These Israeli 'agents' have a nose for explosives

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

At 8:30 on a crisp January morning, Erez Finkelstein pulls up at Tel Aviv's central bus station. He takes two containers from his pocket. "This one's TNT, dynamite," he says as he shakes the small can, "and the other's C4, plastic explosive." He approaches a bus in a long line of parked vehicles, and tucks the TNT beneath the wheel arch. He then walks to a nearby motor scooter and conceals the C4 inside the engine casing.

Despite appearances, Mr. Finkelstein is performing a job crucial to Israel's domestic security. He is part of a team - half of whom are two-legged, the other half four - that works tirelessly to prevent the bomb attacks that regularly rock the country. As an instructor for the US-Israeli charity Pups for Peace, his job is to ensure that their highly trained squad of bomb-detecting dogs stays in top form.

"First, Cliff," says Finkelstein as a brindle Dutch shepherd appears, straining at his leash. Cliff's handler, Elad Bachal, releases the excited young dog.

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After just two minutes of sniffing, Cliff discovers the first of the hidden explosives. Mr. Bachal rewards him with his toy - a simple fabric cylinder known as a "puppy roll" - and Cliff cavorts with glee.

Finkelstein extracts the dynamite. "If the dogs didn't find what they're looking for at least once a day," he explains, "they might lose interest in their work."

Since the beginning of the current intifada in September 2000, there have been 124 separate bomb attacks on Israeli civilians. But it wasn't until

the Park Hotel bombing in Netanya in March 2002 - which killed 30 and injured 140 - that a US economics professor, Glenn Yago, telephoned his long-time Israeli friend, Ronnie Lotan, and Pups for Peace was born.

"He called me from Scottsdale, Ariz., just minutes after the attack," recalls Mr. Lotan, now director general of the charity. " 'We've finally got to do something about this,' he told me. 'Let's get dogs.' "

Although neither man had any experience in the field, they became convinced after initial research that a squad of bomb-detecting dogs would boost public security.

Initial doubts

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and police force were not so sure, however.

The police were concerned that the general public might be afraid of large dogs on buses. The IDF expressed doubt over the effectiveness of using dogs as the sole means of detection.

"A dog's concentration span is only around 20 minutes at a time," explains Lotan. "So the IDF felt that we couldn't maintain a vigilant watch over threatened areas, such as bus stations, if the detection dog had to rest every 20 minutes."

But Lotan and Yago had a solution: "We decided that we'd give each handler two, three, or even four dogs," he says, "to be worked in rotation. This was a brand new, and expensive, innovation in the use of bomb dogs in the world, but we knew it would work."

After six months of frenzied fundraising, the pilot project at a bus station close to the damaged Park Hotel proved to be a success. Not only was public reaction overwhelmingly positive, but also in "hide and seek" trials, the dogs were 100 percent effective in locating hidden explosives.

Soon afterward, the IDF and police forces gave their support, and placed an "order" for 70 dog teams to guard bus stations and markets throughout the country.

To date, about 30 handler/dog teams have been established within Israel, with new recruits (mainly German shepherds, border collies, and Labrador retrievers) arriving for training all the time.

For security reasons, the IDF won't release precise details of the anti- terrorism actions in which Pups for Peace has been instrumental. However, Lotan can disclose that in one recent incident, a suicide bomber in Jerusalem aborted her attempts to board a packed bus after seeing a Pups for Peace patrol at the bus stop.

Although she then detonated her device nearby - killing two soldiers who attempted to check her bag - the lives of a large number of civilians on board the bus were saved.

On another occasion, the dogs were able to track a would-be suicide bomber as he made his way to his target destination - a popular cafe in Jerusalem - simply by detecting the tiny traces of explosive residue left behind en route. The suspect was then apprehended.

In the coming year, Pups for Peace has plans for expansion, including building a new training facility and starting a breeding program.

Expanding to railroads

Recently, in Lod, a city of about 50,000 known as a railroad center, the dogs began the first canine railroad patrols in the world. As well as patrolling the station buildings and among the passengers, the dogs also regularly check the trains and the tracks for explosive devices.

Recalling last year's Madrid train bombings, officials feel there's a growing need for such protection worldwide.

"We do get inquiries from across the globe," says Lotan, "but, alas, we've got limited funds. So we're trying to deal with Israel first."

With the cost of training each team running to more than $25,000 - financed solely through donations - the price of preventing bombings remains high.

Silent deterrent

Back on the streets, Yael, another young Dutch shepherd, replaces Cliff for the next shift. Closely scrutinizing passersby and passengers boarding buses in the busy station, Yael is not only an expert at sniffing out concealed explosives, but is also a powerful visual deterrent to would-be suicide bombers.

This, explains Lotan, is because in order to guarantee the largest number of fatalities, a suicide bomber must detonate his or her device in an enclosed area such as a bus. The same bomb detonated outdoors is, in contrast, unlikely to kill anyone outside a six-foot radius.

"Therefore if you can prevent the bomber from boarding that bus in the first place, you take the impact out of the attack," Lotan says. "A suicide bomber doesn't want to die for nothing. But he also knows he'll never get past one of our pups on the door."

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