Any visitor sees it instantly: young women in military uniform, sometimes in skirts but mostly in trousers and tough-terrain boots, striding along the roads or travelling on the buses and trains, heaving their rucksacks onto the luggage racks and plugging in their mobile phones.
The sight has become so commonplace as not to excite any comment. Of course women are in the army: this is Israel, one of the few countries in the world where there is mandatory military service for both genders.
But the attitude to women and the Israel Defence Forces has undergone many changes in the decades since the state’s creation in 1948. Last month one battalion that specialises in field intelligence, Eitam, completed a training and recruitment cycle which will mean that it will be the first mounted vehicle company entirely run by women.
The army, rightly, regards this as an achievement — although initially it did offer an interview with the current battalion commander, who is a man.
The changes in Israeli society and the IDF itself that have made Eitam possible are relatively recent. It was only in 2001 that the Women’s Corps, through which all women were recruited to the army, was disbanded. Women now enter military service according to the jobs they do rather than according to their gender, like their male counterparts. For decades the women conscripts had a limited pool of jobs during their service: nurses, welfare workers, clerical or training roles.
Lieutenant Colonel Oshrat Bachar is an army careerist who is presently the Chief of Staff’s deputy adviser for gender affairs, and Israel’s first female combat commander.
Of these early roles she says disparagingly: “Women used to serve for one year and were then released from the army in order to become mothers”.
Practical issues helped force a change in attitudes. There was a shortage of manpower during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and it emerged during the First Lebanon War in 1982 that it was against the law for women to cross the border. Army commanders complained bitterly that their units could not function if they could not deploy all their soldiers, women as well as men, so the law was changed.
In 1996 there was the famous case of Alice Miller, who held a civilian pilot’s licence but was unable to take the air force training exams on grounds of gender.
Despite President Ezer Weizman telling her, in comments unthinkable today, that she would be better off at home darning socks, Miller took her case to the Israeli High Court and won. It led to a landmark ruling that the Air Force could not exclude qualified women from pilot training.
“She didn’t pass the exams”, says Lt Col Bachar, drily, “but it was a test case in providing equal opportunities.”
Today, she says, it’s only physical issues which rule women out of competing equally for jobs: “Eighty-five per cent of the positions are open to women and over 50 per cent of female conscripts volunteer for jobs in front line or combat units.”
One such volunteer is Staff Sergeant Liad Gad, a combat soldier in the Artillery Corps, who made aliyah from Thailand. She has been in the army since 2014 and is due to be released soon. “I always wanted to be in a combat unit”, she says, but admits being one of eight women in a unit with 60 men is a challenge.
“At the beginning of our training some were a bit offended at the idea that women could do everything they could do. But eventually, they started to believe in us. Now it’s fine.”
Another woman finding fulfilment in a combat unit is First Lieutenant Sharon Bruner, currently the deputy commander of the Search and Rescue Brigade commander course.
“I feel I can serve my country and save lives in this way,” she says. “We take part in operations on a daily basis and are deployed all over the country.
“Our unit is almost 50/50 men and women, and equality is one of the most important things; it’s part of the mentality of our unit.”
The great elephant in the room, of course, is sexual harassment, of which there have been numerous high-profile cases. The author Stuart Cohen reported in 2004 that one in five Israeli women soldiers suffered sexual harassment.
But Lt Col Bachar believes that is changing too, because the issue is talked about continually inside the General Staff.
“There are more cases today, but that’s because there is more data and more information, not because there is more sexual harassment,” she says.
“We treat victims very well. We have a special centre for dealing with the mental health of victims and any post-traumatic stress they may have.
“But the big change is that it has been made clear that there is zero tolerance for using the power of gender against other soldiers.”
Lt Col Bachar, who is studying for her colonel’s exams, laughs when asked how far away Israel is from having a female chief of staff.
“Why not?’ she says, once she stops laughing.
“But we are taking everything step by step.”