Standing beside the F16s they have been flying for 10 straight days, two Israeli Air Force pilots told NBC News that they feel terrible when innocent people are killed in Gaza. But, one said, “it’s part of the job we do.”
The Gaza death toll reached 231 people on Thursday amid a bombardment that has involved a range of forces, from air raids to missiles fired by Israeli ships. Among those killed were 48 children, including four slain as they played football on a Gaza beach on Wednesday. Hamas has fired more than 1,300 rockets into Israel, according to the Israel Defense Forces, injuring at least four people and killing one person.
“I feel terrible, it’s horrifying,” said one commander at Hatzor air base in central Israel. He is a father of four. "The only reason I can go up on the next flight is when the option is my children being shot at," he said. "My children are also running to the shelters when the rockets are being shot."
He added: “We are not trying to hit civilians; we are trying to hit only Hamas infrastructure and the terrorist, but these things happen,” said the commander, whose first name is Dan. Israeli officials asked that the men not use their full names. Dan blamed the conflict on “terrorist groups which are hiding behind a civil population.”
“We are not trigger-happy, we’re not looking to drop our bombs. It is something we need to do, something we have to do. But it is not something we’re looking forward to.”
"It’s very unfortunate and it’s very sad, but it’s part of the job we do," he said when asked about civilian deaths.
Another pilot, Maj. Eyaal, said that job can involve split-second decisions that involve life or death. “I have been stopped from firing on my target five seconds before the launch. You’re about to fire and they say ‘abort, abort.’
At times he can see civilians standing beside rocket launchers and calls off the mission himself, he said.
“I can see the launcher and 30 meters next to the launcher there is a school and there is a hospital and there is a mosque and everything.”
Israel has accused Hamas of hiding artillery in civilian areas, including public buildings, and using the population as a human shield. On Wednesday, the BBC reported the UN Relief and Works agency found 20 rockets hidden in one of its vacant schools in Gaza.
But the Israelis are also being heavily criticized for the death of innocent Palestinians.
“Innocent people are being killed because there are mistakes in the war. In every war it’s been like that since the beginning of the war I think,” Eyaal said. He said that 50 percent of the time he returns to base with his bombs unused.
His commander, Dan, said the eldest of his four children is now 16. He said he hopes his son won’t have to go into the military. But he thinks achieving peace may take longer and that hopefully his son’s children “won’t have to do this anymore.”