TZE’ELIM, Israel — After five days treating wounded Israeli soldiers on the battlefields of the Gaza Strip this summer, Staff Sgt. Noam Dan was taking a break with her unit when a commander from another army battalion walked past.
Dan, like the other soldiers, was wearing fatigues and a helmet and carrying a gun. But the commander’s eyes stopped on the dark braid cascading down her back.
“He said, ‘What are you doing here? You’re a girl!’ Before I could answer, one of my officers said, ‘What do you mean? She fights better than any of you,’ ” said Dan, 21, a paramedic who lived out of a tank for more than a week straight during the Israel-Hamas war, treating injured Israeli soldiers as fierce battles took place nearby.
Dan’s stories of saving lives under sniper fire are seen as heroic here, and since the fighting ended in a cease-fire last month, she has sat for multiple media interviews — in an attempt, she said, to encourage more Israeli women to join the growing ranks of female soldiers who serve in combat roles.
About 50 Israeli women served inside Gaza, the highest number yet during an Israeli conflict. But their prominence has renewed debate about the position of women in the nation’s army, with critics saying the percentage of combat roles filled by women — about 3.3 — is too low for a military that prides itself on being one of the world’s only with mandatory service for men and women. Those like Dan, some contend, are token symbols in a male-dominated institution that is increasingly influenced by religious soldiers who do not believe in gender equality.
“What is important to look at is the positions that are still closed to women,” said Elana Sztokman, an author and women’s activist. “It is all the elite units, the really important ones that boost your status in Israeli society and open the doors for you after you finish army service,” she said, noting that most of the country’s top political and military leaders served in those elite units.
Military officials counter that 92 percent of all military jobs are open to women, who make up one-third of the active-duty Israeli army — compared with about 14 percent of the U.S. army. In addition to combat roles, women served during this summer’s war in auxiliary positions as signal commanders and combat engineers and helped run aerial defense systems that shot down rockets fired by Palestinian militants toward Israel, said Brig. Gen. Rachel Tevet-Wiesel, the army’s adviser on women’s affairs.
Tevet-Wiesel is one of 30 female officers with the rank of colonel or higher — about 4 percent of all officers with those ranks. The army’s first and only female major general, Orna Barbivai, appointed in 2011, retired from her post last month. One army unit, the Caracal, is a coed combat battalion that serves on the fragile border between Israel and Egypt’s Sinai desert.
Nevertheless, Yagil Levy, a professor at the Open University and an expert in civil-military relations, said that since a significant court case in the 1990s paved the way for women to become pilots and pushed the army to allow female soldiers in several other combat units, progress has frozen.
“The army has an interest to open up all its roles to women and apply a more egalitarian approach, but the real story is the growing religious influence inside the military,” he said.
Levy said the army has become a microcosm of Israeli society, in which religious factions are accused of seeking to weaken the position of women. “Here there is a natural barrier to the integration of women,” he said, citing a conflict between army efforts to boost women’s roles while also encouraging enlistment among religious men. A main concern of prospective ultra-Orthodox male recruits — who until last year were exempt from military duty — is potential interaction with female soldiers.
Last month, Israeli media reported that a concert for troops featuring female pop star Sarit Hadad was nixed by commanders because of religious concerns, a claim that the army denied. That followed numerous instances in recent years of observant male soldiers refusing to be taught by or interact with female recruits. In 2011, four soldiers were dismissed from a prestigious officer’s course for walking out of an official event where female soldiers were singing.
Even so, some women who have served in combat units maintain that a significant change is underway.
“Female fighters are being taken much more seriously today than in the past,” said reservist Sapir Yehudain, a 25-year-old student who served in the Caracal unit from 2008 to 2010 and was called up to the reserves this summer.
“The guys I do reserve duty with did not serve in Caracal, but when they saw that we’d gone through the same training as them, they understood that we could do everything they could too,” Yehudain said.
The Caracal battalion gained national recognition in 2012 when members, including at least one female soldier, shot and killed three militants attempting to enter Israel from Egypt.
“The women soldiers proved themselves in that incident,” said Avital Leibovich, a former military spokeswoman who rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel during more than 20 years of service.
Changes for women in the army are happening, she said — but gradually.
“We needed all the previous steps to happen . . . the first women to become a battalion commander, the first women to become a doctor in the infantry brigade,” she said.
“We need it all to keep happening so that eventually we can have a military system where women are an integral part.”