The women of Nahshol ("large wave" in Hebrew,) the world's first female-only unit dedicated to combat intelligence missions, combine the fighting capabilities of combat forces with advanced intelligence-gathering skills.
Members of the previously unexposed unit are tasked with monitoring enemy movements and thwarting terror activity along Israel's southern borders. A sign at the entrance to the base of these desert amazons sums up their combat doctrine: "Seeing without being seen."
The female combat soldiers are deployed in ambushes based on intelligence information gathered by the army. They specialize in building camouflaged positions in the field and are tasked with spotting enemy forces and guiding IDF troops and gunships to their target.
Nahshol fighters pride themselves on their exceptional camouflage capabilities, which enable them to blend in with the mountainous, arid landscape in southern Israel and surprise the enemy when the moment of truth arrived. In fact, these highly skilled soldiers managed to surprise us too while preparing this news story – our news team's effort to spot a combat squad hiding right under our noses failed miserably.
Israel-Egypt border (Photo: AP)
The hiding position in the drill we watched was built to resemble part of the mountain, using local colors, stones and shrubbery. We only noticed the female fighters after they lifted their special camouflage netting and emerged from underneath it. A short while later, two females wearing sand-colored uniforms suddenly emerged out of the dunes a moment before we stepped on them without noticing.
"Our fighters are able to operate in any terrain: On mountain peaks, at the base of mountains, on rocks, in desert sands, in open areas, and in residential zones," says outgoing platoon commander, Major Ortal Amar. "The team's construction expert takes samples of the rocks, sand, and vegetation in the area and builds a camouflage net based on this. The female fighters also specialize in camouflaging their bodies, weapons, and surveillance means without leaving any signs in the area."
The fighters sometimes stay in the field for three straight days, which presents some problems – for example, the absence of bathrooms. "For that purpose, we have a special bag that turns the liquid into gel," says Second Lieutenant Dor Nasmian. "Once, we were operating and somebody got her period unexpectedly – so all of us pulled out our personal bandages," says unit member Guni Sharon.
For now, the unit has not yet encountered terrorists and has focused its efforts on "civilian" targets – smugglers of drugs and women, as well as Sudanese refugees seeking to infiltrate Israel. A few months ago, a team of female fighters spotted drug smugglers carrying 50-kilo (110 pounds) bags in the Eilat Mountains area. "We're satisfied knowing these drugs didn't make it to Tel Aviv clubs," says Second Lieutenant Sivan Edri.
About two months ago, another team in the unit thwarted a prostitute smuggling operation. "We were in position…and suddenly spotted a large group of people approach. They walked out there because we were camouflaged. We dispatched forces and 20 women were nabbed," Sharon says.
Outgoing commander Amar says the unit was formed as a pilot project four years ago and became part and parcel of IDF operations as result of its success. The female troops undergo a ground forces basic training course as well as four-month instruction earmarked to topography, navigation, surveillance, combat procedures, intelligence gathering, and open-area combat. In practice, the unit works through squads that operate around the clock.
First Lieutenant Nasmian, who commands one of the squads, demonstrates to us how things work in the field, as she nimble makes her way through one of the highest mountains on the southern border while carrying heavy equipment on her back, en route to her hiding spot. The Egypt border stretches below us, with only a fence and road separating us from Egyptian troops, whose positions can be seen clearly, using the female soldiers' special binoculars.
"The machine-gun operator in every squad has a weapon with sights that enable her to see three kilometers (roughly 2 miles) away…the fighters have various night-vision means in order to secure the forces while walking," Nasmian says. "The soldiers are allowed to carry up to 33% of their body weight, compared to male combat soldiers who are allowed to carry up to half their body weight."
Unit member Gal Betito stresses that despite their combat roles, Nahshol soldiers maintain their femininity.
"My nickname here is 'the cosmetician,'" she says. "There is no way anyone here would see me unkempt."
Nasmian further reinforces this, saying that all soldiers in the unit use nail polish. "Here, we're combat soldiers, but back home we wear high heels and dresses," she says.
Beyond the physical and mental difficulties inherent in their mission, female fighters also need to contend with adverse weather conditions, sleepless and showerless nights, and long hours of sitting in lonely ambushes (they're not allowed to stand) that often bring no results. Another challenge has to do with the mice that make their way into surveillance positions.
We once found a mouse that fell into a Nestea bottle and drowned," says First Sergeant Shir Shtigman. "In another case, we had a wolf right next to our position. Our officer raised her weapon in his direction, as if it knows what this is, and then regained her senses and hurled a stone at it."
Meanwhile, a visit to the unit's social club reveals rather austere suroundings. The one television set broke down five months ago and had not been fixed yet. The library was built using bricks and wood planks found by the soldiers. The sofas are dilapidated. Yet the women cherish having each other.
"This experience is unique in the world," Nasmian says. "Lying in ambushes for days with fellow female fighters and reaching the most intimate moments with them – beyond the satisfaction of protecting the State, we gain friends for life."