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A Time to Kill, And a Time to Heal

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)

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"He hardly ate! You ate nothing," said Yuval's mother, also named Tamar, on a recent Friday evening.

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Yuval's mother said having a doctor for a son was "the ultimate nachas." But a pilot? "Too much worry," she said. "I'd rather not know."

Yuval's two brothers are also pilots. Michael flies an F-16 fighter jet, and Ori, a reconnaissance plane.

"On Friday night, we debrief here," Yuval said.

"They talk among themselves," said Yuval's father, Ron. "We just eavesdrop."

For Michael, who had tried to kill Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah, their conversations were a form of brotherly therapy: "We talk about our failures, because the successes don't weigh on our hearts."

Yuval confided to Michael about his mission in Gaza. "You don't get so involved in what's happening on the ground," Yuval told him.

"My fight is more sterile," said Michael, who operates at 20,000 feet. Michael shoots autonomous "fire-and-forget missiles," which allow him to jet away.

"When you put the cross on someone running, it's more difficult," Yuval said later. And back at the squadron, he said, "you see the video again and again, and the black dot goes down, and he doesn't move anymore -- it's difficult. You think not as a pilot, but as a human being."

In the cockpit, though, "I don't let my head go there. I don't allow myself to think about a target's mother."

At dinner, Yuval's mother said, "You try very hard not to hurt people, right, Yuv-ik?"

Yuval squeezed the stem of his wineglass. Efrat, Michael's girlfriend, teasingly called Yuval "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." They cleared away their dishes, the wineglasses last. They had clinked the glasses earlier, with a toast:

"To life!"

When All Seems Possible

The baby's heart stopped. She lay on her hospital bed -- 10 pounds at 4 1/2 months -- her chest deathly still.

Yuval was working in the emergency room when a nurse called out, "We need you, quick!"

Two brooding days had passed since Yuval's mission to kill four men. Now it was up to Yuval to save an Arab life.

The Arab baby, Tara, had four heart defects. Tara had come to Israel through Save a Child's Heart, a program that sponsors surgery for children from poor areas. Doctors had inserted a shunt in Tara's heart. Eight stitches threaded down her chest. Tubes emerged from her ribs, from her clavicle, from her hand.

Through all the wires, Yuval could see that Tara was "innocent, untouched."

"When they come from Gaza at age 3 or 4, they have that look in their eyes," he later recalled. "That 'I know the dangers, don't get too close to me.' "

As Yuval bent over Tara, the monitors beeped alarms. Tara's lungs had filled with fluid. "It was horrible to think this little girl was going to go," recalled the nurse, Svetlana Kakazanov.

"Adrenaline," Yuval ordered. He felt for the center of Tara's chest with his thumbs, and pumped.

It was sad for Yuval, but he often thought that the Gaza children had "a 90 percent chance of becoming terrorists. But mainly it's not their fault, it's 'the situation's' fault. And I'm not treating 'the situation.' I'm treating the child."

In the ICU, "the situation" would disappear, if sometimes only for moments. Yuval had sat night after night with a father from Gaza whose son had a hole in his heart. They talked for hours, as the boy struggled, intubated, under a pale blue blanket. Yuval recalled: "I'm looking at this father, how normal it seems, like me and my friend. But he tells me his uncle was killed in Gaza, and I feel maybe I was even involved. It's strange."

In the air, while flying at night, in serene, misleading moments, "the situation" would disappear as well. Usually Arab lights glowed pink, and Israeli lights burned white. But when Yuval wore night-vision goggles along the Syrian border, the lights of Damascus shone as green as Tel Aviv. "You don't think, 'Wow, there's my enemy.' " The differences disappeared.

Now in the ICU, as Yuval ordered a second shot of adrenaline for Tara, as her lungs were being puffed manually, Yuval felt the differences disappear again. So what if she was from Gaza? "All that mattered was that she's blue, and she has to be pink."

Yuval kept pumping the baby's heart. Five minutes passed. He stopped to listen for a beat, but every time he stopped, the blip of the monitor's green cardiac line went flat.

"Third dose of adrenaline," Yuval ordered. He wiped his brow. He thought, "She has no reason for dying. She's going to come back. She has got to come back."

Sometimes, Yuval said later, "I can see the children that died while I was trying to resuscitate them." The blond 9-year-old boy, crushed by a car. The green-black baby born at 23 weeks.

There were also the faces Yuval didn't see: "the small, dark image -- I don't visualize the face behind it -- of the terrorist I was ordered to fire on."

He couldn't let Tara's face join the others. He had to breathe her back into improbable existence. Things that seemed impossible, he said -- peace for Israelis, for Palestinians -- Yuval still believed could be true.

He pressed his stethoscope to Tara's ribs. The irregular blip of her heart steadied, and leveled, to 120 beats. He could hear the exquisite swish of her circulating blood.

Tara's chest was rising. He said, "We got her back."

A Wish for a Change of Heart

Yuval slumped into a chair. He was on the night shift in the neonatal unit. He felt sick. A fever and chills.

"This past week has been too much for me," Yuval said. The mission to kill the four-man rocket squad in Gaza. Tara's cardiac arrest. He could feel the pressure rising behind his eyes.

"My oath as a doctor is primo no nocere, do no harm," he said. Even as a pilot, when he's ordered to kill, "I try to think of it as -- I'm helping to save lives, and not hurting lives." In Gaza, flying over the orchard, he had killed two men, but let the other two go, he said. The risk of hitting civilians was too high, he said.

"We failed."

As an officer, he berated himself for failing his assignment. As a citizen, he doubted the efficacy of killing anyone. Yuval said: "Maybe because I killed those two, their brother and uncles will launch Qassams in revenge, and kill two Jewish children. So did I do a good thing? I don't know. I don't know if it served my country in the long run, but I know what I had to do that night. That's part of the problem: We need people on both sides to stand up and look 20 years ahead."

Yuval said he knows that Arabs and Jews can get along. "I know it's possible. I see it in the hospital."

When Yuval sees Nasima Abu Hamed, the mother from Gaza, holding Ahmad, her blue-lipped 2-year-old, waiting for his surgery, "my wish is his generation will have a change of heart. That something will change for Ahmad, that he will live differently. But I don't think doing a transposition of the great arteries will do it."

Yuval had visited the wards to check on baby Tara. The mothers were gathered, talking. Tara's mother, Huda Isstefou, greeted Yuval. Yuval hadn't known it when he saved Tara's life, but the tiny girl wasn't from Gaza. She was from Iraq.

"When I told friends I was going to Israel, they said, 'Be careful, Israelis are very dangerous humans,' " Huda said. "But I said, 'They save my child.' "

"An excellent doctor," Nasima said, cradling Ahmad.

"What a nice doctor," said another mother, Majdi Assassa.

Yuval bent over and felt Tara's tummy. "Shalom!" he said in a high-pitched voice. As Yuval listened to Tara's heart beat, she grasped his thumb, his missile-trigger finger, and stared up into his eyes.


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