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A Time to Kill, And a Time to Heal

Kill Four Men, or Be a Failure

Yuval examines Ahmad Abu Hamed, a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip. Above right, Yuval mans his Cobra, in which he flies night combat missions over Gaza, targeting Palestinian fighters.
Yuval examines Ahmad Abu Hamed, a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip. Above right, Yuval mans his Cobra, in which he flies night combat missions over Gaza, targeting Palestinian fighters. (Laura Blumenfeld - The Washington Post)

At 2:30 a.m., air force sirens woke Yuval. Tamar didn't stir as Yuval leapt from their warm sheets, they recalled in interviews about that night in October.

"Is it the mission we briefed for?" Yuval whispered into his phone.

"Something else," a voice said from headquarters. "You're going south."

Yuval shot into the hallway in his underwear. He had 15 minutes until takeoff.

Every movement, every zip and shiver, from Yuval's pillow to his Cobra had been timed. Two seconds to rinse with mouthwash. Forty-five seconds to pull on his flight suit and boots. Ten seconds to sprint to the car, parked nose-out. Six minutes to drive to the airfield, including swerves, in case a jackal crossed the road.

By the time Yuval reached his helicopter, four wire-guided missiles had been loaded. The crows roosting on the rotor blades had flown. Yuval strapped on his helmet and plugged into the cockpit radio. He recalled hearing:

"Your mission is to attack a group of terrorists. They launched a Qassam rocket at Israel and they're about to launch again."

In the past four months, the army says, more than 1,000 rockets and shells have been launched against Israel. On this night, the army said, four men from Islamic Jihad were attacking. Yuval entered the coordinates -- northeast Gaza, four miles from the Israeli town of Sderot -- into his electronic map.

The radio said: "All four are approved for targeting."

Yuval's heart, already beating fast, began to pound, he recalled. Usually, Yuval fired warning shots, or destroyed the launchers. Now Yuval and his wingman were supposed to take out a whole squad, he said. Kill four men, or be a failure.

"Ready for takeoff," Yuval said. It had been 12 minutes, almost 13, since the sirens had woken him. As the light of the helicopter lifted through the humid air, it looked to Yuval like he was rising inside a pitcher of milk.

The flight to Gaza took five minutes. Sometimes when targeting a Palestinian, Yuval flew for hours without firing. Once, Yuval circled a building every day for a month -- in his helicopter with the white, open-jawed snake painted on the side -- waiting until civilians cleared. One day, a boy sat on the roof. Another day, the target's secretary walked into his office. Finally, the Palestinian was alone. One, two, three missiles killed him.


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