dream since the age of 13. After doing ulpan on a kibbutz and joining the pre-army Garin Tzabar, she sought out a combat unit.

“I heard this unit was new. I didn’t know what the boots look like or the color of the beret, but I wanted it,” she recalls.

'A lot of the girls think it will be fun, but after not showering for days a lot don’t want that,’ says Swede Debbie Tovman (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

Barely knowing Hebrew, she soldiered through the training and is excited about deployment. “Maybe I’m just a little worried about speaking to Arabs who won’t understand.”

She also describes difficulties women faced in the unit, some of whom quit.

“A lot of girls think [it will be] fun, but then you are on base for 21 days [without going home] and you don’t shower for a week and they don’t want that.”

AS THE sun clutches the branches of the olive trees on the semicircle of green hillocks behind us, the platoon breaks into seven-person squads to study the map of their area. Commanders orient the soldiers – “Over that hill is a village, and here is a point called Hamra.”

In the distance the rat-tat-tat of gunfire can be heard from a live-fire exercise of a reserve unit practicing in the area.

It gives the feeling that battle is coming.

The soldiers are kitted out with face paint and the slouching camo covers for their helmets. Guns have been cleaned and clips removed; double checks have been performed to ensure no rounds are in the chamber.

As the soldiers stand in a semicircle for the final briefing, someone is missing.

“Who’s doing a pee-pee?” shouts one of the soldiers. In a mixed unit, camaraderie still leaves bathroom breaks in need of some privacy, even in the field.

A half a kilometer away in the mock Arab village, white corrugated houses line a muddy “main street” of a village.

The detritus of war – abandoned casings, stun grenades – dings underfoot.

A man dressed in black plays a Jewish civilian security guard who is supposed to tell the advancing unit that he has been fired on by a terrorist. One of the women in the unit, an immigrant from Ethiopia, plays the terrorist.

“They need to understand it’s not Gaza or Lebanon; they must find the one gunman, and each bullet can kill a civilian,” explains one of the trainers.

They need to find the terrorist as fast as possible. Fighting in Gaza, a unit might shoot first in a village that is considered occupied by Hamas, but here the job is to not harm civilians.

The six-man squad from the unit drives up in a jeep to search the “village.”

Advancing from one house to another, taking cover, they come upon the “Jewish civilian security,” who plays the part of a high-stress gung-ho fighter who wants to go find the terrorist. The training of the squad entails not allowing the civilians to gain control of the situation or endanger the unit.

They advance slowly up the main street, toward a building made to look like a mosque. Two of the female soldiers seem winded by the exercise, but others are performing better. Eventually, the soldiers engage the “terrorist,” neutralizing her in a short gun battle.

They secure the perimeter and await their instructions.

It’s almost 9 a.m. The first battle of Hamra seems to have gone well. No casualties, no wounded to evacuate? “That will be the next exercise,” notes the trainer.

(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

LT.-COL. Yosef Penso looks over the soldiers who have completed the training. He grasps a giant walkie-talkie with a long, dangling antenna, looking like some sort of ghastly metal insect. Penso is gaunt, taut and strong.

“This is the second company to go through this. Our first company is in the valley now and did an operation in Tubas and Tammun recently. If anyone wants to ask, there is no difference between them and the all-male units that protect the valley,” he says.

Looking at this unit, he takes stock.

“They can improve and they must understand [that] if there is a shooting [incident], they must go quickly to it and secure the area because of our civilians. It took them time to get into the business, but they worked well.”

The army seems to agree. In August it began recruiting for another unit modeled on Caracal and the Lions of Jordan.

Called Bardelas, the battalion will secure the area from the Dead Sea to Eilat, along the border with Jordan. A fourth unit is expected to be inaugurated, meaning that Israel’s main borders with the Arab states it has peace with, Jordan and Egypt, will all be protected by coed units.

“As the Israel Defense Forces evolves into a stronger, smarter army, so do the opportunities of those women serving in it. One of the most developed armies in the world today, the IDF’s emphasis on women’s rights sets it apart as an equal-opportunity world where women are challenged to make the most of their service, whether it be in combat or noncombat roles,” explains an IDF statement.

As we leave the fighters behind, some of the women wave good-bye. Some wipe sweat from their brows. They are smiling, reflecting what Tovman said about serving: “It’s better than sitting behind a desk all day.”

This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post Magazine.

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