A Time to Kill, And a Time to Heal
In his job as an Israeli pediatrician, Yuval saves the lives of Palestinian children. But the father of three also takes Palestinian lives as an attack helicopter pilot patrolling Gaza.

By Laura Blumenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 25, 2007

HOLON, Israel -- The 2-year-old's flawed heart beat backward, pumping blue blood to his lips and inking rings around his eyes.

Ahmad edged across his hospital bed, toward his mother, Nasima Abu Hamed. Nasima, a Palestinian from Gaza, had brought Ahmad to Israel for an operation. She moved uneasily through hospital halls decked with Israeli flags -- but the Jewish doctors could save her son.

A pediatrician named Yuval walked in wearing a white coat. Nasima smiled. Yuval high-fived Ahmad, who was wearing toddler-size army fatigues. Yuval said in Arabic, "How's he doing?"

Nasima shrugged and asked, "When is the surgery?"

Nasima was eager to return to Gaza. There was trouble at home, clashes with Israeli soldiers. Fear had kept her family up all night, the chop of hostile helicopters. Two years ago, a missile fired from a helicopter had killed two cousins. If Nasima ever met an Israeli pilot, "I would faint and die from fear."

Yuval patted Ahmad on the head. The surgery would be soon. Later, Nasima called Yuval "our savior of the children."

Yuval is a savior of children. He is also an attack helicopter pilot. It was Yuval in his Cobra -- though Nasima didn't know it -- hovering over her town, as Israeli troops battled armed Palestinians. By day, Yuval works as a pediatrician. By night, he fires missiles for the air force.

One of Yuval's supervisors, physician Sion Houri, sees no contradiction between Yuval's two jobs. "There's reality A; there's reality B. It's not a dichotomy -- it's us," said Houri. "It's our life as Israelis."

After decades of war, what might be madness in another society passes for normal in Israel. As negotiators meet this week in Annapolis to try to resolve the Middle East conflict, Israelis find ways to resolve the conflict in their own lives. In the Bible, Ecclesiastes declares: "There is . . . a time to kill, and a time to heal." Yuval is doing both, at the same time.

'It Sounds Like a Conflict'

Yuval walked through the door, home from work. His little girl toddled over.

"I missed you!" Yuval said, kissing his daughter as she peeled off his Velcro name patch and bit it. Yuval's mother-in-law, Nitzan, who was babysitting, said: "So, Yuval, are you a pilot or a doctor today?"

Yuval, a 40-year-old major in the air force, is prohibited by the military from giving his last name. He lives with his wife, two sons and a daughter on Palmachim air base, north of the Gaza Strip. The military has allowed Yuval to study medicine while he serves. When he isn't flying, Yuval treats children as a resident at a nearby civilian hospital.

"He's never home," his mother-in-law said. He's either on alert or on call. He's either dressed in a flight suit, carrying a ruler to calculate firing positions, or he's dressed in scrubs, carrying a measuring tape to gauge baby skulls.

"It sounds like a conflict, but he knows he's protecting us," Nitzan said. "You don't want to kill people, right, Yuval?"

Yuval didn't hear his mother-in-law because he was running his daughter's bath. Nitzan said, "Look, our situation is intolerable."

"Situation" is Israeli shorthand for the country's relationship with Arabs. It wasn't always intolerable, Yuval said. He grew up on a farm, where on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m., his father revved up the tractor. All day, Yuval picked oranges with Palestinians from Gaza. For lunch, Yuval brought bread and cheese; Palestinians boiled Arabic coffee. They became, Yuval thought, friends.

"Now it seems like ancient history," Yuval said, splashing his daughter's curls, so immersed in memories he didn't notice she had her socks on in the tub.

Yuval's oldest son was born in the 1990s, after the Oslo accords. He dreamed that his son wouldn't be drafted. Then, in 2000, the second Palestinian intifada erupted. Suicide bombers blew up Israeli discos and cafes. Israelis responded with force. Palestinians from Gaza were banned, including the men who labored with Yuval. Yuval flew targeted assassination missions, killing some 15 intifada members, he said. After a strike, Yuval said, he would emerge from his cockpit successful, yet feeling bad, his hair wet with sweat, his neck reddened with tension.

Some pilots quit. They criticized the military. Yuval called them "unforgivable." As he snapped pink pajamas on his daughter, Yuval said, "If you think you're more moral, stay in and fight the battle the way you think it should be fought."

Yuval's wife, Tamar, and their two sons came home. After dinner, the boys slid under Peter Rabbit sheets.

"Who's waiting for their 'kiss of protection'?" Yuval asked.

"Me!" said Imry, their 5-year-old. The kiss banishes bad dreams.

"About witches," the boy explained. "Dragons and ghosts."

Yuval started to smile, but then Imry added, "And the warriors, who want me to die."

Kill Four Men, or Be a Failure

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.

On this night over Gaza though, there could be no delays. Yuval pictured an Israeli bedroom, exploding. He approached the launch zone tense and tenser, leaning toward the screen of his heat-sensitive targeting system. The rocket squad had crept into an orchard near a house. Yuval adjusted the contrast knobs, trying to coax four figures from the shadows, he recalled. Trees were gray. A house was white. The men were black hot.

"It's a terrible thought," Yuval said later, but it had occurred to him many times: The children of the Palestinians he had picked oranges with in his father's orchard were now launching rockets. "I'm sure I know some of them. You can't recognize them from the air."

All Yuval could see now were small, dark movements. Two figures behind a tree. A person crouching.

"This is it," Yuval recalled thinking. Yuval placed his cross in the middle of a thin, black figure. "I'm looking at someone whose role in life is to kill, and I have to stop him," he thought. "Now, now, now." Yuval's adrenaline surged.

His thumb pressed the red button hard. Yuval held his breath, hoping that "nothing comes into the cross, like another person."

But instead of turning the Palestinian into a black-hot burst, the missile thudded into the sand. His ammunition had malfunctioned, a dud. "No!" Yuval recalled thinking. He fired again. "Good hit," said ground troops, spotting for him. But by then, the two remaining rocket squad members had crawled close to the house.

Yuval had to decide: fly away and spare the civilians or fire again and fulfill his mission?

"Not good," Yuval said to his wingman, as they turned back.

After he landed, he tiptoed into his house and lay next to his wife. It was 5:30 a.m. Tamar rolled over: "Did you fly?"

Yuval said bitterly, "No, I went out with my buddies."

He lay there, he later recalled, so wrung out that he felt like he'd lost 20 pounds. He thought: "I have to wake up in two hours and go to the hospital."

Brotherly Therapy at Week's End

On Fridays, Yuval drives his family to his parents' farm on Tranquility Street.

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

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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