IT WAS a perfect winter’s day east of Jerusalem. I was in the West Bank village of Hizma, around three miles as the crow flies to Ramallah, the capital city of the Palestinian Authority.
This was a somewhat surreal stroll, however.
Spending the afternoon with the female combat soldiers of the Masada Company, based at Camp Anatot close to the large Israeli settlement town of Ma’aleh Adumim, I was riding in a convoy of two armored vehicles as part of my overview of the role of this particular unit, which is comprised of around 30 percent female soldiers, something that would have been unthinkable even a few short years ago.
If you’ve seen the smash hit 1980 Hollywood comedy “Private Benjamin,” starring Goldie Hawn, and thought women in the Israeli army combat units bear even the slightest resemblance to the Jewish American Princess (JAP) character she so superbly portrayed, you should do yourself a favor, cast aside any preconceived prejudices, and well and truly think again.
Stopping at one of the main junctions leading into Hizma ‒ a village of more than 8,000 residents that on occasions has been the source of stone throwing and fire-bomb attacks on people and vehicles passing close by on Route 60 ‒ Lt. Ma’or Lagali, the commander of Masada Company, was explaining the challenges his soldiers face and their ways of dealing and interacting with the locals on a day-to-day basis.
The commander finished his explanation and I asked if his soldiers always patrol the village from the relative safety of their armored cars. He told me they also patrol regularly on foot, so I asked if we might do that to get more of a firsthand feel of the everyday challenges his male and female soldiers face.
After a minute of back and forth walkie- talkie discussions, Lagali said it would be fine ‒ but they were taking precautions.
“There’ll be an armored car in front, two armed soldiers following on foot, then you and I, two armed soldiers behind us, and another armored car at the rear,” he explained.
And so it was that my initial thoughts of a low-key walk through the main street of this West Bank Arab village evolved into a sedate military procession as the locals went about their everyday business ‒ some with noticeably bemused looks on their faces. The driver of a car we walked past began to move off and instantly got the message he should stay where he was for a few moments until we passed safely by. I understood that no chances were being taken that he might take it upon himself to enter our mini convoy.
In such a scenario, you quickly become aware that even the most innocuous thing could potentially pose massive danger for soldiers on patrol who are seen by some as occupying forces and legitimate targets. We passed a hardware store with lines of gas canisters on the pavement outside; a tire repair store could easily be another danger because lighted tires have been rolled at speed toward Israeli soldiers during times of high tension; someone could swiftly produce a knife and try to stab a soldier from behind; or any other manner of potential happenchance danger could occur.
A few years ago, while volunteering with my local Border Patrol unit, I attended a course highlighting the ingenuity of terrorists who had hidden explosives in the most innocuous of places ‒ the base of a birdcage standing outside a pet shop; inside a CD case in a music store; in a watermelon at a fresh fruit store; even inside a loaf of bread.
These are the dangers the female combat soldiers I met that afternoon, and growing numbers of other young women like them, willingly choose to face every day across the West Bank and in other areas touched by the Arab-Israeli conflict.
For this father of two teenage daughters, it provided plenty of food for thought. How would I feel knowing one of my girls was placing herself in this kind of danger every time she left her base and went out on duty when she could have opted for a much safer alternative role for her military service? “To this day, my father is still very worried,” admitted 21-year-old Lt. Sharon Bronar of Beit Zayit, the officer in charge of a platoon of 18 young male and female soldiers who are regularly out in the field on missions lasting up to 12 hours at a time, in searing heat, bitter cold, and sometimes participating in house-to-house weapons searches among a myriad of frontline tasks.
“He always says he doesn’t sleep at night and that he can’t believe what I’m doing, but he’s proud of me and understands why I’m doing it. [My parents] did try to talk me out of it, but they had no chance. I knew this was what I wanted to do. At the end of the day, they are behind me, but not wholeheartedly.”
I asked the same question of 19-year-old Sgt. Adi Weiss.
“ACTUALLY, MY family supported me from the very beginning and were in favor of what I’m doing. It started with the fact that when my mother was drafted she never had the chance to do this ‒ and she would have loved to do it. It was her dream. She went in another direction and did a great job, but the truth is that she is a kind of combat soldier through me, and that’s why there was so much family support, in my case.
“In this type of role, you really do need that support to survive. When things get tough, when things might not be so good, they’re the ones who help lift you,” she said.
In most other countries, these two bright young ladies most likely would be in the middle of university studies or already setting out on their chosen career path. But this is Israel, and while a steadily growing percentage of the population determinedly avoids army service for religious and other reasons, the majority still serve ‒ 32 months for men, two years for women.
Unlike Weiss, who clearly aspired to join a combat unit from day one, Bronar, her senior officer, arrived at her role in a very different way.
“I was drafted at the start into the navy and had a role as a tatzpitanit [remote video surveillance operator], but after a few months I realized this wasn’t for me and I applied for a change,” she told The Jerusalem Report.
“It all started as a joke with some of the [navy] girls, but it ended in me becoming part of this battalion. I wanted service that was more interesting, more where the action is. I wanted to be part of protecting the state ‒ it always comes back to this point. Today, in Israel, there are a lot of people who do not want to be drafted into these roles.”
I wondered how she and her colleagues feel about those who do all they can to avoid the draft. Were they angry at these people? “Everyone has their own reasons,” said Bronar, “but it results in opportunities for girls to fulfill these roles, very capable girls, [operating] at the highest level possible.
