Last week, a surprising decision handed down by the French Court of Appeals shed rare light on how both news and myths are made in this part of the world.
On September 30, 2000, two days after prime minister Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount, a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Muhammad al-Dura, was filmed cowering with his father, Jalal, at the Gaza Strip's Netzarim junction during an apparent gun battle between Palestinians and IDF troops.
The video, taken by Palestinian cameraman and France 2 stringer Talal Abu Rahma, shows al-Dura hiding, and then cuts to footage of him lying, apparently dead, in the arms of his distraught father. Although he was not in Gaza that day, France 2's correspondent Charles Enderlin (a French Jew who became an Israeli citizen some 20 years ago) added a voice-over narration, ascribing the boy's death to "gunfire from the direction of the Israeli positions," and released his report to the world.
The effect of the image of wounded father and murdered son, a kind of modern pieta taken as a potent symbol of Israeli brutality, was electrifying. Al-Dura's death, a cause celebre of the second intifada, provoked worldwide outrage. Streets, public squares, and schools in Muslim cities bore his name. He was featured on a Tunisian stamp, a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, and an al-Qaida recruitment video. "In killing this boy the Israelis killed every child in the world," Osama bin Laden said. In June 2005, Wafa Samir al-Bis, an aspiring 21-year-old "martyr," after being apprehended by Israeli guards at the Erez checkpoint in Gaza with 20 pounds of explosives in her underwear, said that she intended to carry out a suicide attack to retaliate for al-Dura's death.
BUT THE video report - 55 seconds of footage out of some 18 minutes that were shown in court - also aroused doubts. It does not show the boy being killed. No bullets are seen hitting the alleged victims. No blood is visible on their clothes, on the wall, or on the ground. It never shows Israeli soldiers aiming at the al-Duras. More than a dozen cameramen filmed the junction that day. Reuters, AP, and France-2 outtakes show apparently staged scenes and faked ambulance runs.
The IDF, which initially apologized for the death of al-Dura, concluded that the boy could not have been hit by Israeli bullets. Citing the findings of the army's probe into the incident, ordered by then-OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yom Tov Samia, the deputy commander of the IDF Spokesman's Office, Col. Shlomi Am-Shalom wrote, "we can rule out with the greatest certainty the possibility that the gunfire that apparently harmed the boy and his father was fired by IDF soldiers."
France 2 stuck to its story. On October 3, 2000, testifying under oath before the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, Talal Abu Rahmeh alleged that Israeli soldiers had intentionally murdered the boy. The station also initiated libel suits against several writers and Web sites who challenged the veracity of its story.
One of the defendants was Philippe Karsenty, director of the Media-Ratings watchdog site, who had called the report "a hoax." France 2 won three out of four judgments, including against Karsenty, who was convicted of libel in 2006. Last week, to bring matters around full circle, the appellate court overturned that decision.
THE RECENT verdict, besides usefully underscoring the right to criticize the press and its sometimes dangerously hasty product, also calls much-needed attention to the ways in which world opinion is shaped by perceptions that are themselves shaped by a not infallible media. The al-Dura affair, like the myth of a massacre in Jenin in April 2002, has been so fervently seized by those who seek confirmation for their belief in Israeli culpability, that it is likely never to be erased from international consciousness. It by now stands well beyond the reach of refutation.
That fact ought to give pause to Israeli officials, like Israeli ambassador to Paris Danny Sheck, who criticized Karsenty for so doggedly pursuing the matter. As for the rest of us, the sordid affair teaches a valuable lesson about the dangerous enthusiasms, especially in Muslim societies, and especially among those who claim to speak for an awakened conscience, for modern myths of Jewish evil.