IDF’s Special Canine Unit Filled Key Functions in Gaza

The Israeli army's elite canine unit, known as Oketz, saw action both inside the Gaza Strip and around its perimeter in the recent conflict.

Ilan Assayag

Among the special forces put to extensive use in Israel’s latest war in the Gaza Strip was the elite canine unit of the Israel Defense Forces. But because its dogs are so effective in combat, the army prefers to keep under wraps specific details of where and how they operate.

In Operation Protective Edge, the dogs filled two key functions: sniffing out explosives in buildings suspected of being booby-trapped and guarding the kibbutzim and other communities along Israel’s border with Gaza from infiltration by terrorists.

Four dogs from the canine unit were killed in battle during Operation Protective Edge, falling into traps meant for the soldiers accompanying them, the Israeli military spokesman’s unit said. In doing so, the office said, these dogs spared many human lives.

The IDF Spokesman’s Unit would not provide details on the circumstances in which the dogs died, but at least in one case, an attack dog was reportedly killed when it entered a booby-trapped building in the Strip that then exploded. The dog’s handler was wounded in the incident, but because the animal absorbed the brunt of the blow, the young man’s life was spared.

The name of the canine unit is Oketz (Hebrew for “sting”), and its dogs and handlers are attached to all of the army’s combat units. Established in 1974, Oketz, also known as the K-9 unit, is considered part of the IDF’s special forces.

“At every given moment during Operation Protective Edge, the dogs and fighters of the Oketz Unit were protecting the IDF fighters and ensuring that every area they were about to enter was cleared of munitions explosives and hostile forces,” the IDF Spokesman’s Unit said in response to a questions about the K-9 unit’s activities in the recent fighting. “During the operation, the dogs and fighters of the unit discovered dozens of pieces of weaponry belonging to Hamas, and thanks to their special capabilities, every day, explosives, traps and terrorists were revealed.”

Attack dogs, bomb sniffers and chasers are all used in Oketz. A few weeks before the latest outbreak of hostilities in the south, the dogs were deployed in the West Bank to search for the three Jewish teenagers who were kidnapped and murdered in June. In the past, they have been used widely in combat in Lebanon.

Most of the dogs in the unit are Belgian shepherds or German shepherds, typically imported from Europe as puppies. They are discharged from military service at the age of seven, and are usually adopted by their last handler.

Army recruits who are interested in joining Oketz unit undergo a rigorous tryout, and only a small fraction of applicants are accepted. In the army itself, each soldier undergoes an intensive 17-month training course before being assigned a dog that stays with them for the duration of the soldier’s military service.

The IDF has a special cemetery for dogs that died in battle, located at the Adam military base, near Modi’in.

In addition to the dogs killed, the IDF Spokesman said others were wounded.