PETAH TIKVA, Israel -- Less than a month after a Palestinian gunman shot her in the face as she patrolled Israel's border with the West Bank, Cpl. Hani Abramov, 19, is itching to get back to her front-line unit.
Lying in a hospital bed, Abramov is a disturbing sight. Her face still is grotesquely swollen and badly bruised. Her shattered jaw distorts her speech. But the message she muttered to an Israel Television interviewer was clear: "I'm going to be back," she vowed. "And I'm going to be crawling on my knees, carrying my faithful gun on my back."
Abramov is a member of Israel's paramilitary border patrol, until recently the only security service a woman could join if she wanted to serve in a front-line unit. Although army service here is compulsory for both men and women, for decades women were restricted to noncombat units, where they mostly handled clerical tasks. Not anymore. Late last year, under the direction of the army's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the military began opening combat and high-tech units to women. Mofaz disbanded the Women's Corps that all women served in, a move meant to symbolize their full integration into the army.
Mofaz's campaign has been hailed by Israeli feminists but has run into a wall of opposition from rabbis of the so-called national religious movement, who say women in combat units may make it impossible for observant Jewish men to serve in the army they revere. The close proximity of men and women in the units violates Jewish religious laws on modesty, the rabbis say.
Their concerns find little sympathy among feminists, who say that equal treatment of women in the army is a first step toward equal treatment in society, where women routinely face discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
"In Israel, serving in certain army units is your ticket to good positions in civilian life," said Naomi Chazan, a left-wing member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, who has led the fight to integrate the military. "Discrimination against women in the army has always spilled over into discrimination against women in civilian society."
But the rabbis of the national religious movement, who identify themselves as Zionists and have always served in the military, say that even if only a handful of women sign up for combat units, the possibility of observant men coming into close contact with them could force the men to abandon the army.
"This is my worst nightmare," said Rabbi David Stav, head of a military religious seminary, or yeshiva, in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv.
If followers of the national religious movement decide en masse not to serve, their refusal would deliver a blow both to the army--where they tend to volunteer in high numbers for elite units and where they often serve as officers--and to the often-strained relations between secular and religious Israelis. The army says it is impossible to provide figures on the number of troops who are Orthodox, but it says both Orthodox men and women are needed to meet manpower requirements for defending a nation against multiple security threats.
For some women already serving on the front lines, the rabbis' objections seem absurd, insulting or anachronistic. They express confidence that the arguments of the religious Zionists will eventually be overcome.
"This will be a long process, until people realize that women are very strong people and needed people and they cannot go separately," Abramov said. "They need to be together with the men."
Already, there have been three cases in which large groups of religiously observant soldiers refused to serve because they were asked to work alongside women, Stav said. He said he frequently receives phone calls from observant soldiers asking him to rule on specific instances in which they fear their proximity to women might violate religious laws.
"In one case, the soldiers were being trained in how to protect themselves against nuclear, chemical or biological weapons," the rabbi said. "They were asked to train with girls. They had to sleep together in the same tent, and they were supposed to take off each other's clothes, as they would have to after such an attack. They refused and did not train for a week. I don't blame them."
Service in the Army Helps Define Society
In July, Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, one of Israel's two chief rabbis, brought the simmering controversy to a boil when he issued a religious ruling that the army's integration program violates Halakha, or Jewish religious law.
Service in the army is the sine qua non of Israeli society. The country's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, viewed the army as the institution that would mold a cohesive society from the disparate immigrant groups that formed Israel.
In a nation that has lived in a state of war with most of its neighbors through much of its existence, the majority of Israelis continue to view compulsory army service of three years for men and two years for women as a badge of honor. Men also serve a month or more of reserve duty every year until they are well into middle age.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who routinely refuse army service, are often denounced here as parasites by secular Israelis who say they accept the state's social benefits but are unwilling to shoulder the responsibility for protecting it.
Ultra-Orthodox, non-Zionist rabbis have always maintained that the proper place for the 18-year-old men of their community is in the yeshiva.
