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Israel’s only co-ed combat unit proves its worth

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JERUSALEM — A deadly shootout last week along Israel's border with Egypt has shined a spotlight on Israel's only mixed female and male combat unit, granting some recognition to a group that has faced much skepticism and often been the butt of jokes since its inception.

The Caracal battalion's response to the militant attack on Friday — which left three gunmen dead, including one whom Israeli officials said was killed by a female soldier — marked a major test for the unit that typically handles tame operations. One Israeli soldier also was killed.

On Sunday, Israeli newspapers and radio broadcasts glowed over the news that the co-ed battalion played a decisive role in thwarting the assailants' attack. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted about the work of the unit — named after a medium-sized cat native to the Middle East and Africa — in his weekly Cabinet meeting. Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz traveled to the scene of the attack and congratulated the soldiers.

"If the Caracal force wasn't there in those critical moments, it's clear to everyone that we could have faced a difficult attack," Col. Guy Biton, the commander of the Sagi Brigade that oversees the battalion, told the Maariv daily newspaper.

Most Jewish Israeli citizens are drafted into their nation's defense forces when they turn 18. Women, however, typically serve less time than men and usually away from the battlefield, in administrative or technical positions. A minority serve in combat roles.

By contrast, 60 percent of Caracal's soldiers are women.

Women were barred from combat until 2000, the year Caracal was introduced as a way to ease females into combat duty. The unit was positioned in areas along Israel's borders with Jordan and Egypt. For years, the territory was calm, largely because Israel has peace deals with both neighbors. Soldiers who were there mostly worked to prevent drug and weapons' smuggling and while they were trained to neutralize an armed threat, they rarely faced one.

But in the last year and a half, since the fall of longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, Caracal's usual patrolling area near Egypt has become a hotbed of militant activity. Egypt's vast Sinai peninsula is home to Islamic extremists who have staged attacks against Egyptian and Israeli targets. The Jordanian border has remained quiet.

In the most recent attack, a shootout on the Israel-Egypt border left one Israeli soldier and three assailants dead. The military said the militants were heavily armed and wearing explosive belts when they crossed into Israeli territory and opened fire on soldiers guarding a team of workers who were building a border fence meant to protect against just such attacks.

An Israeli forces spokeswoman said the troops quickly returned fire, killing the militants and preventing a major attack — a coup for the women and men of Caracal. The battalion fought on Friday alongside soldiers from Israel's Artillery Corps. In line with its policy not to discuss troop deployment, the military declined to provide the battalion's size.

"I feel proud to know that finally people are coming to recognize and know what we are worth and what we are able to do," Amit Epstein, a former Caracal company commander, told Israel Radio.

The recognition comes to Caracal after years of challenges. Resolving logistical issues like building separate sleeping quarters and bathrooms were a first hurdle. But the unit has continued to grapple with widespread skepticism from a male-dominated military.

The female soldiers' ability to fight alongside men has been questioned. But the battalion's men also have been stigmatized, written off as too weak to be accepted into a regular unit or distracted by criticism that they would be unable to focus on their jobs while working so closely with women. Skeptics have also wondered how focused young men and women can be when working so closely with the opposite sex.

Doron Almog, who served as the head of Israel's southern command when the battalion was formed, was not surprised by the successful effort. He said the group is prepared for such attacks and expects it to continue to be called on for such dangerous operations.

And as the border with Egypt becomes increasingly volatile, Caracal will be able to continue to prove itself, he said.

"The best public relations strategy is to have a successful operation and to come and show results," said Almog.

Follow Tia Goldenberg on Twitter (at)tgoldenberg