'They proved anything's possible'

Ten female Engineering Corps soldiers finished the intense training required to join the unit as part of the IDF's pilot to integrate women in elite units

Yossi Yehoshua, Reuven Weiss|Updated:
January, Khan Younis, deep inside Gaza, an engineering force was called in to blow up a series of designated buildings, proven to be used by terrorists or connected to underground tunnels. To create an operational plan and coordinate it with the rest of the forces operating in the area, company commander Capt. I., 25, along with another unit company commander held a briefing with the battalion commander responsible for the sector.
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לוחמות יהל"ם
לוחמות יהל"ם
Female Engineering Corps soldiers
(Photo: Ziv Koren)
"In the briefing, I told the battalion commander that I’d shown up with a female squad" I. tells us. "Both he and the other officers raised their eyebrows. They started asking what this meant and what difference did it make. I told them the girls could do everything, that it’s the same thing, and that there’s no difference. When the mission was completed and we were packing up to leave Gaza, the battalion commander took me aside and said ‘There’s still a lot of work here to be done. We need them to stay on for another few days.’ I had this huge sense of satisfaction. It reinforced my sense of something good happening here.”
Like everyone involved in this unique project, Captain I. knew this was no less than history in the making. For the first time since its inception in 1947, the engineering corps that detonates bombs trained an entire female squad for the task.
The IDF initiated this pilot program integrating female soldiers into Yahalom following an appeal to the High Court of Justice demanding women be allowed to serve in top infantry combat brigades. The first ten amazing women to make it were at the festive graduation ceremony last week at Camp Julis. In a special interview, they told Ynet about the physically and emotionally demanding training and their pride alongside the concern at home and the rare opportunity of putting what they’d learned into practice as they operated inside Gaza in the war that fell during their training.
On October 7, as all engineering units including reservists and soldiers still in training were recruited to the war effort, the women’s training course was not curtailed. This speaks volumes about the pilot program's importance. In many ways, the war became the engineering corps’ war. Since October 7, its combatants have been at all the war’s locations. This has included regular and reservist ground operations blowing up thousands of targets in residential areas, along roads, and in vehicles as well as recovering around a thousand bodies of terrorists within Israel.
"Gaza’s crazy," says female soldier, Sgt. S., 19. "We could have only hoped to go in and operate there. It makes you understand what you worked for so hard during training. Joining other forces in the field, we detonated bombs and spent time with other soldiers, getting experience of how it really works. These missions have taught us so much."
"When we were there, we had very good open communication with the combat soldiers around us" Sgt. I., 19, tells us. "They didn’t even know about the pilot program. We worked together with other squads from the unit. Working together and helping each other seemed very natural."
We know of severe cases of sexual assault Hamas terrorists afflicted on female hostages. Doesn’t falling into captivity make you afraid of going into Gaza? "Less so in our case. We’re going in with a very specific mission. The places we go has already been cleansed, meaning our forces won’t, God forbid, be harmed. We always operate in sterile environments protected by the best forces surrounding us."
And what about the fear that comes with working with explosives under pressure in hostile territory, where any mistake can be fatal? "That’s why you can’t pass this training with 85%," Squad Commander Lt. M. tells us. “It has to be 100% every time. In this field, there’s no 85% and definitely not 57%. In this field, you need to know everything. If you don’t, you don’t go out on operations. You just can’t take risks."
Sgt. Y., 21, recalls the words of the late CPT. (res.) Roy Bieber (28), who served as a squad commander and fell in action last November in a battle in northern Gaza. "He said that in the engineering corps, you can only make a mistake one time."

