Page last updated at 12:16 GMT, Saturday, 10 January 2009

The unmeasurable price of war

By Paul Martin
BBC News

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

Fire in Gaza City following Israeli military operations
The Israeli attack on Gaza began on 27 December 2008

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 in the deserted side streets. 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.

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

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.

A year ago he lost one son, my marvellous and irrepressible cameraman Ahmed, in a car crash. And now his youngest boy, Mahmoud.

Macabre scene

Was there any reason for the rocket strike?

Possibly. The Israeli unmanned aerial vehicle may 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.

Map of the Gaza Strip and Israel

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 beachside 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 now dead.

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
Uri, Israeli pilot
And in the Israeli town of Sderot over 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 own grandson, one-year-old Osher, lying with his left eye dangling out and his head split open. Doctors saved his life.

Then 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.

Compulsion to kill

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 itself actually).

Twenty-four-year-old Mohammed (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.

Israeli police in Sderot inspect damage after a rocket was fired from the Gaza Strip
Missiles have exploded near the homes of 90% of Sderot's residents

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

Hamas's 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 pilot, 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 this man was picking up this kid from the 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.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 10 January, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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