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Israel Walks a Fine Line With Plan for Bomb-Sniffing Dogs

July 13, 2002|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Taking a leaf out of the American police playbook, Israeli authorities say they want to beef up their use of dogs to combat terrorism in this frightened nation, and a Los Angeles resident is ready to help.

Public Security Minister Uzi Landau, who recently returned from a visit to the United States, told Israeli media this week that deploying more dogs to sniff out explosives and subdue would-be suicide bombers would help save lives. Already this year, attacks by Palestinians with explosives strapped to their bodies have killed dozens of people in Israel.

Landau said he is looking into importing such animals to augment security forces' existing canine units. To that end, he has found an ally in Glenn Yago, an economist and member of the Los Angeles Jewish community. Yago recently started a group dedicated to raising funds for buying and training police dogs for Israeli use, a project he dubs "Pups for Peace."

But as with many issues surrounding the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the use of police dogs, though routine in other countries, rubs against cultural nerves that already are raw from nearly two years of deadly, open confrontation between the two peoples.

In this case, Israeli authorities are faced with sensitivities on both sides of the divide.

For some Jews, especially older ones, the sight of aggressive police dogs straining at the leash recalls painful memories of the Holocaust, of ghettos and concentration camps where Nazi guards used attack dogs to intimidate, maim or kill.

For Muslims, dogs are ritually unclean. To touch a dog on your way to prayer is to suffer impurity, which only washing can erase. Palestinians traveling to mosques under Israel's occupation in the West Bank must sometimes cross security checkpoints where dogs nose around for anything suspicious.

"It's humiliating," said Adnan Husseini, head of a Muslim religious affairs council in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem. "It's a very bad feeling" to be forced into contact with a dog "while you're going to meet your God and pray."

Gil Kleiman, a spokesman for Israel's 26,000-strong police force, acknowledged the tricky issues involved in deploying man's best friend in a law enforcement capacity.

"There's no question that that has come up many times, that the dogs are a sensitive [point] with the Muslim community and the older Jewish population," he said. "We find the balance."

For example, canine units are not such a visible presence here as they are in some American cities. "You won't find Israeli policemen with dogs in their cars as you do in the U.S.," Kleiman said.

The idea of helping Israeli security forces acquire more crime-busting dogs hit Yago after a suicide bombing in March killed 29 Jews at a hotel in the seaside town of Netanya.

Yago, 51, contacted the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which approved the idea through its Jews in Crisis campaign. Since then, through word of mouth and fund-raisers, such as one scheduled for next week in the San Fernando Valley, Yago's group has cobbled together enough money to launch a pilot program to train and supply dogs.

Next month, 20 Israeli handlers are due in Los Angeles to work with trainers and 60 dogs for two months. Then the handlers will return to Israel with the animals for an additional month's training at a center being prepared in the Golan Heights. The dogs are destined for the Israeli police, the army and private security firms.

"To do this right is not cheap," Yago said in a telephone interview. He estimated that the cost of training each dog to sniff out explosives runs about $10,000.

"The basic question we've asked is, 'What can you do to stop terrorism in Israel?' Well, there's very little you can do, but this is a concrete step," Yago said.

He added that he does not want the use of his specially trained dogs to offend anyone's cultural or emotional sensibilities. Particularly for older Jews, he said, the breeds of the dogs being deployed are unlikely to evoke bad memories, as they are typically not of the attack-dog variety.

Tommy Lapid, a Holocaust survivor and a member of the Israeli parliament, said he would support the increased deployment of explosives-detecting canines.

"This is a defensive usage of dogs, not an offensive and aggressive usage," said Lapid, who lived in Hungary's Budapest ghetto under the Nazi regime.

"If you say that these are dogs that smell out Arabs, I would take exception," he said. "But if you say that they smell out TNT, then I support that.... It's a wholly defensive purpose, which is in saving lives."

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