Absolute Dedication

For the initial selection, 27 girls showed up and 12 passed. Later, four more girls joined from the Navy, Air Force, even Border Protection Corps after their squad commander course. Some dropped out or were dismissed and ten reached the finishing line. "The training took a whole year – from March 2023" says company commander I.
Is that the same as for the male soldiers in the unit? "No. The boys’ training takes 14 months as they also have ground maneuvering practice for northern terrain. We created a specialized training program for the female fighters with bomb disposal in certain terrains, without the ground maneuvering."
Wasn’t the training mixed? "No. From the outset, we created a training program just for women. Although they’re a squad, we treat them as a company. Like all engineering soldiers, they did their basic training at the Combat Engineering School."
To describe and define training levels, the IDF no longer uses the term "rifleman," but rather "combat fitness." Female engineering soldiers are ascribed 07 after grueling training. "With long journeys carrying hefty weights reaching over 100lbs," Capt. I. explains.
They’ve proven themselves. Big time. They’re able to jump out of their beds straight into lethal Krav Maga. Donning tactical gear, helmets, and knee pads, carrying guns and laser sights, they dash into urban warfare training facilities that also simulate tunnels. Battle is like training. Their faces are masked but you can see their eyes, filled the determination without which they wouldn’t complete the year-long training.
Raised in Herzliya, Y. had aspired for the skies. “My home was patriotic," she said. "My father’s a battalion commander in the reserves. It’s always about the field. I did a year of national service in the Golan through HaShomer HaChadash. In the army, I wanted to go as high as possible. I volunteered for the pilot’s course. The Engineering Corps wasn’t an option at the time. When I was dropped from the pilots’ course, a friend who had also been dropped and wanted to serve in a combat position made it to the unit and told me about this training course. She told CPT I. about me and suggested I come along. I said yes, came for an interview with the platoon commander and I’ve been here ever since."
She describes the training as "hard and crazy. If you don’t meet the bar, you’re thrown out. There’s no playing around. It’s a girls’ squad and it’s all highly intensive and extremely intimate. If one girl doesn’t make it, we’re all with her. The physical and emotional efforts are a real rollercoaster. Physically, your legs will carry on walking and your arms will carry on crawling, but you need the mental endurance and willpower to continue. They keep increasing the weights you carry, the distance, and the exercise intensity. There are times you’re awake all night – long nights. One sleepless night, on a trek through the Ashdod dunes with ceramic armor weights on our backs, one of the girls injured her leg and couldn’t carry on, so we carried her back."
Did you open a stretcher? "Definitely not," they laugh. "We took turns carrying her on our backs. Stretchers are targets in the field."
Were the moments during training you considered giving up? "I broke the first time we crawled during basic training at the combat engineering school. We were woken in the middle of the night and I told myself 'I’m out of here'. As the training went on, we had to crawl hundreds of feet through thornbushes and all my skin was peeling off, but I couldn’t stop. It was really hard. But it also toughens you up, building you up and making you stronger. It’s not something you can do just by the by. It's very demanding. It’s a journey and you don’t see the end and it makes you ask a lot of questions. We always imagined the end and we didn’t believe we’d really make it and get there. We realized that at the end of the day, what keeps you going and makes you stronger is your friends in the squad. We’ve really matured in this squad."
S. tells us "In training like this, when everyone sleeps in the same room and are together all the time, we get to know each other right down to the tiniest details. We know what other girls need and how you can help them and how they can help you. You can take the physical aspects of the training. It’s the mental side - the mind - that needs to be strong. You need to know why you’re doing it, and what's keeping you here. It’s much harder if you're not totally sure. Being clear in your mind as to why you’re here makes it more tolerable."
"It's a battle in your own head," says Y. "Why should I be trekking, running, and crawling along areas I only see from the highway? The easiest thing to do would be signing a release form."
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לוחמות יהל"ם
לוחמות יהל"ם
Go through the same grueling training as the men
(Photo: Ziv Koren)
