At the beginning of the second intifada commanders were still reluctant to take Oketz teams with them on operations. Today almost every arrest operation is led by an Oketz handler and his four-legged companion
The intelligence came in early in the morning. Nasser Atzida, a top Hamas terrorist featuring prominently on the IDF's most-wanted list for being behind two bombing attacks that killed 19 people, was believed to be hiding in the village of al-Pundak, near Nablus.
It was March 2003, the height of the second intifada, a time when the IDF was desperately combating terrorists in an effort to prevent suicide attacks. Just two weeks before the operation, a suicide bomber blew up on a bus in Haifa killing 15.
Assigned to hunt down and capture Atzida was the Paratroopers Brigade, backed by elite troops from the Naval Commandos. Both of these units were reinforced by several soldiers and dogs from the Oketz K9 unit.
As was apparent by the number of soldiers deployed in al-Pundak, the IDF was not taking any chances and set out to neutralize Atzida, who had already evaded arrest on three occasions, by either capturing or killing him.
The soldiers spread out within the small Samarian village and began searching. Hours of scouring the homes, however, came up with nothing and the troops began to grow increasingly frustrated, until Ro'i noticed something in a nearby bush.
Ro'i was not your average soldier; he walked on four legs and did not carry a weapon.
A Belgian shepherd specially trained to locate terrorists and explosives, Ro'i smelled something out of the ordinary beneath a nearby bush. Unleashed to search up close, Ro'i began scratching the ground, an indication that something suspicious was there. At that exact moment, Atzida popped his head out of his hiding spot and fired two shots into Ro'i's head, killing him instantly. The soldiers returned fire and killed Azida.
More than four years have passed since that incident and the IDF is still waging daily battles against Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip who are making every effort to infiltrate suicide bombers into Israeli cities and to plant roadside bombs against military patrols.
Since Ro'i's death, additional dogs have been killed in the line of duty. Oketz has also undergone a slight revolution since its establishment in 1939, when the Hagana set up a canine unit for perimeter security of villages under threat from their Arab neighbors.
If at the beginning of the second intifada commanders were still reluctant to take Oketz teams with them on operations, today almost every arrest operation that is slightly complicated is led by an Oketz handler and his four-legged companion. In 2006 alone Oketz dogs participated in more than 4,000 operations. In 30 of them, they played a key role in saving lives.
"Dogs participate in every major operation today as it is understood that they can help minimize the damage," says Lt.-Col. Yoav, Oketz commander. "When a dog gets killed that is not a success, but it does mean that it did its job."
WHILE A DOG is "man's best friend," in Oketz that saying takes on a new meaning. Soldiers grow up together with their dogs and undergo 18 months of training together before they are deployed in the field. At the end of their joint service, soldiers are allowed to take their dogs home.
"If you did not serve in Oketz, you are incapable of understanding the relationship between a handler and his or her dog," explained a soldier who recently lost his dog in a battle. "It is a special relationship that cannot be described in words."
According to Capt. Liad, operations officer for the unit, the relationship between a dog and handler is based on trust. "A special bond is created between the two, since the moment we go into an operation we need to be able to rely 100 percent on our dogs and their capabilities," he said.
But when it comes to life and death, the answer, Lt.-Col. Yoav explains, is fairly simple. "At the end of the day a soldier is worth more," he says, adding that dogs, like soldiers, are not left behind in a battle zone.
The Oketz base - located at the Adam training facility near Modi'in - looks like any other base, at least at first. One begins to suspect something is a little different when reading the signs posted on each building saying "No urinating on walls" or when watching dogs walk on treadmills.
We won't get in to what the dustpans lying around the base are to pick up.
At the top of a winding hill are the kennels. Needless to say, the dogs don't appreciate unfamiliar visitors. Each block within the kennel is for a specific type of dog. There are four types, each one with a specialization in one of the following - search and rescue, attack, bomb detection or tracking.
The official history regarding the use of dogs in the military starts in 1939 when veterinarians Dr. Minze and Prof. Rudolphina moved to Kiryat Motzkin, north of Haifa, and established an organization responsible for training dogs for Hagana use. In 1948, following the establishment of the state, the unit joined the IDF and set up its base in Kiryat Haim. In 1954, the unit was disbanded and 20 years later it was reestablished under the command of the Chief Infantry Officer.
