Yesterday I heard Prof. Richard Landes of Boston University speak at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs about the Muhammad Al Dura case. He didn’t give the basic facts, which he assumed his audience knew, but, rather, provided an unsettling and important perspective on the case.
Before I share what he said , let me quickly review the most essential facts. (You can see more at: http://www.honestreporting.com/a/alDura.asp .)
In September 2000, at the beginning of the Second Intifada, there was a gun battle between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians at Netzarim junction in Gaza. Talal Abu Rahma, a Palestinian, working as a cameraman for France 2 television, produced film footage that purported to show a 12 year old Palestinian boy, Muhammad Al Dura, deliberately killed by Israelis as he cowered behind his father. The image is familiar world-wide.
Charles Enderlin, Jerusalem bureau chief for France 2, and an enormously well-respected journalist in France, ran with the story, saying that it showed the murder by Israelis of this boy. There was roughly one minute of footage shown, although there were claims that considerable additional footage existed. The story was picked up by other outlets and broadcast widely.
The cameraman, Abu Rahma, gave interviews detailing what he saw, and the story was picked up in print media, as well; several awards were conferred upon him for this work.
There was a preliminary denial by the IDF, followed by a rushed investigation and expressions of regret coupled with admissions that someone in the IDF might have accidentally shot the boy.
It took, literally, years before a serious critique of what actually happened with the Al Dura boy emerged. In March 2002, German filmmaker Esther Schapira released a film claiming that the Israelis could not have killed him. This was followed in July by the release of a book by Israeli journalist Amnon Lord, Who Killed Muhammad Al Dura, that maintained his murder had been staged by the Palestinians. Credence was added to this position when, in June 2003, James Fallow wrote in the prestigious journal, the Atlantic Monthly, that the Israelis could not have done it.
This conclusion was based on an investigation involving such matters as the angle of the bullets being shot by the Israelis and where the boy was hiding. There were glaring inconsistencies that were ultimately uncovered as well: there was no footage of the boy actually being shot — he is just shown first alive and then dead; there is no blood where there should have been; footage that Enderlin claims was cut because it was too gruesome to view turned out not to exist.
In November 2004, Philippe Karsenty , who runs a website, Media Ratings, that serves as a watchdog for misrepresentations and bias in French journalism, called for Enderlin’s resignation.
In 2005, Landes himself coined the term "Pallywood," maintaining that the Palestinian practice of staging events was fairly common, e.g., during gun battles, ambulances rush in and carry out on stretchers people who are not really wounded. He saw the Al Dura case as simply the most blatant instance of this practice.
Enderlin, in a decision that would ultimately undo his career, moved to sue Karsenty for defamation. The trial took place in September 2006, with France 2 acting on behalf of Enderlin. A month later the court found against Karsenty.
Karsenty appealed. In September 2007, for the very first time, the IDF requested the full raw footage of the incident. Almost immediately a judge ordered the footage to be viewed in open court. This was a stunning reversal of a judicial attitude that was totally supportive of Enderlin the first time around.
The final decision will come at the end of February , and at this point it is exceedingly unlikely that the court will find for Enderlin and France 2 again.
So what is the significance of this blood libel, and its repercussions?
1) It had a huge effect in the Arab world. Muhammad Al Dura became the poster boy for Arab terrorism and fanaticism, with even Al Qaida utilizing the image. Al Dura’s "murder" at the hands of Israelis served as a rallying cry, further radicalizing the Arab world. Moderates, weak to begin with, were further sidelined, as Israel was compared to the Nazis and notions of dealing with the Jewish state were rejected.
2) Unsettlingly, it was picked up largely uncritically by Western media, who seemed all too eager to believe this. Prof. Landes refers to this as an "Emperor’s New Clothes" syndrome: Those few who charged that the evidence was not valid were told to keep quiet. The case became a centerpiece of the racist Durban conference in 2000.
3) Most distressingly, there was not a strong and immediate defense from Israel. Had an adequate investigation been done quickly, the libel that was being broadcast would have been debunked. Instead, there was a rush to assume there was likely some Israeli culpability (although not deliberate murder) and thus the policy was to keep quiet. It was thought that raising the issue would simply call further world attention to it.
This speaks to a broader Jewish/Israeli pathology : the tendency to assume guilt when charged. Particularly is this so on the left. It is a running theme that affects both how the world sees us and our ability to state our own case decisively in the media.