"But at the end of the day, you’re not alone. We’re ten girls here very much supporting one another" says I. Squad Commander, Lt. M. agrees "They’re extremely good friends. You see it on the journey as they run together and hold one another."
This connection is especially impressive considering they’re from such diverse backgrounds. S. was raised in Ma'alot and attended ulpana (religious girls’ education) in Meron. She was granted a military service exemption on religious grounds and started out on a national service program. "It wasn’t enough for me," she says. "I wanted to do something that meant more, and combat was very exciting for me. I waived the exemption and started on the draft process. I was thinking about serving in Oketz (canine unit). I didn’t know about the Engineering Corps at the time, but when they offered me to join the unit, I was very keen and was here within a couple of months."
How did they take it at home? "My parents were supportive, but my extended family needed time to get used to the idea,” says S. "I’m the first girl in the family to serve in the army. It was new for them. But now they’ve heard what I’m doing, they’ve realized how important the role is, they’re really proud of me and most of my extended family will be coming to the ceremony. I have two younger sisters and the idea is that they’ll follow in my footsteps."
Did your parents know you were going into Gaza? "We’re not allowed to use our cellphones phone during training," explains I. "They let us call our parents to tell them before we went into Gaza. Naturally, they were all 'be careful' and ‘take care of yourself.'"
S. says "Our parents worry, but they also hear in our voices how important it is to us, how emotional it is for us, and how committed we are, so they’re also happy for us."
"My father was very worried when I told him," says Sgt. Y. "He almost asked me not to do it. It’s Gaza after all. There’s a war there. On the phone, I told him 'When you were in Lebanon, it was your turn. Now it’s our turn.' It’s very hard on our parents. It affects them. They couldn’t sleep."
This is confirmed by the father, Lt. Col. (res) Eli who says "We’re very proud of what she’s achieved - being one of the first girls to complete such difficult training in a unit like this. I assume Y. gets it from home. We completely trust her and her decisions, but yes, as parents, it’s very worrying to get a phone call during a war and hearing your daughter telling you 'You should know, I’m going in'. As they’re the first female fighters there, they’re extremely motivated. They need to prove their capabilities."
Sgt. G., 19, from Kvutzat Yavneh, a religious kibbutz, wanted to serve in a combat position. "Our family’s religious, but most of the girls go to the army, and only a few do national service. I wanted to serve in a combat position, but I didn’t feel right about most of what they offered me. Yahalom caught my eye, so I tried out and made it through selection. My parents are proud of my unique role, but they’re also a bit scared."
G.’s extended family is from Kibbutz Alumim, a religious kibbutz in the Gaza periphery to which engineering unit forces were sent on October 7 to fight Hamas terrorists who had infiltrated the kibbutz. "My grandmother, grandfather, uncles and cousins all live there" she explains. "Besieged in the safe rooms, they heard everything happening from up close. An officer (the late CPT. Etai Cohen from Rehovot) was killed right outside my grandparents’ house on October 7. None of my family was physically injured that day, but my cousins are still traumatized and some of their schoolfriends were injured. They were all evacuated and have been in a hotel in Netanya ever since and our kibbutz is helping also them."
Sgt. I., 19, from Tivon started out in the naval officers' training course, but signed on for longer six months later. "I’d always wanted combat," she says. "That’s how I got to the naval officers’ training. But once I was there, I realized I wanted something with more combat. I was offered the Engineering Corps and I got here with very high expectations. It’s been above and beyond, full of challenges like transferring from one corps to another, integrating into a squad that already exists, and obviously, the physical efforts needed for the training itself. You need a lot of motivation and willpower to make it through this training. If you want to be here you must know you’re giving up on lots of personal things – your home and even your own body that you give to the army. It’s about complete dedication."
Is being in a relationship at all possible? They laugh, I., Y., G. and S. are currently single. "It’s very hard when, for a whole year of training, you never know until the last moment if you’ll be going home for Shabbat. The disconnection is total because you’re without a phone for a whole year," says Y.
When you do have a relationship, is it important that he should also be in a combat position? "It really doesn’t matter," they respond almost in unison. "It’s enough for him to have a girlfriend in combat."