The decision to reestablish the unit was made after the terror attack that became known as the Ma'alot massacre, when members of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine took a school hostage. In the ensuing rescue attempt, 22 schoolchildren were killed. The Israel Police's elite counterterror unit Yamam was also established following the massacre.
In 1988, the unit participated in the IDF operation "Blue and Brown" in southern Lebanon, launched to destroy a cave-based headquarters used by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and its chief Ahmed Jibril, in a mountainous area 20 kilometers south of Beirut. Golani Brigade soldiers, naval commandos and a number of Oketz dogs participated in the operation, after which the K9 unit was revealed to the public for the first time.
Since then, it has come a long way. One example is the type of dog: Originally, the unit worked primarily with rottweilers but after they were deemed too slow, switched to Belgian shepherds, known also as Malinois. The dogs cost 2,000 to 5,000 euros each and are bought mostly in Europe. Oketz refuses to disclose how many dogs are in the unit.
"This is a working breed of dog," explained Capt. Liad. "Their bloodline goes way back as a working dog and they are trained to act like real soldiers."
TRAINING IN Oketz is a long process. To get accepted into the unit, soldiers need to pass a day of grueling stamina tests. Once in, they undergo full combat basic training just like their infantry counterparts. Then it all changes.
As a unit, Oketz works like a contractor. "We are like a plumber. If you need one, you call," Capt. Liad explains. "In our case, if you need a handler and a dog, you call us."
On a daily basis, some 12 dogs are out in the field participating in various operations on all of Israel's fronts - Gaza, West Bank and the northern border with Lebanon. There are also female soldiers in Oketz, mostly deployed with dogs at checkpoints throughout the West Bank where they assist in searching Palestinians crossing into Israel.
Beyond the bomb detection capabilities, there are additional advantages to using dogs in operations. "Dogs move fast and quietly," Capt. Liad explains. "If you want to sneak up on someone or if you are engaging an infiltrator who is hiding somewhere, the dog can cancel out the element of surprise." The unit's slogan - "At the front" - perfectly describes the role handlers and their dogs play during a mission.
"A dog will always walk before the force," Lt.-Col. Yoav says, pointing to the fact that the two soldiers from the unit who were killed in the past three years were shot as they led forces into operations.
IT WAS Sgt. Guy and his dog Miko's turn to run an operation in Nablus last month. Givati Brigade soldiers and Engineering Corps troops had come under fire during a routine operation and decided not to storm the house until an Oketz team arrived.
Guy joined up with the forces within an hour and immediately unleashed Miko to begin searching the house. Within a minute, the dog started barking.
"This is an indication that a terrorist is holed up inside," Guy explains. "What is left to figure out is exactly what floor and room he is hiding in."
Using a handheld communications device, Guy gives orders to Miko, who can hear them on a device connected to his collar. The dog barked in the direction of a specific room and the soldiers decided to storm it. Inside they found an underground chamber in which the terrorists were hiding, together with a number of weapons and even a mortar shell.
The rush of adrenaline when the dog barked, Guy said, was a feeling he had never experienced before and his body was overcome with goose bumps.
"Due to the dog, the operation was a success," Guy says. "Without Miko, they never would have found the underground hiding spot."
Terrorists in the West Bank are using underground hiding places more and more frequently, and Oketz, Lt.-Col. Yoav says, is always working to adapt itself to the enemy. "The terrorists are always advancing and improving their capabilities," he said. "As a result, we are too." As an example, he said there could be a case in which a new type of explosive, not seen before, is used by terrorists. The dogs, he said, would need to train with the explosives and learn their scent before they could detect them in during an operation.
The dogs, Lt.-Col. Yoav says, also enable the IDF to minimize collateral damage. "In counterterror raids, there are two options - either a soldier searches the house or a dog does. If a dog does it, you minimize collateral damage, harm to innocent civilians and damage to infrastructure."
