When man’s best friend becomes a terrorist’s worst enemy

The ‘Magazine’ joins the IDF’s elite Oketz unit for a day of training.

The IDF’s elite Oketz unit at a day of training (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The IDF’s elite Oketz unit at a day of training
The soldiers had been dropped onto a rooftop in the middle of a village in the West Bank with Rammstein, a five-year-old Belgian shepherd. Their mission: capture the terrorist who was hiding in the building.
They had to be quiet. They knew he was in there, armed. Rammstein couldn’t bark, lest the wanted terrorist were to escape through one of the building’s many exits. The soldiers descended from the rooftop quietly, with 38-kilo Rammstein on the back of his handler, St.-Sgt. A.
Once on the ground, troops threw in stun grenades and Rammstein was unleashed, jumping on the terrorist and bringing to a close yet another successful arrest operation.
Dogs can be a man’s best friend – and they can be a terrorist’s worst enemy.
That day, Rammstein, an attack dog with the IDF’s elite Oketz unit, was drilling on being a terrorist’s worst enemy.
“He is looking for a person with a presence in the room,” St.-Sgt. A. told the Magazine when we joined troops and dogs from the IDF’s Oketz Unit at their headquarters at the Adam military base outside Jerusalem.
“We came to this house and we needed to catch someone inside – someone who knows the army is looking for him. The dog is there to catch him and make sure that no soldier gets hurt,” St.-Sgt. A. continued.
The IDF’s Oketz (Hebrew for “sting”) unit was established in 1974 and is considered part of the army’s elite special forces, with the dogs and their handlers attached to all of the army’s combat units filling several important tasks, such as detecting explosives and weapons, chasing and attacking wanted suspects, as well as taking part search-and-rescue missions.
Since 1939, when the Hagana used canines for the security of Jewish villages threatened by their Arab neighbors, dogs have been used extensively in the IDF, from combat in Lebanon to operations in the Gaza Strip and West Bank – most recently in the hunt for the Palestinian terrorist who shot and killed two Israeli civilians in the Barkan industrial zone in October.
Following the establishment of the State of Israel, the Hagana’s canine unit joined the IDF and established its original base in Kiryat Haim, north of Haifa. The unit was disbanded in 1954 and reestablished only 20 years later in 1974, following a wave of terrorist attacks in Israel in the early 1970s, including the two-day long hostage-taking attack that became known as the Ma’alot massacre.
In May 1974, three members of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, armed with grenades and automatic weapons, infiltrated into northern Israel from Lebanon and took more than 115 people – including 105 children – hostage. The men demanded the release of 23 Palestinian terrorists or they would kill the students, mostly teenagers from a high school in Safed on a field trip. On the second day of the standoff, the elite Sayeret Matkal stormed the building, leading the terrorists to open fire on the hostages, killing 25 of them and injuring another 68. All three terrorists were killed.
Following the massacre, Oketz was reestablished as one of the IDF’s elite units, operating out of the Sirkin base in total secrecy and participating in dozens of classified missions. The unit was first publicly acknowledged in 1988 with its role in the IDF’s Operation “Blue and Brown.” The operation was launched by Israel to destroy the cave-based headquarters of Ahmed Jibril, the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in the mountains of Nueimeh, southern Lebanon. During the operation, Golani commander Lt.-Col. Amir Meital and 30 PFLP terrorists were killed.
While several of the dogs were killed during the operation – either by IDF fire or by PFLP terrorists – before they could identify the munitions bunkers as originally planned, their role in sensitive operations was cemented. During the Second Lebanon War, Oketz once again joined Golani and Paratrooper units inside southern Lebanon to search for Hezbollah terrorists and their weapons.
In June 2014, the unit was deployed in the West Bank to search for the three Jewish teenagers who were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas militants. Weeks later, with the outbreak of Operation Protective Edge, Oketz and their handlers guarded Gaza-vicinity kibbutzim and other communities from terrorist infiltrations and entered the Gaza Strip to sniff out explosives in buildings suspected of being booby-trapped. Four Oketz dogs were killed during the 50-day long conflict with Hamas.
