Israeli female soldiers show path U.S. women warriors are on

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These Israeli women are members of the all-female Nachshol combat intelligence company. (Photo by Matthew Bell.)

When the U.S. Department of Defense moved to lift the ban on women in combat positions, in many ways it was a case of the regulations catching up to reality. 

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Some 300,000 US servicewomen have served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 150 have lost their lives in those conflicts, where there's no clear delineation of where the front lines lie.

One country with longer experience of allowing women to serve in combat roles is Israel. More than a decade ago, the Israel Defense Forces started lifting the restrictions on would-be female warriors.

Now, they're on the front lines, just like their male counterparts.

It’s about midnight on a rocky hillside in southern Israel, near the border with Egypt. Suddenly, a suspected illegal migrant who has likely crossed the Sinai desert runs into an Israeli army patrol.

“Who are you and what are you doing here,” an Israeli soldier shouts. “Take the pants off!”

“But I’m cold,” the migrant complains.

“I don’t care! Take the pants off now!”

A squad of IDF soldiers point their assault rifles and order the migrant to strip in the chilly desert air. What follows, is some uncontrollable giggling. 

This is just a drill. And all the participants, including the unidentified intruder, are part of the same IDF unit.

The soldiers taking part in this all-night training exercise are members of the Israeli army’s only all-female combat intelligence company. It’s called “Nachshol,” which means “tidal wave” in Hebrew.

Essentially, their job is to go out into the desert and sit, for days at a time, and just watch the border with Egypt.

“Basically, we need to bring from the field the best intelligence,” said Captain Dana Ben-Ezra, the company commander of Nachshol.

At 28, she’s already a 10-year army veteran. Ben-Ezra says the company’s job is collect information, “without anyone knowing we’re there. Not even our own forces.”

Ben-Ezra says there's a simple reason why the job was handed to a group of women: They're more intelligent.

“More patient, more common sense, you know?” she said.

Men are more aggressive, she added, and this job needs a lot of sitting still, and watching.

“We know how to do the job,” she said.

This company’s job involves a lot of peering into binoculars or night-vision equipment and simply observing. The IDF has apparently decided that women are better at this kind of work. The unit was formed in 2006, also out of practical concerns. The soldiers spend long hours sitting or lying down in mobile observation posts that they construct themselves. That means doing things like going to the bathroom in front of one’s comrades — which makes it more practical to have gender-segregated units.

But the IDF hasn't always allowed women to join combat units.

In 1995, an Israeli pilot named Alice Miller took the air force to court for denying her the chance to become a military pilot. She won the case. And since then, more combat-related jobs have been opened up for women in the Israeli military.

Now, women can try out for 90 percent of all military professions. Special forces and commando units are still off-limits. Today, women make up about four percent of Israel’s combat forces, according to the military.

But Major Judith Webb says there’s a potential problem here. She was the first woman to command an all-male squadron in the British army.

“What I’m talking about is women in the infantry,” Webb told the BBC. “I don’t feel that women have the physical capability of fulfilling an infantry role. I’m not talking about the emotional or psychological or any of those effects, or what effects it may have on men. I’m talking about the physical limitations.”

Abby Chernick doesn't agree. The 23-year-old grew up in the northeastern United States. She became an Israeli citizen after college and then signed up for an extra year of combat service, instead of taking on the kind of less-dangerous and physically demanding role sought out by many women in the Israeli military.

Chernick scoffs at the idea that women should be banned from combat roles in Israel or anywhere else.

“Just a couple months ago,” she said, during a training mission, “a female combat soldier, in the same area that we’re in actually, she shot and killed a terrorist who had come through the fence and was firing on Israeli troops.”

Chernick says women have already proved themselves in military service in the United States. 

"The fact (is) that more women, many, many more women, have died in service in America’s army than in Israel’s," she said.

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