1948 and now: Israeli women in the fight for independence

Women were combat soldiers on the front lines in the Independence Day War.

Miriam Shachor (photo credit: PALMAH ARCHIVES)
Miriam Shachor
(photo credit: PALMAH ARCHIVES)
As Israel gears up to celebrate Independence Day, we remember those who fought and fell in the War of Independence and the battles leading up to the founding of the State of Israel.
A group sometimes overlooked in the retelling of these stories is Israeli women, who filled a variety of roles in the paramilitary groups that fought for Israel’s independence. This includes filling combat roles alongside men and fighting in the thick of battle.
The status of women and the role women play in Israeli society today may serve to emphasize why it is so important that we tell the stories of these female fighters for Israeli Independence.
One organization in which women fought was the Palmah.
“Women were combat soldiers and combat medics who went into battle with the men,” Dr. Eldad Harouvi, director of the Palmah archives, told The Jerusalem Post. “Some carried stretchers alongside men.”
There were women fighting “even in the most brutal clashes,” he said, adding that they filled numerous combat roles and were ordinance officers, communication experts and medics on the front lines.
Ruthie Bloch was one such fighter whose experience was cataloged in the Palmah archives.
“At daylight, shots began, and they fired incessantly for hours,” she said, describing a battle that took place near what is today Beit Shemesh. “You could not raise your head.”
Bloch reminisced about needing to relieve herself and, in a desperate attempt to get some privacy in order to do so, volunteering to get more ammunition for the machine gun from another location.
“I got up and started to move according to all the rules,” she said. “I got up and lay down, rolled over and ran in zigzags as the bullets whistled from all sides.”
When she reached the location of the ammunition, she made the men there look away as she finally got a chance to relieve herself before returning to the battlefield, rolling and running back, but this time with the heavy boxes of ammunition.
There was some apprehension about having women in combat, and there were attempts to reduce the number of women in these roles after the death of Miriam Shachor, who was killed in battle in the Negev in December 1947, Harouvi said.
That battle is described in detail in Palmah archive records. Shachor and her unit of nine Palmah fighters were patrolling in the Negev when they came to an Arab village. They were ambushed in the center of the village by hundreds of Bedouin.
As they retreated, Shachor threw grenades, buying valuable time for her unit to try to escape. Two men with whom she was retreating were killed, but Shachor, because she was very fast, managed to continue to retreat until she was eventually killed by a Bedouin fighter on horseback.
Despite reluctance to risk women fighting after her death, they were still in the thick of battle throughout the war, Harouvi said.
THE PALMAH archives have numerous testimonies of women fighting on the front lines and sometimes finding themselves in the middle of battles, even when filling support roles. Women accompanied units of fighters even when they themselves were not fighting, he said.
“They were there with them everywhere, no matter what job they filled,” Harouvi said. The men and women “were always together,” and this was good for morale.
When asked why women took part in battles leading up to the war and during the war, he said it was a matter of necessity: “They needed them.”
In some cases, women became fighters because they were already filling high ranks in units that became involved in the war, and so they became combat officers simply because of their prior roles.
Women completed training together with men at many levels, Harouvi said. Often in commanders’ courses and officer training, there was a division by gender, but women still completed the same training, including shooting courses, ruck marches and field-skills courses.
Despite the bravery of women such as Bloch and Shachor and the history of female fighters in Israel, women can serve in only some IDF combat roles today. They are barred from serving in infantry brigades, armored brigades, submarines and certain elite reconnaissance units, among other units.
Last August, the IDF formed a committee to consider allowing women to serve in all combat positions in response to a recent petition to the High Court of Justice that asked it to force the military to allow women to try out for units that are currently open only to men.
Four teenagers petitioned the High Court to force the IDF to allow all potential recruits to try out for elite commando units, regardless of their gender.
“We’re not asking that demands be changed for us,” one of the women told Channel 12. “Just let us try out, and if we qualify, let us join the units.”
When asked if he thinks the female combat soldiers of the Palmah can teach Israelis anything about women in combat positions today, Harouvi said he thinks the most important lesson is that “it has already happened. Women have already fought in combat units and in wars.
“In the Palmah, they worked hard to have no separation from men. It was not easy or simple, but it already happened.”
Anna Ahronheim and Alex Winston contributed to this report.