“It’s been seen over the last few years that the combination of men and women in these units works. If fewer boys come along, then, I suppose, more women will be involved, but when we’re out in the field no one thinks about being a man or a woman. We’re all just trying to be the best soldier we possibly can be,” she continued.
Lagali was keen to stress the point of gender balance as he outlined the responsibilities he has commanding Masada Company.
“Lt. Bronar is a female officer and there are a number of both male and female soldiers under her command, each having a specific role. There is no division of labor between men and women, including when we are involved in missions. We view the person solely according to whether they are good at what they do or not. If the person wants to progress and move on to a higher level, there is nothing standing in their way.
“THE JOB of the company is to ensure law and order, to guarantee security for those who live here and for those who pass through. At the end of the day, my job is to ensure a peaceful environment for Jews, for Palestinians, for everyone. Our specific role here is to maintain the peace between Israelis and Palestinians ‒ and when I speak of Israelis, it could very easily be Arab Israelis,” he said.
Does that also extend to Jewish settlers, I asked. Time and again allegations are raised by Palestinians and some independent observers (often accused of having a preplanned political agenda or bias against Israel) that the Israeli army is heavy-handed in its treatment of Palestinians under its control in the West Bank but is reluctant to deal in a similar fashion with Jews.
“It is our duty to treat all Israelis with respect,” Lagali stated slowly and very deliberately. “We’re not here to deal with the Palestinian people. We’re here to deal with people ‒ whoever they might be ‒ who cause problems.”
In some parts of Israeli society, the traditional view of a woman’s role remains deeply entrenched. With this in mind, I suggested to Bronar that there surely must have been some young male soldiers from such backgrounds who found it hard to accept, or even resented, female soldiers being their equal, let alone being told what to do by a female officer.
“Maybe at the start it was a little strange for some to accept it,” she conceded, “but very quickly everyone gained respect for everyone else. You know, it is also the opposite because, at first, there were those male officers who found it strange being in charge of female soldiers, but they soon got used to it and saw that everyone is of equal value.
“Those soldiers who might have come from a very male-oriented background with certain attitudes soon found those preconceptions disappearing very quickly. It’s one of the great benefits of having a mixed unit. It’s also worth bearing in mind that someone with such an attitude is most unlikely to be assigned to a mixed unit such as this in the first place,” said Bronar.
AND IF there are those from Israeli society who have doubts about women combat soldiers, surely the many extremely conservative elements in Palestinian and Arab society must find it bizarre, even alarming, to be faced by a female soldier. Bronar explained, however, that they are generally a little more relaxed when dealing with female soldiers, suggesting that if issues are approached in a non-aggressive manner, it is easier to get along.
“Indeed, in order to reach a better understanding with the Palestinian people, there are things a male soldier cannot do that a female soldier can,” said Lagali. “For example, we can’t do a body search or a check on a woman. Only the girls can do that, and that’s what we do to respect a person’s rights. It helps to lessen the day-to-day impact on quality of life. Mentally, being a female combat soldier has its challenges, but believe me, someone who has come this far and has the willpower to do what they do is able to solve just about any issue.”
In December 2015, I sat down with the IDF Head of Military Physiology, Lt.-Col. Yuval Heled, for a special interview for The Report. We touched on the major issues surrounding a potential move to open all roles in the IDF to women in the wake of the US military’s decision to allow women to try out for the elite Navy Seals. Around 93 percent of IDF roles currently can be filled by women, including fighter pilots and other high-profile, front-line positions. Heled stated that “women can be great soldiers,” but that the basic physiology of the female body means the rigors of high-level combat activity can produce a far higher number of injuries to female combat soldiers than to their male counterparts.
“Women are up to five times more susceptible to overuse injuries… even after doing [intensive] training,” Heled stated.
Without being prompted, Bronar frankly tackled this subject.
“It’s important for me to point out that the girls that do these [combat] roles often do so at a physical cost to their bodies and their social life. This isn’t a nine-to-five army job. You really have to admire their dedication and selflessness. They’re the best this country has to offer. This is very physical and girls get injured with knee or back issues because of the female physiology.
“Something else that is worth mentioning though,” she continued, “is the tremendous level of care we receive from physical therapists, doctors and other medical people. It’s as good as you could possibly get, and both male and female soldiers receive psychological support after every incident or exercise, if they feel it is needed.”
Weiss said she trained as a gymnast for 11 years and that her background of both physical and mental discipline had more than prepared her for her military role.
“I arrived with a very high level of fitness. For any girl who arrives at the draft with a sports background and knows what it is to train and have a strict physical routine, I would really recommend a role such as this. Someone who has to be psychologically strong to compete, who has the mental discipline to train up to five times a week [all of this when they are still in high school], I believe is capable of withstanding the challenges of being a combat soldier,” she said.
So, are these two impressive female combat soldiers planning to stay on with their unit after their mandatory military service is over? “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Weiss laughed. “I’m so involved in what I’m doing right now that I don’t really have a plan. I imagine that I’ll go travelling and then study.”
Bronar signed up for four years, but will she stay on longer? “It’s quite possible that I will,” she said, with a big smile and a twinkle in her eye.
I hope her father isn’t reading this!
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @paul_alster and visit his website: www.paulalster.com