Israel, whose military includes significant populations of Druze, Bedouins, and other minority groups, is the only Western nation to draft and assign women to combat roles. Israel’s geographic location and perpetual conflict with its neighbors make compulsory military service an official necessity.
“Being a commander in the army is like being a mother,” said Shira Lawrence, a second lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), in an interview with this author. “You’re with your soldiers way more than their parents. You’re responsible for making them transition from civilians to soldiers.”
Lawrence is a marksman instructor at the IDF School for Counter-Terrorism that trains IDF Special Forces and elite units.
“It’s understood that women will play the same role as men,” said Lawrence.
Her job is focused on teaching ethical warfare in order to minimize civilian casualties.
“We ask of our soldiers and demand of our soldiers a high standard,” said Lawrence. “They can’t mess up — we can’t allow for mistakes. It’s part of being a soldier. It’s part of being a part of an army that really values human lives.”
Israeli soldiers are taught ruach tzahal, the spirit of the IDF. Its values stem from a combination of international law, Israel’s law, and the IDF’s traditional moral code.
“The IDF has a very clear and strong and solid ethic code,” said Adi Ben-Haim, a training officer in the Nahal Brigade. “We teach our soldiers this code from the moment they’re recruited for the army.”
But Israel is not fighting a regular military. Much of the time, the enemy isn’t distinguishable from civilians.
“We’re dealing with armies that work out of their homes, so to speak,” said Lawrence. “They will place all of their ammunition in a mosque. It’s just a really difficult issue.”
During the three-week Gaza War that ended in January 2009, Hamas fighters used children as human shields and set up Kassam launching pads at or near more than 100 mosques and hospitals, according to Malam, an Israeli intelligence think tank. A 500-page Malam report on the Gaza War cited IDF and Shin Bet declassified evidence that included videos and prisoner interrogations. The document was released on the heels of the controversial UN-sanctioned Goldstone Report that blasted Israel’s Gaza offensive. The Malam report illustrates the challenges IDF soldiers face.
Lawrence cited missions that have been cancelled due to the IDF’s policy of not involving women and children in conflicts.
“In my job I raise awareness of the sensitivities, especially in places like Gaza where the combatants use their civilians around them as human shields,” said Lawrence. “We give medical care to Palestinians. And if one time there is a woman who has a bomb on her, it makes it really hard for us.”
In June 2007, two Gaza women, including a pregnant mother of eight, planned a double suicide bombing in the cities of Tel Aviv and Netanya. Fatima Zak, 39, and Ruda Habib, 30, Islamic Jihad recruits, applied for a permit to enter Israel for medical treatment. According to Israel’s General Security Service, the women “took advantage of Israel’s humanitarian policies, receiving a fraudulent medical permit to enter Israel.”
Groups like the Islamic Jihad have specifically trained women, leading to a trend of female suicide attackers.
“It’s a really big problem. We’re not dealing with normal armies,” said Lawrence.
According to Ben-Haim, beyond the Israel-Arab conflict, the IDF provides social services that are often overlooked.
“I was a commander in the Hagam,” said Ben-Haim. Hagam is a special initiative that advances the well-being of disadvantaged and at-risk women who enter the military. “The army recruits female soldiers who have been from a low social economic situation or abuse in the past — sexual abuse — or girls who didn’t finish high school or come from broken homes.”
“It’s hard to describe our reality in one phone call or an interview,” said Ben-Haim. “People should really get to know the little stories, the things that people don’t see in media.”
Lawrence agreed. “The problem with the whole issue, with everything surrounding Israel, is much more complicated than it seems,” said Lawrence. “Realize that we’re people, we’re just like everyone else. After the army we’re going to go study, going to go travel, and start families. Living safely,” she said, “is really important to us.”