But national religious rabbis embrace an ideology that sees the founding of the Jewish state as bringing them closer to redemption and sees defending that state as a duty and honor. They have approved of army service for their male followers since Israel's founding, and most also encourage alternative national service for women of the movement.
The movement's members enter the army either after they graduate from high school, as do most eligible 18-year-olds, or after studying for two years in army-sponsored hesder yeshivas, a program the army created to encourage army service among observant men.
But relations between the national religious movement and the army started to fray 10 months ago, when Mofaz began implementing a law passed by the Knesset in March 2000 that decreed that most jobs in the military be open equally to men and women. At first, the rabbis tried to quietly negotiate a compromise. But last month, after Bakshi-Doron issued his ruling, they accused Mofaz of ignoring their concerns.
"We're saying create the appropriate frameworks so that it will be possible to serve," said Rabbi Yitzhak Levy, chairman of the National Religious Party. "The army must continue to belong to everyone . . . so that no one will have to come and say that they have a problem with physical contact . . . like having to crawl underneath the legs of a female soldier wearing shorts" during training.
Yeshiva Students Petition Chief of Staff
In July, a petition signed by hundreds of hesder yeshiva students who were about to begin their army service was sent to Mofaz, demanding that the students' religious sensibilities be protected during their service. The petition triggered a storm of protest from feminists, who said the army is required to proceed with integration. Secularists accused the rabbis of looking for excuses to keep their followers from serving.
"The army can't cave in to the rabbis," feminist lawmaker Chazan said. "There is a law that it must follow. If it doesn't, I'll do what I have already done before: go back to court. The truth is, the army has made arrangements so that religious soldiers who don't want to don't have to serve with women soldiers."
The army says Orthodox soldiers who object to serving alongside women will be allowed to join all-male units. But the rabbis complain that such an arrangement would ghettoize their followers.
The dispute is likely to boil over again in two months, said Stav, the seminary chief, when the hesder yeshiva students who signed the petition finish their basic training and are dispatched to their units. Those in combat units will refuse to serve with women, he said.
"If we don't resolve this in the next two months, I am afraid of the bad things that will happen," Stav said. "This could be the end of religious Zionism."
The dispute has damaged relations not only between the national religious movement and the army, but between religious and secular Jews, Stav said. It also threatens to split the national religious movement, with some youths saying they will not heed their rabbis if told not to serve.
"The nationalist religious world is in an unbelievable quandary here," said ,Jonathan Rosenblum, head of Am Echad (One People), a media resource organization for the religiously observant community.
Ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, Jews have always chosen to isolate themselves from mainstream Israeli society, Rosenblum said. They live in closed communities, wear clothes that identify them as ultra-Orthodox and refuse to participate in the institution that was supposed to forge a national Israeli identity.
The national religious movement, in contrast, has always said it is possible both to be faithful to Jewish religious law and be a part of the larger, secular Israeli society.
"The army was always a symbol of the national religious community's integration into society. Serving in the army has always been crucial to their identity," Rosenblum said. "Now they could be forced to choose between two really ultimate values for them. For many, this is really push coming to shove."
Abramov's commander, 29-year-old Supt. Meirav Amar, dismisses the concerns of the rabbis. Six years ago, Amar, then serving in the army, jumped at the chance to join the border patrol when it first opened its combat units to women. She described Abramov, who was discharged from the hospital Thursday, as among her best troopers and said the two often patrolled the border alone together at night. During an interview at Abramov's hospital bedside, Amar insisted that it is important for women to serve with men.
"We can be considerate of the religious," Amar said, "but they have no right to put women back in the Dark Ages.
"This is a militaristic country, and girls have always been on the sidelines because they were not fighters, they were only helpers," she said. "Now when I go to the grocery store in my uniform, carrying my gun, people treat me with respect."
Hani Abramov's father, Hannukah, said he supports his daughter's decision to return to her unit as soon as she is able. The rabbis, he said, are wrong to think of women as a distraction for male soldiers.
"The idea of one for all and all for one that is the ethos of this society shouldn't apply only to men," he said. "I think that if women are serving with the men, it will only motivate the men to try harder."