A Unique Unit: The Israel Dog Unit (IDU) is in danger of closing after twenty years of activity
Twenty years after its establishment, the Israel Dog Unit, which deals with finding and rescuing missing persons and is funded exclusively by donations, is in danger of closing down, just when COVID-19 has caused more missing person cases than ever.
The IDU in action (Photo: IDU PR)
“The second you find someone alive - it's a feeling that's hard to describe, like you’re in a different league, "describes Moshe Binyamini, IDU volunteer. He and his friends' harbor a deep sense of commitment to the IDU’s mission to find and rescue missing persons. “That one moment justifies all the days and days without sleep, the sweating and physical exertion, sleeping in the field or on the street, the weeks of suffering from mosquito and tick bites. All the suffering of the search is dwarfed by that one second of the find.”
After twenty years in operation, the unit is in danger of closing due to lack of funding. Despite its successes, no government body has adopted the IDU as a full-fledged organization - it remains registered as a civilian NPO. A few months since the COVID-19 outbreak, the demand for their services is skyrocketing, and financial resources have dwindled; members of the unit have recently launched an emergency crowdfunding campaign, "Four-Legged Lifesavers", visible on their website. They hope to reach a goal of NIS 520,000 to cover their debts and continue their current activities.
Training in the dog unit (Photo: IDU PR)
"Not a day goes by without a call for help," explains Mike Ben Yaakov, founder and commander of the IDU. Mike immigrated from the United States at the age of eighteen as an ardent Zionist. “It could be a lost Alzheimer's patient, children with special needs, a person with suicidal tendencies or a severe mental background, and even a regularly healthy person who got dehydrated on a long hike. We are always ready to go out into the field with our dogs. From time to time other emergency services will work alongside us: the police, the army, the Magen David Adom and other volunteer rescue organizations. We work with everyone. We were even called for cases of senior officials, who had gone missing for all sorts of reasons. The state understands our capabilities and needs them, but refuses to officially recognize and fund us."
The IDU was established in 2000 against the background of the many terrorist attacks during the days of the second intifada, Ben-Yaakov dreamed of a unit of volunteer dog handlers from Israel and abroad assisting in ongoing security activities. After a decade, though, search and rescue has become the unit’s primary activity. "There are police, fire brigades and rescue units, so why do they need us?", says Ben Yaakov. “Because we realized that there is a severe shortage of knowledge and manpower and a lack of understanding of the field. A decade ago I was called to help improve that situation, and we helped out a bit on a fully volunteer basis. One day we were called to look for a young man. I arrived at the scene and saw police and Oketz (the IDF’s canine unit); there was a large map set up and lots of people looking, but there was no tidy command center, and the professionals searched for just a few hours before packing up and going home. In the field, a cadaver dog was used to search for a person who was supposed to be alive; each dog has a different specialization, and that search should have been conducted with a searching or tracking dog instead. I realized that something needed to change. The next day at five in the morning we arrived with a suitable dog and found the missing person, deep in the brush." Today, the unit employs about three hundred volunteers and fifty rescue dogs in eight branches around the country. Another three hundred dogs have been trained by them and stationed as guard dogs in various localities. The volunteers come from different backgrounds and are scattered throughout the country. Their "hard core" contains about fifty people who work mainly in the Judea and Samaria area and at the unit's base in Kfar Tapuach. Rescue dog in the IDU (Photo: IDU PR)
Binyamini, 22, who has been volunteering at the unit for six years, gets excited before every deployment. "I came to the unit after hearing about a guy who was missing in the Jerusalem forest, and they were looking for him for a week," he says. "I decided to join at first for the action and the chance to help people. After a while, I already knew the people and the kennel, so I stayed around. I get to go out for many calls and exhibitions, and I’ve been in hundreds of rescues. There are periods with multiple calls a day, and there are periods where there are no calls at all. The search that moved me the most was that of a missing woman from Ashdod, a woman we had been looking for for several months.Our initial search found nothing, so we returned every few weeks to search another sector. After six months, we received a call on Saturday evening about another missing person from Ashdod, a young man who went for a walk and hadn’t returned. We searched on Friday all night, and in the morning we suddenly found a skull that later turned out to be that woman's. At that very moment we received information from the police that the guy was healthy and intact. We came looking for him and found the answer to our unsolved mystery instead. It was very exciting." Binyamini lives in Jerusalem and comes to the kennel about four times a week on average. The volunteers in the kennel live there in dormitory conditions and go out to events in between dog training. "I’ve participated in hundreds of rescues, but unfortunately I have yet to find anyone alive," says Binyamini. "It’s frustrating, for the most part, but we take comfort in the knowledge that we will at least bring the victim to a proper burial. A search begins with a lot of action - all the units arrive and set up their command centers, but then it starts to get discouraging and unpleasant. There are no words to describe the moment when you find someone. You experience a sense of transcendence - someone is alive thanks to you. You burn with joy; there is insane energy and immense satisfaction among the other volunteers. In my opinion, even if the organization reaches a state financially and physically that it will not be able to respond to events, that spirit will still remain; if there is no money for vehicles, we will walk, but there will be no situation where a call for help is heard and ignored. We will respond to any alert, even if it means taking public transit."Training to rescue victims from rubble. (Photo: IDU PR)
