Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Unpeaceful Rest of Mohammed Al-Dura

from the Columbia Journalism Review: The Unpeaceful Rest of Mohammed Al-Dura

By Gal Beckerman

No single event was responsible for igniting the Second Intifada, which began seven years ago and effectively killed off the “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians. Or, rather, there are specific causes for why violence erupted in the occupied Palestinian territories and in the cafes and markets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but the reasons depend more on who you’re talking to than on what actually happened—either it was Ariel Sharon’s inflammatory visit to the Temple Mount or Yasser Arafat’s scheming that provided the first push.

Regardless, once the killing began there was one media event that, indisputably and instantaneously, fanned the flames and primed the Palestinian people and the wider Arab world for confrontation: the televised death of twelve-year-old Mohammed al-Dura.

The fifty-nine seconds of edited footage, aired on France 2, was repeated thousands of times on September 30, 2000 and in the days and weeks that followed. A young boy and his father at the Netzarim crossing in the Gaza strip are caught in the crossfire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian police and gunmen. The child cowers behind his father who tries to protect him with his arm — a still image that has been reproduced over and over again on posters and postage stamps - and then in the last series of frames he is slumped over, dead. Al-Dura became the Palestinian martyr, a symbol of Israel’s ruthlessness, its disregard for innocent life, the life of a defenseless boy.

The Israeli Army initially took responsibility for the death. But in the years since, a cottage industry of both conspiracy theorists and honest researchers have questioned whether al-Dura really was killed by an Israeli bullet or even - and this, until recently, was mostly the provenance of conspiracy theorists - the whole event was staged as Palestinian propaganda (or “Pallywood,” as one obsessive has described it). James Fallows, the respected correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, had the most thorough examination of all sides in a June 2003 article. The conclusion he came to, as he reiterated on his blog yesterday, was this:

I ended up arguing in my article that the ‘official’ version of the event could not be true. Based on the known locations of the boy, his father, the Israeli Defense Force troops in the area, and various barriers, walls, and other impediments, the IDF soldiers simply could not have shot the child in the way most news accounts said they had done…. I became fully convinced by the negative case (IDF was innocent). But I did not think there was enough evidence for the even more damning positive indictment (person or persons unknown staged a fake death — or perhaps even a real death, for ‘blood libel’ purposes).

Fallows felt the need to remind readers of his conclusion because there has lately been a flurry of news surrounding the al-Dura case. As Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet political prisoner and Israeli politician, pointed out in a Wall Street Journal op-ed yesterday, French courts ruled last year in favor of France 2 in a defamation suit that it had initiated against Philippe Karsenty, a self-proclaimed media watchdog. Karsenty had called for the firing of the channel’s Jerusalem bureau chief and its news director for allegedly covering up the true story behind the al-Dura footage. France 2 won it’s case and the courts ordered Karsenty to pay a fine for insulting the two journalists with his accusations. Last month, Karsenty appealed the ruling, and the decision on the appeal is pending. Sharansky was writing as a way of pressing the Israeli government, which had been reluctant to step into the fray over the past seven years, to make a definitive statement on what really happened on September 30, 2000.

France 2 itself is largely to blame for the fact that this controversy refuses to die. The initial news report on al-Dura’s shooting was based on video shot by a sole Palestinian cameraman, Talal Abu Rahmeh. He collected twenty-seven minutes of raw footage that was edited down to the infamous fifty-nine seconds. Though numerous legitimate researchers have demanded to see the unedited video, France 2 has consistently refused. The one time it did air the additional twenty-seven minutes for a panel of three French journalists, this jury concluded, according to Sharansky, that full footage included “blatantly staged scenes of Palestinians being shot by Israeli forces, and that France 2’s Jerusalem Bureau Chief Charles Enderlin had lied to conceal that fact.”

Possibly in response to Sharansky’s op-ed, the Israeli government, through the director of its press office, announced today that it too had come to the conclusion that, “the events of that day were essentially staged by the network’s cameraman in Gaza, Mr. Tilal Abu-Rehama.”

The story might be settled soon, though. As part of Karsenty’s appeal, judges in the appeals court last week ordered France 2 to show them the full twenty-seven-minutes of footage in November.

This is good news, if only to clear up an episode that has inflamed passions on both sides. Israel may be moving too fast by asserting that the killing was staged. But it is telling, as Fallows points out, that those trying to prove foul play “seem more fervent about turning up all available evidence and getting to the bottom of things than their antagonists do,” though he does add that he’s “skeptical that large-scale conspiracies can be pulled off — and kept secret for seven years, which is how long it has been since the original event.”

I tend to trust Fallows in this. I imagine the tapes will probably show that the Israeli soldiers did not kill the boy, and that the cause of his death was either unclear or the result of a Palestinian bullet. Either way, it should be pretty obvious that when you’re dealing with such murkiness, the best thing to do is throw as much light as possible on the story. It just seems strange that it has taken two court cases to force France 2 to do just that.

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