Women given green light to serve in combat roles in elite IDF 669 unit

Unit 669 is one of the four special forces of the IDF. An estimated 90% of the positions in the IDF are now open to women.

Israeli soldiers of Caracal battalion (photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
Israeli soldiers of Caracal battalion
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)

IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi has approved the integration of women into combat roles in the Air Force’s elite 669 Special Rescue Unit – six years after his predecessor gave the initial green light.

“The Air Force will open its doors to women to apply for of combat roles in the 669 Unit, thus enabling the better utilization of human capital in the IDF,” read a statement released by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit on Friday.

Kohavi adopted the recommendation of IAF Commander Maj.-Gen. Tomer Bar “as part of the discussions held following the work of a professional team that examines the service of women in additional combat roles,” the statement added.

Here's how the women will be integrated

The army insists it is allowing more women to serve in combat positions out of practical considerations, not due to a social agenda.

The screenings for Unit 669 will be made in accordance with the current operational requirements, which have been determined in accordance with the instructions of the Chief Medical Officer, the Chief Infantry and Paratroopers’ Officer and the IAF’s 7th Wing for Special Forces.

 The IDF’s elite Airborne Combat, Search and Rescue Unit 669. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT) The IDF’s elite Airborne Combat, Search and Rescue Unit 669. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

All cadets will be required to meet operational conditions, including during training, in order to ensure that the unit continues to meet its operational tasks and the required quality of troops serving in the unit.

“The air force sees this as a great opportunity,” read the statement released by the military. “The air force is a pioneer in the field of integrating women into all roles and, in particular, into combat roles. The commander of the air force concluded that wherever the possibility existed physiologically and operationally to integrate women, the air force would do so.”

In 2016 women were allowed to join the unit, but in positions such as paramedics or other non-combat roles.

The training course

 The IDF’s elite Airborne Combat, Search and Rescue Unit 669. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON UNIT) The IDF’s elite Airborne Combat, Search and Rescue Unit 669. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON UNIT)

THE IDF’s elite Airborne Combat, Search and Rescue Unit 669 is one of the four special forces of the military. Though over 1,200 cadets on average try out for the unit, only a small fraction graduate from the 18-month course, considered to be particularly intense, with cadets training in the air, on land and at sea.

During the course, soldiers are trained in combat medicine, parachuting, scuba diving, counter-terrorism, rappelling, rescue under harsh conditions and navigation. They also undergo the commanders’ course.

Soldiers in the unit sign on for an extra 16 months of service on top of their mandatory 30 months.

In a call to reporters, Brig.-Gen. Itamar Reichel, head of the IAF’s personnel division, said that the unit demands a great deal from those serving in it and that the air force “will not compromise on the standard.”

“As for the physiological aspects, the demands of a fighter in such an elite unit is related to the need to save human life. If the requirement is not met, neither men nor women will pass,” he said. “A fighter is a fighter is a fighter. Those who meet the standard will be integrated into the team.”

“As for the physiological aspects, the demand from a fighter in such an elite unit, is related to the need to save human life. If the requirement is not met, neither men nor women will pass. A fighter is a fighter is a fighter. Those who meet the standard will be integrated into the team."

Brig.-Gen. Itamar Reichel, head of the IAF’s personnel divisionThe first stage of allowing women into combat roles in the unit will be the creation of a new track where the military study how best to protect their health, Reichel said.

“We will not compromise on the health of women combat soldiers,” he said. “I want the most suitable and high-quality people in the unit, and if there are women, I want them, too.”

Unit 669

Formed in 1974 following the Yom Kippur war and initially charged with extracting Israeli pilots who were shot down in enemy territory, it later began undertaking rescue missions of Special Force soldiers as well as injured or stranded Israelis, both at home and abroad.

It continues to rescue soldiers on the battlefield under fire and in all arenas, including during the war-between-wars campaign and in routine operations.

In the close to 50 years since the unit was formed, it has rescued over 10,000 people across Israel and the world, receiving several IDF chief of staff commendations for their work.

The announcement on Friday morning comes as women continue to battle the military to open more combat roles in elite units and the decision to open combat roles in the unit comes just days before the deadline for the military to submit its response to a High Court of Justice petition for women to serve in all units.

Israel’s Defense Service Law states that every man and woman has the right to serve in any position in the military unless the inherent nature of the position requires otherwise. 

Women in the IDF

FORMED IN 1974 following the Yom Kippur War and initially charged with extracting Israeli pilots who were shot down in enemy territory, it later began undertaking rescue missions of Special Force soldiers, as well as injured or stranded Israelis, both at home and abroad.

It continues to rescue soldiers on the battlefield under fire and in all arenas, including during the war-between-the-wars campaign and in routine operations.

In the nearly 50 years since the unit was formed, it has rescued over 10,000 people across Israel and the world, receiving several IDF chief of staff commendations for its work.

The announcement on Friday came as women continue to demand more combat roles in elite units. The positive decision comes just days before the deadline for the military to submit its response to a High Court of Justice petition for women to serve in all units.

Israel’s Defense Service Law states that every man and woman has the right to serve in any position in the military unless the inherent nature of the position requires otherwise.

In 1949, Israel’s army became the first in the world to introduce mandatory military service for both men and women, but women were barred from combat positions soon after it was introduced.

Women have fought for years to have combat roles again, and now an estimated 90% of the positions in the IDF are open to women, including combat roles in the Navy, Home Front Command, Artillery Corps, and Military Police in the West Bank.

In recent years, the IDF has increased the recruitment of women in combat roles – such as the Caracal and Bardelas mixed-gender border defense battalions.

Other combat posts that have been cleared for female soldiers include operating the Spike (Tammuz) missile and the hand-launched Skylark UAV. The air force has also seen more women being accepted to the pilots’ course, and the IAF has promoted more women to senior positions.

The navy’s new Sa’ar 6 Corvette missile ships will also have female sailors make up 25% of the crew, marking the first time that women are serving on missile boats in Israel. The ships were custom-built to hold female sailors, and have separate bathrooms and bunks for the female crew.

But women are still barred from serving in infantry brigades, armored brigades, submarines and certain elite reconnaissance units like Sayeret Maktal and the navy’s Shayetet 13.