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Heroic Combat Dogs of the IDF

May 22, 2024

by: Janet Aslin, BFP Writer

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Scholars may differ on when and where dogs were first domesticated, but there is no argument that, of all the animals in the world, dogs occupy a special place in our lives. They keep us company, protect us and often work alongside us, earning the title of “man’s best friend.” I find it interesting that kelev, the Hebrew word for dog, contains within it the letters which spell “heart” or lev. Join me as we meet a group of dogs whose purpose is to protect the Jewish people as members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) canine unit.

Four-legged Soldiers

In 1974, the Sirkin base in central Israel became the first home for the Oketz (Sting) canine unit. The unit was formed in response to an increase in terror attacks during the early 1970s and initially consisted of just 11 soldiers. They shared the base with Sayeret Matkal, the IDF’s elite special reconnaissance unit, and Yahalom, a special combat engineering unit.

Today the Oketz soldiers and their dogs have a state-of-the-art training facility at the Adam base. It is a specialized group of men, women and dogs. According to the IDF, “Joining the unit is voluntary and therefore soldiers undergo difficult selection and testing” before they are accepted.

The IDF’s dog of choice is the Belgian Malinois, which the American Kennel Club (AKC) describes as “smart, confident, and versatile…a world-class worker who forges an unbreakable bond with his human partner.”

Working closely with a soldier in the unit, each dog is trained in one of three specialized fields: counterterrorism; explosives and/or weapons detection and search and rescue. Once their training is complete, teams from the Oketz unit do not work independently but are paired with soldiers in other units when their expertise is needed. These canine soldiers are on active duty for six or seven years, after which they go into a life of retirement, usually with one of their handlers.

In the Midst of the Battle

Members of the Oketz unit and their dogs were among the first responders to reach the besieged communities of the Gaza periphery on October 7. Israel Hayom reported that without waiting for an official call-up, the unit’s commander sent soldiers and their dogs to join the troops fighting a desperate battle to regain control of the communities that Hamas had overrun. The initial hours of the battle were filled with confusion, and the Oketz teams helped reveal potentially deadly ambushes, thus saving the lives of many soldiers as well as civilians.

Once the ground war began in Gaza, soldiers and their canine partners continued to play a key role in the fighting, much of it in multi-story buildings where the dogs are able to relay information to the troops through the use of cameras. The Times of Israel reported the account of an Oketz dog named Patrick who “located and subdued a Hamas gunman who had planned to ambush the troops.” Another account describes how Toy “discovered a passage between a building [the] troops were in and another building, where a Hamas gunman was…[and] attacked the operative, preventing the troops from being ambushed.”

Oketz dogs have also excelled in uncovering hidden weapons and munitions. According to the Jerusalem Post, the canine unit played a key role in uncovering Hamas’s use of the Turkish, Rantisi and Shifa hospitals for terror purposes. In addition to discovering bombs, the dogs helped locate the bodies of two deceased hostages near the Shifa hospital.

Gone But Not Forgotten

It is a sad fact that soldiers die in wars. This is no less true for the IDF’s four-legged soldiers. At the time of this writing, there have been at least five heroic dogs who have fallen in the current conflict in Gaza as well as one on the northern border. These dogs are entitled to a burial with full military honors and are then laid to rest at the cemetery on their base. Each year, the canine soldiers are remembered and honored at a special ceremony that takes place on the eve of Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day).

It would be hard to ignore the question: “Why does one of these loyal companions have to die in combat? They didn’t choose this battle.” My answer would go back to the AKC description of the breed, which says “they form an unbreakable bond with their human partner.” In the case of the dogs in the Oketz unit, their human partner is an IDF soldier on active duty. Israel has been forced to defend itself, to fight for its very survival against enemies whose founding principles call for Jewish annihilation. As a result, both the human and canine members of the Oktez unit have been coming under fire since the war broke out. And sadly, some have been killed.

If these dogs could speak, I can almost hear them saying as Ruth did to Naomi so many years ago, “Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go” (Ruth 1:16).

Photo Credit: Click on photo to see photo credit

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