Image: Israeli Air force pilot Capt. Orr
Ariel Schalit  /  AP
Capt. Orr walks past an Apache Longbow attack helicopter at Ramon Air Force Base in Israel's southern Negev Desert on Tuesday.
updated 1/13/2009 3:15:15 PM ET 2009-01-13T20:15:15

Apache helicopter pilot Capt. Orr, who has flown dozens of combat missions over Gaza the past few weeks, on Tuesday said he felt sorry for civilian casualties and had aborted missions to avoid them.

He and his fellow Israeli fighter pilots are responsible for the vast majority of damage and casualties in Gaza, since Israel launched its offensive on Dec. 27 to stop the near-daily rocket fire against southern Israeli towns and cities.

But they are also the most effective weapon in Israel's arsenal against Hamas militants in Gaza.

Orr, 25, felt that aborting some of his targets for fear of harming civilians were among his proudest achievements.

"The ones I remember are when I have locked in on a target and I fire and then at the last second I see a child in my cross hairs and I divert the missile," he said. "That leaves a mark."

More than 900 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting. Palestinian hospital officials say half of them are civilians. Israeli defense officials acknowledge the military has loosened its rules of engagement during the current round of fighting to prevent the killing or capture of soldiers. Israel claims that Hamas fighters have taken off their uniforms and are now using schools, mosques and crowded residential areas for cover, making it harder to keep civilians out of harm's way.

But the images of maimed or bloodied Palestinian civilians, including women and children, has increased the criticism of Israel's wartime tactics. The United Nations has called for an investigation into the growing civilian casualties in Gaza.

Orr, for his part, said he does his utmost to avoid noncombatants.

"We work very hard to keep civilian casualties as low as possible," he said. "Each missile we shoot is pinpointed to the very meter we want it to go."

Identity protected
The pilot cannot reveal his full name and wears a visor on his helmet to conceal his face because of strict military regulations. He is barred from discussing any operational details, or the capabilities of his Apache helicopter. Throughout his interview with the Associated Press he was accompanied by a military minder, who made sure he did not disclose confidential information. He was also instructed not to answer sensitive questions, such as if he had ever personally fired a missile that had harmed civilians.

What he would say is that these days his job was mostly to provide air cover for Israeli troops battling Gaza militants on the ground. Thirteen Israelis have been killed since the fighting began, including 10 soldiers.

At his base in the Negev desert, clad in a jumper suit with an Israeli flag patch, he said he had little time for reflection given his heavy work load, which often includes multiple three-hour-long air raids a day. Only at the end of a long day, did he allow himself to think about it.

"We're aware that in this war, besides a lot of enemies that are being harmed, there are also a few uninvolved civilians in Gaza that are being harmed," he said. "We're very sorry for it, not only me as the soldier in the aircraft, but also all the people in the country."

He said he has seen Hamas use civilians as its human shields, and he has held his fire in such cases. But he added that all those who accused Israel of targeting civilians were mistaken and misled by what they saw on TV. He personally has called off many airstrikes, even at the risk of letting a rocket-launcher get away, for fear of harming an innocent woman or a child. He said by doing so, he was following both his military orders and his own conscience.

Even though his dramatic sorties over Gaza are the culmination of his grueling seven years of training, Orr said he would have preferred to keep practicing.

"I'd rather we didn't have to do it. I'd prefer that there was no war," he said. "We've had enough wars."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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