The Israel Defence Forces say “personnel and budgetary reasons” are behind its decision to cancel a controversial, much-heralded programme to train women as tank crew members.
The pilot scheme to train an all-female company, which would be stationed as a border-security unit similar to the light infantry battalions in which women already serve, was started by former chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot.
For a year-and-a-half, the IDF’s Armoured Corps ran a scheme in which a few dozen female soldiers went through a training course entirely identical to that of male soldiers that would prepare them to serve in combat using the Merkava main battle tank.
It was described as the latest stage in the gradual opening of more combat roles to female soldiers, a process ongoing for the past two decades.
Women already serve alongside men in IDF units including light infantry, artillery and field intelligence, as combat pilots and in the operation of anti-aircraft drones and missile-defence batteries.
Despite these, they are still barred from the largest and most elite combat units — the tank and mechanised infantry brigades, paratroopers and special forces — largely, opponents say, because such combat units operate beyond Israel’s borders, requiring closer proximity between soldiers and heavier physical demands. There are also fewer female soldiers volunteering for combat.
The tank scheme was deemed a success — despite objections from rabbis, who have complained of the IDF becoming excessively “gender mixed” as religious women are enticed to serve as combat soldiers. Some veteran commanders have also argued that serving in tank crews is too physically strenuous for women.
But this week the IDF confirmed Israeli media reports that the pilot scheme had been discontinued in November 2018.
Difficulties finding enough female candidates to serve in the all-women tank crews and the IDF’s budget constraints meant there was limited justification for forming an armoured unit that would only be used for the relatively limited role of border security, the force said.
Criticism from rabbis is not believed to be a reason for ending the pilot, given that the decision to stop it was taken while General Eisenkot — the principal supporter of broadening combat roles to women — was still in post.