Her face covered in mud, 18-yearold Smadar crawls beneath thorny brush, her automatic rifle around her neck.
She smiles despite the intensity of the training, and her commander, also a woman, shouts encouragement.
“I don’t regret choosing this unit,” said Smadar, who was not allowed to provide her last name under Israeli army rules.
“I wanted to do my military service in the most combative unit possible.”
Smadar is part of a discreet but profound change taking place within the Israeli military, with a growing number of women taking part in combat units.
Just four years ago, some 3 percent of enlisted women served in combat units compared to 7 percent today, according to the army.
That number is expected to rise even further to 9.5 percent in 2017.
The increase has come both due to changes in society, with women’s participation in combat units no longer dismissed, and a shortage in available soldiers due to reductions in the amount of required service time for men.
Israel’s military is an institution at the heart of society, with nearly all Jewish citizens required to serve, and such changes are likely to reverberate beyond the barracks.
Even before the state of Israel was created in 1948, women played an important role in the Haganah, the forerunner to the country’s military, today the region’s most powerful.
Currently men are required to serve two years and eight months after they turn 18, while women serve two years.
Women’s roles had historically been confined to such positions as nurses or radio operators — an arrangement undergoing rapid change.
The first mixed unit, known as the Caracal battalion, was formed in 2000, taking its name from a type of wild cat whose males and females look the same.
It was that year that the law was amended to state that “women’s right to serve in any position is equal to the right of men.” Smadar, who was training in the hills of the Galilee in the country’s north, is preparing to join the Bardelas battalion and will likely be stationed in the semi-desert south.
Bardelas is one of what are now three mixed combat units in the Israeli army. A fourth battalion is planned for March 2017.
Women wanting to take part in combat units must commit to serving eight more months, an equal amount of time as men. It has not dissuaded volunteers.
“What a man can do, a woman can also do,” said Smadar.
Israel’s experience is similar to trends globally, said Megan Bastick of the University of Edinburgh, who has studied women’s participation in security forces.
“Across the Western world, there has been a general increase over recent decades in the proportion of women joining the military ,” she said.
Israel’s army has served as an integration tool for society, bringing in Israelis of different ethnic backgrounds as well as sexual orientations, a contrast with the conservatism of much of the region.
The military is thought to include more than 120,000 soldiers in mandatory service—an estimation since the army does not provide such figures.
More than 41 percent of those serving are women, the military says.