Making History

From the moment the project began taking shape in the IDF, everyone wanted to be part of it. "We thought it would be best if this had a female squad commander – that a woman should lead the women’s training. It’s also proper in terms of integration rules because you have to go into their rooms, like when there’s an event in the middle of the night," explains Capt. I.
Appropriate integration was a great dilemma hovering over this historic project. Around half of engineering soldiers hail from the religious Zionist yeshivas. As the course was about to start, the unit’s commander Col. A. met with rabbis to personally explain how the pilot was to be managed. Some came to visit the unit and the chief military rabbi has been closely overseeing the program.
The unusual squad drew much attention within the IDF, and the role of commanding it would clearly be highly coveted. "A lot of female squad commanders contended for the role," Capt. I. tells us. "Three of them were at the forefront of the campaign and were among the appellants. They all wanted to make history by being the first squad commander of the first girls’ company in the Engineering Corps."
24-year-old Lt. M. from Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, who transferred specially from the home front command’s search and rescue unit, was selected for the role. Starting out in a combat position in the search and rescue unit, she trained as an officer, including as a training squad commander and operations squad commander in the home front command’s brigades where she commanded mixed divisions of male and female soldiers and had accumulated considerable operational experience.
To prepare for commanding the project and to ensure its success, as all IDF eyes were watching, Lt. M. underwent two months of staff training. She trained in bomb disposal, observed exercises led by unit commanders, and spent a lot of time talking to them to fully absorb the unit’s character.
To experience it for herself and familiarize herself with the missions her soldiers would conduct, Lt. M. also took part in several missions inside Gaza before going in with her own soldiers. "In this war, we’ve seen that the border isn’t a challenge for women," she says. "Female paramedics and rescue soldiers are going into Gaza for operational activity. In this respect, with all its pain and sorrow, this war is also an opportunity we’ve gotten as women. It’s not about whether you cross the fence anymore, but what you bring and what your capabilities are. When we went into Gaza with the female fighters, we carried out several missions simultaneously, Destroying buildings and tunnels."
"This is done like a raid: we arrive, we blow up the target and leave. But one time, we had two days’ work straight, so we stayed overnight in Gaza. The girls were amazing, carrying out important missions, and completing all the missions’ requirements. They worked surrounded by Givati, Nahal, and Armored Corps units and they're stars. They left a great impression. After we blew up sites, as we were leaving, one of the Givati soldiers said to me 'Your squad are machines. Each and every one.' It was very moving to hear this. The whole army can see who we are and what our capabilities are. It gives me an enormous sense of pride."

Proved Themselves Bigtime

After being located in Sirkin Base in Petah Tikva for many years, the unit moved to a new purpose-built complex at Emmanuel Base (Julis) three years ago. With its white buildings with their balconies, fancy fitness facilities and soldiers from across the unit’s companies, the complex looks more like a resort than an army base.
How did the unit’s soldiers react to a group of girls on the base? "The vast majority didn’t even know about the new pilot program training the female soldiers. They stared at us, not understanding what we were doing there. They looked at us like we were weird."
"They later started asking who we were and what we were doing. There were also all kinds of rumors and speculations, but the more time you spend with people, the better they get to know you."
S.: "Many of the professional training instructors are reservists and were exposed to our capabilities during our lessons. They saw that we do it really well, sometimes better than in the boys’ training. Word spread in the unit and people started talking about it. They understand how good we are."
"The feedback is well deserved," says squad commander M. "Every task they were given during training, they completed with enormous motivation. They wanted to be here and they’d gotten a once-off opportunity and was then them to prove themselves – and they have - in a big way. We have a very strong squad of quality soldiers. I wouldn’t be surprised if a girl from this squad ends up as the unit’s first female commander."
Can we call this pilot program a success? Company commander I. has no doubts. "A squad of 20 girls has already enlisted in January. They’re finishing basic training right now and they’ll be here for the next training program, and two of the girls on the present training program aren’t here at the moment because they’re already preparing for officers’ training. The plan is for them to be squad commanders for the November 2024 draft."
The female soldiers who have just completed the training will be continuing their service together as an organic bomb disposal squad. The male, and now also female, soldiers serving in the bomb disposal unit are part of the IDF’s special sabotage force. They destroy the enemy’s explosive devices and handle rocket and missile ammunition and warheads. Like the commando units, they operate in various methods and are trained and certified in various skills including Krav Maga, counter-terrorism, and the use of a broad variety of weapons.
In addition to the bomb disposal unit, the unit also includes; the commando unit (destroying tunnels) whose soldiers are trained in underground warfare; the Midron unit whose fighters are trained in breaching buildings and; the Sayfan unit trained to respond to the effects of chemical weapons.
What are the chances of female fighters reaching other Yahalom units such as Sayfan or Midron? CPT. I.: "Following October 7, all IDF units are rethinking. What do we need? Where did we go wrong? Where can we improve? We’re making organizational changes. For now, the decision is that the bomb disposal unit is the most relevant for the female fighters and that this is where they achieve the best results. But everything’s constantly being tested. There are special, classified capabilities in which they can excel, so it’s not impossible that things will change in the future. In this training, they’ve already proven that – as far as they’re concerned – anything’s possible."
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First published: 18:02, 04.22.24
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