They search for explosives and are the first members of the Israeli military to enter tunnels and other areas that could have traps in the Gaza Strip.
Israel is relying heavily on dogs in its military campaign to push Hamas and other militant groups out of Gaza’s maze of tunnels and blasted buildings. “Dogs are doing amazing work,” the Israeli military’s chief spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said in a briefing on Friday, after the military released a video of a dog exploring a tunnel.
But the canine unit also draws criticism. Israel says its dogs support elite commando units and save the lives of soldiers. Critics say the dogs are used improperly to intimidate people.
The use of dogs came back into the spotlight this week when Admiral Hagari said that the army recently sent a dog, equipped with a video camera, into a building complex to clear the area. The dog was shot and killed, and the animal’s encounter with militants was recorded by the camera.
The camera, later recovered, also captured the voices of three Israeli hostages who were believed to have escaped after soldiers killed the militants. The video became a key piece of evidence later, after the hostages were mistakenly shot and killed by Israeli soldiers, because it showed that the Israeli military had come close to finding the hostages before they were killed.
Dogs have lost their lives in Israel’s military, known as the Israeli Defense Forces. In November, the Israeli military posted on social media about the deaths of four dogs that helped uncover booby traps and stockpiles of weapons. “Specially trained dogs play an essential role in the I.D.F.’s operational activities inside Gaza,” the post noted.
About 100 soldiers annually are drafted for a 16-month training course to join Israel’s canine unit, Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht said.
The Israeli military’s use of dogs has been criticized. At a briefing on Sunday, Hussam Abu Safiya, head of the pediatric department of Kamal Adwan hospital in Gaza, accused the Israeli military of unleashing attack dogs in a raid at the hospital and called for an international investigation, Turkish media reported. The Israeli military raided the hospital over several days last week. A military spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In September, before the war in Gaza began, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported on soldiers searching the home of Palestinians in the West Bank using a dog to intimidate female family members. It was one of several incidents involving military dogs to generate headlines in Israel over the years.
Dogs have a long history of participating in military conflicts, going as far back as 600 B.C. In 1942, the United States created the first official canine army unit, and American special forces used dogs in the raids that killed the Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011 and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, in 2019.
Still, this practice is controversial — the animals don’t have a legal status and are essentially equipment or technology, and don’t enlist voluntarily. Like humans, dogs can become traumatized by war and bear psychological scars from their jobs, suffering from canine post-traumatic stress disorder.