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Israelis Debate Women in Combat Units

October 31, 2003

JERUSALEM (AP) _ The killings of two female sergeants by Palestinians _ along with a study suggesting women are too weak for combat _ have sparked a debate over the Israeli military’s deployment of female soldiers in many fighting units.

The argument strikes at the heart of Israeli society, since army service is compulsory for nearly all able 18-year-olds, and the military is often a launching pad for careers.

Concern over deployment of women was fueled by the Oct. 24 ambush of sergeants Sarit Shneor-Senior and Adi Osman at a remote army outpost that guards the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip.

One of the attackers walked to the soldiers’ sleeping quarters, opened the door to one of the trailers and killed Osman in her sleep. A few moments later, Shneor-Senior, 20, opened the door to her trailer and was killed by the attacker. A male soldier was also killed.

The slayings stoked concern over deployment of women at a critical time for the military, as its resources are stretched thin by three years of fighting with the Palestinians and the government tries to fill the gaps by calling up reserves. More women in combat could ease the burden.

Some caution against pushing women too far in the army.

Initial findings of the study commissioned by the commander of ground forces found, for instance, that most women are not able to lift the minimum amount required of combat soldiers, 110 pounds. It also said most women could not complete military treks, which typically involve carrying heavy gear, of more than 12 miles. Male soldiers can be required to march more than twice that distance.

The study has not yet been debated in the upper echelons of the army, but could prevent the eventual entrance of women into elite commando units.

Housing Minister Effie Eitam, a former general, called for women soldiers to be removed from conflict areas. ``The ability of women to participate in intense combat ... is more limited,″ Eitam told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper.

Others warned that if women are kept out of combat, they will never achieve equality in the military, nor later in life, since the service shapes their motivation and expectations for future careers.

Recent call-ups of reserve units wouldn’t have been necessary if women were used to their full potential, said Brig. Gen. Yehudit Ben-Notan, a former commander in the women’s corps.

``I think a small nation needs to make use of everyone and to look at them not according to their sex, but according to the army’s needs, and their talents,″ Ben-Notan told Israel Radio.

A few countries allow women into some combat roles, including Germany, Canada, Denmark and Norway. In the U.S. military, women can serve on combat ships but are still not allowed on submarines and are barred from serving in units whose main purpose is ground combat.

Even before Israel’s creation in 1948, women fought in militias to defend Jewish communities. They were recruited alongside men when the army was formed. Today, Israeli women are the only ones in the world required to serve in their country’s army.

In the early years, women were largely given jobs as secretaries and clerks in the army. The door to combat units was opened by Supreme Court rulings in 1995 and 2000, though most elite units remain off-limits.

Since 1995, when a young woman petitioned the high court to be admitted to pilot training, five women have graduated from flight school and are serving as pilots or navigators. Women also guard Israel’s borders in light infantry positions _ which can involve ground combat _ and operate long-range rocket launchers. Recently a woman was appointed commander on a missile cruiser.

Sgt. Sima Adiv, a commander of a rocket launcher unit in the West Bank, said the public will have to get used to the possibility of women fighters being killed or taken as prisoners of war, like American women soldiers were in Iraq earlier this year.

``My parents thought the chances I would go into combat were very small,″ the slight, serious 20-year-old said as she led three male soldiers in a foot patrol around her army base.

``Society will just have to get used to the idea of women in combat.″

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