Between the Lines: Caught in the Mohammad al-Dura crossfire
For years, pro-Israel media watchdogs have beseeched the government to take a more pro-active approach in refuting 'Pallywood' tactics.
Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski
Seven years after the shooting - or "shooting" - of Mohammad al-Dura, the rhetorical bullets are still flying over an incident viewed on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a lynchpin of the battle between them in the court of global public opinion.
The TV footage from September 30, 2000, showing al-Dura and his father cowering beside a wall on a Gaza street as bullets fly over their heads - one of which apparently kills the Palestinian child - was perhaps the most indelible image to come out of the second intifada, and surely the one that did Israel's public standing the most harm.
Even when it happened, though, questions were raised about the conclusion of the original France 2 news report that Israeli troops were responsible for the shooting. A long-delayed subsequent official IDF investigation of the event concluded that the Israeli soldiers on the scene that day were in no position to fire the bullets that killed al-Dura.
But pro-Israel media-watchdog advocates have gone further, arguing that the footage is a prime example of what has been dubbed "Pallywood" - media manipulation, distortion and outright fraud by the Palestinians (and other Arabs, such as the Reuters photographer caught faking photos during the Second Lebanon War), designed to win the public relations war against Israel.
Several, including France's Philippe Karsenty, have charged that the al-Dura shooting was staged with the collusion of Gaza-based Palestinian cameraman Talal Abu-Rahma, who shot the footage, and veteran France 2 Israel correspondent Charles Enderlin, who edited and presented it.
Karsenty's claims have resulted in his now being sued for libel by France 2 and Enderlin in the French courts. As part of his defense, Karsenty won a petition to the judge hearing the case, demanding that the network finally make public the full, unedited 27-minutes of footage shot by Abu-Rahma at the scene that day.
France 2 has until November 14 to heed the order, and there will no doubt be plenty more to say on this affair as it develops.
But one aspect of the case worth examining now is the decision by Danny Seaman, director of the Israel Government Press Office (GPO), to respond to a request by Karsenty's defenders and provide a letter supporting his position. The letter calls the incident "essentially staged," and describes it as a "blood libel" responsible for "the creation of the Mohammed al-Dura myth."
FOR YEARS, pro-Israel media watchdogs here and abroad have beseeched the government to take a more pro-active approach in refuting "Pallywood" tactics, and have strongly criticized it for not doing so (prominent among them is Boston University professor Richard Landes, whose Web site, http://www.theaugeanstables.com, deals extensively with the al-Dura affair). But the reactions spurred by Seaman's letter illustrate some of the complexities involved when Israeli officials charged with handling the government's hasbara (public diplomacy) efforts try to take a more proactive posture.
As GPO director, Seaman is primarily responsible for accrediting journalists with the official press cards that provide them with valuable access to events and news scenes closed off to the public.
Given the foreign media's extensive use of Palestinian stringers, this creates inevitable friction in determining who gets a GPO card.
Seaman has been diligent in trying to prevent abuses of this privilege by foreign correspondents - much too aggressively so, say some of his critics in the Foreign Press Association.
Ironically, it is Seaman of all people, the first Israeli official to lend support to the al-Dura conspiracy charges, who is now being threatened with legal action by the right-wing advocacy group, the Israel Law Center, for not using his power to revoke the press credentials of Enderlin and Abu-Rahma.
It is questionable, though, at this stage whether the GPO would have any basis in law to do so, and Enderlin is a veteran and influential journalist with many contacts in Paris and Jerusalem. The incident has also exacerbated tensions over both substance and turf between the GPO head and the other government offices responsible for hasbara.
The Foreign Ministry, IDF Spokesman's Office and the Prime Minister's Office have been conspicuously silent on the al-Dura trial in France. Dealing with the international media on a daily basis, they are generally reluctant to directly challenge foreign reporting of Israel unless they have rock-solid evidence of inaccuracy or fakery.
The GPO is officially part of the PMO, and Seaman did consult with its legal adviser before sending the al-Dura letter, although not with its spokespeople. But the GPO has a curious status that accounts at least in part for Seaman's somewhat awkward position in the matter. Although the office's main purpose is to accredit journalists and provide various other services for them (an aspect severely hurt by budget cuts in recent years), the GPO director has also traditionally served as a government spokesman.
Almost all in recent decades were political appointees, and several - Zev Chafets, Yoram Ettinger, Yossi Olmert and Uri Dromi to name a few - were also quite outspoken and occasionally tangled with the press. Seaman, though, is a civil servant, who assumed the job seven years ago, and has no political connection to the Olmert government.
Clarifying the GPO's role with the over-all official hasbara framework is part of a new plan recently formulated by the PMO to reorganize Israel's oft-criticized efforts in public diplomacy. But political complications in seeing the plan implemented mean there will continue to be problems of coordination between the various offices and officials involved.
Should Israeli officials be more aggressive in countering problematic media coverage of issue, or is that a job better handled by non-governmental individuals and organizations who don't have to operate under bureaucratic restraints or deal with the press on a daily basis?
It's a good question - and when it comes to an issue as complex, important, and politically and ideologically charged as the al-Dura affair, a lack of organization and common conceptual approach in the official response becomes especially problematic.
Clarifying the truth behind the death - or "death" - of Mohammed al-Dura may well lie beyond reach, regardless of what develops in the French courts. But clarifying Israel's official position on the matter, should be, must be, attainable.