This is also why Oketz's real strengths and advantages can only be felt in asymmetrical warfare and low-intensity conflict and not during a large-scale conventional conflict. In the Second Lebanon War, Oketz accompanied Golani and Paratrooper units inside southern Lebanon when searching Hizbullah underground bunker systems for weaponry and guerrillas.
But the primary goal when using a dog is saving Israeli lives. This is what happened in September when four Islamic Jihad terrorists from Gaza stormed an IDF outpost with the aim of kidnapping or killing soldiers. After finding the outpost empty and following a quick response by nearby troops, three of the terrorists quickly fled back into Gaza. One stayed behind.
"We knew he was there but were not sure where and how to get to him," a Southern Command officer involved in the incident recalled. "That is when we called in Oketz."
St.-Sgt. Pavel and his dog Britney quickly arrived and the force commander - Lt.-Col. Bassam Aliyan - decided to dispatch the dog to locate the terrorist. Britney performed her mission brilliantly and quickly ran to the outpost, sniffed around and located the terrorist hiding inside a drainage hole. He tried to throw a grenade at the dog but missed. Only when Britney entered the hole did he open fire and kill her. Troops then stormed the water pipe and killed the terrorists.
For Lt.-Col. Yoav, Britney's story perfectly encompasses what Oketz is all about. "In the end there is no doubt that we, the IDF, will succeed in killing the terrorist we are hunting," he says. "The only question is what will be the price we pay." Oketz's job is to make sure that the IDF always pays less.
This dog speaks English
In 2004, defense minister Shaul Mofaz decided to approve an IDF recommendation to allow women to serve in combat positions in the Oketz K9 unit. It probably never crossed his mind, however, that one day not only would there be a girl in the unit but she would also be the only handler to speak to her dog in English.
Meet Sgt. Yael, 20, from Rockville, Maryland, who made aliya in 2005 to enlist in the IDF. Yael says that her passion for Israel grew immensely after a summer at Camp Ramah where she met Israelis who had been in the army.
"I was impressed by how mature they were," she recalled.
Ditching her plans to go to college immediately after high school, Yael joined Garin Zabar - a unique project launched by the Israel Scouts in 1991 and responsible for bringing hundreds of young Israelis back from the Diaspora to serve in the military - and enlisted into Karakal, a unit of male and female soldiers who are responsible for patrolling the border with Jordan.
After 18 months in Karakal, Yael was offered to try out for Oketz. She jumped at the opportunity and passed with flying colors.
"I wanted to give more to the country and this was my opportunity," she says.
But unlike her comrades, Yael speaks to her dog Senna in English. "It comes more naturally for me," she says.
Yael says that she never had a dog as a child but always wanted one. Joining Oketz was her opportunity to make that happen. She is now nearing the end of her training and will soon be deployed with Senna to a checkpoint in the West Bank where they will assist soldiers in inspecting Palestinians crossing into Israel.
"We are a team," she says. "We work together. I take care of her and she loves me."
'Walk softly since here is the resting place of Israeli soldiers'
Not far from the kennels and with a beautiful view of the Judean Hills lies a patch of mowed grass and carefully laid stones serving as a clear symbol of the close bond Oketz handlers forge with their canine sidekicks - a graveyard specially established to bury the dogs who lose their lives in battle.
Eighty-four dogs are buried in the unit's old cemetery at the Sirkin Air Force Base near Petah Tikva and are scheduled to be moved in the coming months to the new cemetery recently built in Adam, home of the unit's new headquarters.
Among the tombstones - each engraved with the name of the dog - is a sculpture of a dog and a handler that reads: "Walk softly since here is the resting place of Israeli soldiers."
"Unit policy is that any dog who loses his or her life in the line of duty receives a military funeral," explains Capt. Liad, operations officer for the unit.
The dogs are not only respected at death but also receive medals for exceptional performance from their commanders following operations.
"They are soldiers and fighters just like we are," says Lt.-Col. Yoav, commander of Oketz.
"The bond between handlers and their dogs is not something that can be understood by people who did not serve in Oketz," explains a soldier who recently lost his dog in battle.
"A relationship is developed between the dog and the handler," Liad says. "When you are out in the middle of an operation, you cannot trust many people and you need to be able to trust your dog."
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