First Christian woman reaches officer status in IDF

JERUSALEM — An Arab Christian woman received her second-lieutenant's bars on Thursday of last week.

That honor made Caroline Kharman the first Christian woman to become an officer in the Israel Defense Force. And it didn't come easy. She grew up in the mostly Druze village of Usfiya on the Carmel and is the only woman in her village to join the army.

Speaking just before final marching drills, she said she enlisted because she felt Arab Israelis deserved to be treated like any other citizens of the state.

"I feel I can't fight for my rights without fulfilling my obligations," said the petite 21-year-old, a gold cross dangling from around her neck. "It's my moral duty to serve my country.

"I am an Israeli citizen, and everyone, including those in the Arab community, wants rights, but when it comes down to it, they don't fulfill their obligations."

Kharman was the only female officer candidate among 14 at the IDF's graduation ceremony for coordination and liaison officers.

"I said I would succeed. I wanted to succeed, and I did," she said.

Next week, she will get her new assignment, but her commanders said Kharman, whom they describe as a real fireball, would be stationed at the Erez crossing in the Gaza Strip where tens of thousands of Palestinians pass daily.

"I live in an Arab environment and I think I'll be able to connect with them better," she said.

Asked if she will defend Israel against Palestinians, if necessary, Kharman replied, "I have no problem with this. I think it's possible to protect Israel's interests while giving respect to the Palestinians."

She said her decision to enlist was initially opposed by both her family and the army.

"It was my dream to join the army," said Kharman. "Most of my classmates are all married and mothers."

It then took a yearlong battle with the authorities, who finally allowed her to be drafted.

"The army had a problem with me in the beginning. They said I had no chance to get in. But I sent letters to the chief of general staff, the defense minister, and the president and was accepted a month later," she said.

She said her mother and brother insisted that, in the Arab community, "it was unacceptable for a woman to be out of the house a lot and among men."

But with the support of her father, an army veteran, Kharman was drafted in November 1996.

"My brother wanted to enlist, but my mother didn't let him. He's the only son among five sisters, and among Arabs, he has to be protected. Today he's an engineer. And he's proud of me today."

Kharman's uncle, Adib, said there were some in the village who gave her a hard time, not for joining the army, but for being a woman and joining the army. He said that because of his niece, two more girls from Usfiya are joining the IDF soon.

Kharman had served for over a year in the Home Front Command in Nazareth when she was recruited to join the office of the coordinator of activities in the territories. She transferred — and signed up for the officers training course. She then had to repeat a grueling security check and anxiously waited for an answer as the date for the course approached. She was given the OK just a few days beforehand.

Kharman said she plans to make a career out of the IDF.

"I think all Israeli Arabs should serve in the army," she said. "It's good for the army. It's good for us. I hope a lot will want to join. I know they are scared, but they should put their fear aside."

Sec.-Lt. Yossi Rehavi Levy, who immigrated from Brooklyn and also completed the officers course last week, said Kharman coached him on his Arabic to help him.

"When I heard her name was Caroline, I said to her, `That doesn't sound like a Jewish name,'" he said. "Then Caroline shocked me and said, `I know. It's not.'"