Muhammad al-Dura 224.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Last month, a French court heard an appeals case whose forthcoming verdict will have far-reaching ramifications for all who value truth and accuracy in Middle East news reporting. The case involves Philippe Karsenty, a French journalist and media commentator, who was found guilty of defamation after he called for the firing of two France 2 Television journalists responsible for the September 30, 2000, news report on the alleged killing of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Muhammad al-Dura, by the IDF.
It has been seven years since France 2 Television broadcast the excruciating footage of Muhammad and his father, Jamal, crouching in terror behind a barrel at Gaza's Netzarim junction while, according to the report, under relentless fire from IDF soldiers. The 59-second clip, which ends with the boy apparently shot dead, was presented around the world as an unambiguous case of Israeli savagery.
The tape fanned the flames of what became known as the second intifada. The boy Muhammad was the iconic martyr, his name and face gracing streets, parks and postage stamps across the Arab world. His memory was invoked by Osama bin Laden in a jihadist screed against America, and in the ghastly video of the beheading of American Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl.
Shortly following the al-Dura incident, however, a series of inquiries cast grave doubt on the accuracy of the original France 2 report. The official IDF investigation concluded that, based on the position of IDF forces vis-Ã -vis al-Duras, it was highly improbable, if not impossible, that an Israeli bullet hit the boy. Research by The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic and Commentary magazine concurred. Then a German documentary revealed inconsistencies and probable manipulations in the account of France 2's lone journalist on the scene that day, Palestinian cameraman Talal Abu Rahmeh.
And yet France 2 refused to release Abu Rahmeh's full 27 minutes of raw footage. It did, however, agree to let three prominent French journalists view the footage. All three concluded that it comprised 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.
Subsequently, alleging gross malfeasance, Karsenty called for the firings of Enderlin and France 2 News Director Arlette Chabot. But France 2 stood defiant, suing Karsenty for defamation.
The defamation trial passed almost unnoticed in Israel, to the apparent detriment of Karsenty's case. In his ruling in favor of France 2, Judge JoÃ«l Boyer five times cited the absence of any official Israeli support for Karsenty's claims as indication of their speciousness.
Israel's decision to stay on the sidelines was unfortunate because the truth always matters. The al-Dura incident wasn't the only media report to inflame passions against Israel in recent years, but it was the one with the highest profile. Moreover, if, as Karsenty and others have claimed persuasively, the al-Dura incident is part of the insidious trend in which Western media outlets allow themselves to be manipulated by dishonest and politically motivated sources (recall the Jenin "massacre" that never was, or the doctored Reuters photos from Israel's war against Hizbullah in 2006), then France 2 must be held accountable.
It is important to note that the al-Dura news report profoundly influenced Western public opinion. When I served as minister of Diaspora affairs from 2003 to 2005, I traveled frequently to North American college campuses. I heard first hand how Muhammad al-Dura had shaped the perceptions of young people just beginning to follow events in the Middle East. For many Jewish students, the incident was a stain of dishonor that called into question their support for Israel. For anti-Israel students, the story reaffirmed their sense of Zionism's innately "racist" nature and became a tool for recruiting campus peers to the cause.
To its credit, Israel has come to recognize that it must play an active role in uncovering the truth. The IDF recently sent a letter to France 2 demanding the release of Abu Rahmeh's 27 minutes of raw footage, asserting the implausibility of IDF guilt for the death of Muhammad al-Dura, and raising the possibility that the entire affair may have been staged.
Tragically, there is no way to repair the damage inflicted on Israel's international image by the France 2 report, much less restore the Israeli and Jewish victims whose lives were exacted as vengeance. It is possible, however, to deter slanderous news reporting - and the violence that often accompanies it - by setting a precedent for media accountability via the handover of Abu Rahmeh's full 27 minutes of raw footage. Encouragingly, the judge presiding over Karsenty's appeal has now requested the tapes. France 2 must make a full public disclosure. If there is nothing to hide, why should it refuse?
Natan Sharansky is chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. This article was first published in The Wall Street Journal.