In recent years, which saw female squad commanders from mixed-gender units start to train as officers, female cadets would be placed together in training teams so that they would be able to provide moral support for each other. However, this class of eight female cadets (a record high for the IDF) saw each female officer candidate placed in a training squad that was otherwise all-male.
Second Lt. Noam Yitzhaki, 21, is set to officially complete the course this week and will command a Caracal (an IDF combat infantry battalion in which women and men serve alongside each other) platoon stationed near the Egyptian border. "They wanted to place the female cadets in another place (mentally)," she says. "It led me to not give up. I learned a lot from the cadets around me professionally, and they learned from me. There were cadets with me from 669 (the IAF's special forces search and rescue unit), the Paratroopers, and the Nahal's (an infantry brigade) reconnaissance battalion.
"This new method led to more being brought out of us as female cadets; it was interesting to work with a crew of male cadets. At night, or in the bathroom, of course there was separation and territorial boundaries. During drills in the field in which they were next to me, I felt like my brother was next to me—as far as I was concerned they were my brothers and fellows in arms. No one belittled me."
Yitzhaki said she hardly received any unusual treatment during the course. She spoke of lugging about Israeli-made gun that is quite a bit heavier and more cumbersome than the standard-issue M-16 assault rifle, saying, "Like everyone else, I did all of the drills and the rough final weeks, carried and operated the Negev machine gun, went through the 40 kilometer navigation, the urban and open area combat drills."
Refeerring to a standard IDF fitness test in which a soldier's ability to do push-ups and sit-ups during one minute and run two kilometers—with breaks between each stage—is measured, she added, "The only difference was in the fitness tests, such as the Bar Or, in which female fighters receive a little more time than male fighters."
Another cadet, 2nd Lt. Ronny Avital, 21, was at first placed as the only woman among a group of men, some of whom are religious. Some religious Jewish people avoid touching non-family members of the opposite sex. Even though there were difficulties at first, she and her religious male friends managed to pass the course together, even during weeks in the field, where physical proximity was necessary.
"There was cross pollination, I didn’t feel at a disadvantage next to the rest of the cadets," Avital said. "Everyone treated me respectfully and equally. For the first time, I got to work with religious men, and that was a positive experience. I wouldn't carry someone who desired to preserve a distance, and we learned with time what was permitted and what was not. It's a fact that it's possible, you just talk about what' bothering you and get along."
Even though the number of female combatants in the IDF has grown, evidenced by the opening of two more mixed-gender infantry battalions guarding the country's borders (with a fourth on its way), women still make up a small portion of the IDF's fighters and high-ranking officers.
Ever since the first female major general in IDF history, former Head of the Manpower Directorate Orna Barbivai, left the military, there hasn't been another woman to reach that rank. The few female brigadier generals reached that rank due to it being paired with their role (such as the chief of staff's adviser for women's matters) or are carrying brevet ranks (meaning their ranks are there for representative purposes, but do not carry the same authority or pay of the actual rank). Among combatants, women still comprise just 7 percent, although their share is on the rise.
Over 90 percent of IDF roles are open to women. In the Judea and Samaria Division, seeing female fighters participating in—and leading—arrest operations against wanted persons has become routine. During the latest terrorism wave, more than a few female fighters have been at the forefront. Nonetheless, there has not been a massive flow of women to all available combat-related positions and roles.
"In my view, the manly image of fighting in women's minds distances girls from wanting to be fighters," said Avital. "It doesn't have to do with the commitment to a period of service that's the same as male servicemen." A standard term of service for non-officer women in the IDF is two years, compared to three years for men. She continued, "Among my female friends I'm the only one who enlisted for combat duty, and after my friends were discharged and heard of my service, they said, 'We wish we had the courage and will that you do to serve as a fighter.'"
Avital did not start out as a fighter, but insisted on transferring to the new mixed-gender Lions of Jordan Battalion. Like fighters in Caracal, she will not cross the border in Israel's next war, a "privilege" left to other units, which are still only open to men. "I won’t 'have the honor of entering' in the next war, but one day it'll happen I think, because it’s a process. We'll get there."
All in all, the IDF is encouraged by the trend of women's integration in main roles. This year saw a record number of female colonels in the military's ranks—28 at the start of 2016, joined by four more so far. Twenty-three percent of the IDF's technical staff are women, as opposed to single-digit percentages in the past. In addition, the IDF now has about 3,000 female combatants—twice the number of five years prior. A parallel decline of 1,500 female soldiers serving as clerks has occurred in the same time period.