WHILE ISRAEL has not gone to war since Operation Protective Edge, the men and women of the Oketz unit have not stopped, acting as “contractors” for other units in the IDF, participating in arrests of Palestinian suspects in the West Bank and with female Oketz soldiers deployed at the various checkpoints assisting troops in searching vehicles and Palestinians who cross into Israel.
“An Oketz soldier goes on the most operations in the army and is the most flexible, multitasking unit which goes out with all other units,” Maj. B. of the Oketz unit told the Magazine following the drill with Rammstein and other Oketz troops.
“Our troops train as one – man and dog. They must know everything. If they go out with Sayeret Matkal, they need to be the best they can be. They have to be on the same level as the commando soldiers.”
Recruits interested in Oketz undergo a rigorous tryout; only 90 to 100 recruits are accepted and sign for four years of regular service and another year as a career soldier. Once they make it into the elite unit, soldiers undergo an intensive 17-month training period before being assigned their dog, which will stay with them for the duration of their military service.
After that, the soldier and the dog undergo eight months of training together.
“It’s less about you and more about you and the dog together, what you can do together,” St.-Sgt. A. said. “Just like soldiers, dogs need to do a lot of drills.
“Most of the day we are practicing and making sure the dogs are fit,” he continued, explaining that dogs run on treadmills every day and have specific training sessions during the week.
Like the unit itself, the type of dog used has also undergone a transformation. Originally, the unit used Rottweilers and then German shepherds. The unit now uses mainly Belgian shepherds. All dogs are imported from Europe as puppies and trained to have a specific specialty – attack, search and rescue, locating weapons or detecting explosives. The IDF refuses to disclose how many dogs are in the unit or how much they cost.
According to Maj. B., troops in Oketz receive training for treating their dogs if they get injured or overheat during operations.
Unlike other combat troops in the IDF, Oketz soldiers carry three liters of water on them during operations – 1.5 liters for themselves and 1.5 liters for the dogs.
“People laugh and other soldiers say that the dogs in the unit are treated better than other soldiers, but the dogs get what they deserve,” Maj. B. says. “But like soldiers, they are given the best conditions when they are on base and not partaking in operations. When they are on operations, some of which could last several days, they are stuck to their handler.”
Numerous Oketz dogs have died in combat and each dog that loses his life is given a full military funeral and is buried in a special cemetery at the Adam military base.
“At the end of the day, you know there’s a chance he can get hurt, but he saves many people,” St.-Sgt. A. said as he poured water for Rammstein.
As the only canine unit in the IDF, troops have gone abroad to learn and observe how other canine units train with their dogs. In August, Oketz soldiers went to the United States to take part in a two-week long joint drill with American troops.
While most dogs in Oketz are discharged from military service at the age of seven and are usually adopted by their last handler, some have continued to serve in other roles, including volunteering at assisted-living facilities.
In 2017, India announced that it had bought 30 Oketz attack dogs, bomb sniffers and chasers from Israel because “the new four-legged recruits to the Special Protection Group are considered the best in the world in sniffing out explosive booby-traps.”
According to India’s Telegraph News site, the dogs were Labradors, German shepherds, Belgian Malinois and a fourth unidentified breed.
“Because of a heightened threat perception, we wanted to beef up the prime minister’s security,” a security official was quoted on the site, which added that Israel was also helping to upgrade the dog-training center at Bhanu in Chandigarh.
Other dogs, deemed too “dangerous” for adoption, have been sent to a sort of canine retirement and nursing home at the Damon Prison in Israel’s Carmel region. Currently housing 40 dogs, but with the capacity for 100, the dogs are watched over by a team including a groomer (who cares for each dog at least once per week) and veterinarians, who provide training and health services to the aging veterans.
Five-year-old Rammstein will likely go home in two years with St.-Sgt. A., his second and current handler.
“I didn’t start my service in Oketz, but when the option came to choose what I wanted to do, I took it,” St.-Sgt. A. said. “We have one of the most interesting jobs in the army and we always have to be aware about what is happening with the dog. He’s my partner at work and my best friend at home.”