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By unknown | Jan 12, 2009 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Paul Martin

Paul Martin

My close friend Ashraf and I have worked, eaten, discussed and even disagreed through so many broadcasting assignments - some under intense pressure - as Palestinian gunmen in Gaza fight Israel, or each other.

On the sixth day of this current war I could not get hold of Ashraf on the mobile phone.

Later, in tears, he told me why. His youngest brother Mahmoud, aged 12, and his 14-year-old cousin, were told it was too dangerous outside Ashraf's family home. So the children played innocently on the family home's flat roof.

Then an unmanned Israeli aircraft fired two small rockets. Ashraf rushed upstairs and took the boys to hospital but it was hopeless. They were buried the same day.

This was just the latest in a series of disasters for Mahmoud and Ashraf's very dignified father, a medical doctor. He had been turned into a refugee by the 1948 war.

Was there any reason for the rocket strike? Possibly. The Israeli unmanned aerial vehicle might have relayed back live pictures not showing children but just some fuzzy figures moving on a rooftop.

How clear the aircraft's picture of Ashraf's rooftop was is going to be the subject of an inquiry, the Israelis have promised. Also, Ashraf's home was close to one of the city's security headquarters.

In June 2007 I had watched - sheltering under large slabs of meat dangling in a butcher's shop - as the building was seized by Hamas forces.

I have seen civilians on the Israeli side die, too, blown to bits in suicide bombings. Eleven dead - including a whole family of six in a Jerusalem side street - bits of body splattered on the walls.

There was a macabre scene in 2001 at a beach side hotel in Netanya. Knives and forks hanging embedded in the high ceiling of a dining room, where 30 elderly men and women had gathered for a festival meal - all dead.

And in the Israeli town of Sderot some two years ago, I met an ambulance driver who had raced to the scene of a rocket attack that flattened a house near the Gaza border.

He found his grandson, one-year-old Osher, lying with his left eye dangling out and his head split open. Doctors saved his life.

In a side street in Sderot there is a small bench, painted with red and blue flowers at the spot where 17-year-old Ella, a talented musician, was walking when a rocket hit and killed her.

I have also met killers - people who have destroyed innocents like Israeli Ella or Palestinian Mahmoud.

They have their explanations. Some months ago, I went with a Palestinian rocket-firing brigade keen to dispatch their weaponry into the heart of an Israeli town (Sderot actually).

Mohammed, 24, (on his first rocket-firing mission) said Israeli men, women and children would one day end up fighters.

"So let's kill them first," he said.

Months later I met him in a Gaza street. He had decided to retire from rocket-firing and return to computer programming.

Hamas' prime minister has an American-educated adviser, who once told me on camera: "Our rockets are not lethal enough yet but one day, God willing, they will be."

I also met two Israeli pilots from the Cobra brigade, their twisted snakes emblazoned on the sides of their one-man helicopters, each bristling with rocket launchers and a machine gun. One, Uri, pulled down his dark-glasses' visor, then whipped out a Hebrew newspaper clipping with photos of a boy and his grandfather.

They died, he said, when the man was picking up the kid from nursery school. Uri was taking off, aiming to kill what he defined as terrorists.

"I always carry these photos with me on a mission," he explained, "to remind me that when I hunt down a terrorist I am protecting people like these."

Did he sleep easy at night? I asked him. There was a long pause. "No," he said, "I sometimes lie awake and wonder, when I saw our target was close to civilians, whether I was right not to fire. Maybe I let him live and tomorrow he will kill more of our civilians."

From neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian fighting men could I detect much empathy for the innocent.

nThis was broadcast on Saturday January 10 2009 on BBC Radio 4. - BBC News


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