Ravid, 27, immigrated from Canada about seven years ago as a lone soldier and lives at the base of the unit in Tapuah, experienced the transcendent moment of locating a living person and rescuing him. "I found two people, one alive and one not," he says. “I found a man a year and a half ago. He was fired from his job and left home. We received a report that there was a chance of suicide. We started looking in the field. One dog from the unit identified a small grove with an abandoned house and signalled to me to go check it. I went in and found the man lying on the floor in complete unconsciousness, next to bags of pills and a bottle of vodka. Luckily, he vomited both up and thus survived. I did not notice that building at first, but the dog dragged me there in a fit of excitement. The man was a little bit overweight , and the paramedics were unable to lift him, so we called our strongest volunteers and they carried him to the road on a stretcher. After saving a person, you can feel like you’re on a ‘high’; I felt moved to the depths of my soul. I had found someone after three days of searching; our general rule is that a person survives for up to three days in the field. I found him at the last possible moment, just before we packed up. Not everyone gets to save lives. "The IDU working alongside the INP (Photo: IDU PR)
A Better Country
In the absence of an ordinary budget, unit members are in continual demand. The organization's call center phone number is none other than Mike's own private phone, and when there is no vehicle to go out into the field, he must find one himself. "Looking for a person takes a lot of time," says Ben Yaakov. “A search sometimes takes a long time. We have a big heart and are willing to stay in the field until the missing person is found. The rest go home after a few hours, but our volunteers are the crazy people who sleep in the field for a few days and will do anything to complete a rescue. Legally, the police are responsible for missing persons, but all they do is open a case and send a flyer online with a photo and description; they never actually go searching in the field. The Israel National Police (INP) is not built for it, either in terms of professional capabilities or resources. I do not see policemen sleeping in the woods for several days. There are a lot of cases where the police ask us to leave as well, but we refuse; they may say ‘we’ve searched there already’, but we end up finding the person in that same area. This was the case a few years ago with Meir Levy, a money changer from Bat Yam, who was murdered by a man who shot him and threw the body near the factories in Bat Yam. We sat down with the murdered man's family; we wanted to search in a certain area, but the cops said they had already searched there and asked us to stay clear of it. I went there despite them and we found him within seconds. The family did not understand how we knew where to look. "
The coronavirus crisis, as mentioned, only exacerbated the situation, and the demand for rescues increased drastically; fears of suicide are on the rise due to the strains of quarantine, and economic pressures are felt by both rescuers and victims alike. The donations that had flowed from foundations and organizations in Israel and abroad have stopped coming. "If I need twenty dogs with handlers, and I have a budget for three, that is the difference between life and death, between bringing someone’s bones to burial and leaving them in the field forever.” Bram S. (Photo: IDU PR)
“We have subsisted on donations so far,” says Ben-Yaakov, “But recently those donations have stopped, and right when I need to invest more in dogs, vehicles and fuel for our missions. We work in full cooperation with everyone - army, fire brigade, rescue units. Everyone helps us because they know we are the leading operational arm in the field of missing people; only the state ignores us. We may not be a national institution, but we are the most effective operators in the field, combining dogs, drones, and our proprietary incident management application. We are always the first to respond, although we have no governmental budget; indeed, other services with budgets of millions seek our help. It does not make sense that we do not receive even a minimal budget. "
"Without the IDU, I do not think I would have stayed in Israel," says Bram Settenbrino 19, who immigrated to Israel two years ago. In his very first search, he found a missing person. "It strengthened my resolve to stay in the unit and the country," he says. "The unit is like a family for me, helping me in the Ministry of the Interior, providing housing, and taking care of everything I need. During one of the searches, the son of the missing person, who was the father of five children, joined me and it was sad to see him shouting: 'Dad, Dad'. To this day we have not found his father, but we occasionally continue the search because we’ve made it a mission of ours to do so. When one sees the mental upheaval of a family with a member missing, it is impossible to do otherwise. I am ready to sleep in the field for a month and a half and make any other sacrifices necessary to find someone. Israel is a better country because of the IDU."