Palestinian children 390.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On September 3, 2000, a drama took place at the Netzarim junction in the center
of the Gaza Strip. Jamal and Muhammad al-Dura, father and son, were caught in
the crossfire between Israelis and Palestinians. The event ended with the
11-year-old boy lying in the road, his head in his father’s lap. The incident
was recorded by Tallal Abu Rahman, a cameraman for French television station
France 2. He filmed 27 minutes of footage, which were edited into a two-minute
news item. That evening, reporter Charles Enderlin announced on the France 2
news broadcast: “The child is dead.” The report was picked up by news
stations around the world.
The real-time reporting of al-Dura’s death was
one of the formative events of the second intifada. This was firstly because it
took place right at the beginning of the intifada, but beyond that, the power of
the image was so great that it generated a long-term, ongoing effect; even
today, al-Dura is the most famous name of the second intifada. Daniel Pearl’s
abductors beheaded him on camera in front of the picture of al-Dura, and
Palestinian organizations turned him into a symbol, which they put to good use
at the Durban Conference in 2001.
Israel had difficulty contending with
the harsh images, and the lack of organization in Israel’s public diplomacy
network in the early days of the intifada was critical. Only five days after the
initial report was broadcast, after other related reports and commentaries, did
Maj.-Gen. Giora Eiland, then head of the IDF Operations Directorate, take
responsibility on behalf of the State of Israel and express his regret at the
From the outset, Maj.-Gen. Yom Tov Samia, head of the Southern
Command, believed al-Dura’s death was not caused by Israeli fire. He appointed a
commission of inquiry that raised serious doubts regarding the IDF’s
responsibility for the event. However, he was barely allowed to present his
position in the media. The IDF and security forces were preoccupied with the
intifada and were unable to invest effort in a media war over an incident that
seemed to be over. The army also relied on the Foreign Ministry’s opinion that
it was better not to revisit the al-Dura affair.
For the next decade, two
different approaches were taken to the issue. The first was led by private
individuals such as Philippe Karsenty from France, Nahum Shahaf from Israel,
Richard Landes from the USA and, most recently, Dr. Yehuda David from Israel,
with the assistance of a number of public officials in the Prime Minister’s
Office and the IDF. They were opposed by a powerful coalition comprising members
of the Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office and the IDF, which
contended that drawing attention to the event would only harm Israel.
my doctoral dissertation, I examined the way in which Israel’s public diplomacy
functioned from the beginning of the second intifada. I did not arrive at a
conclusive answer to the question of who killed Muhammad al-Dura, but I
certainly discovered that the whatever that answer was, it wouldn’t be as
clear-cut as it appeared in October 2000.
Recently, Dr. Yehuda David won
an important legal battle on this matter. David and al-Dura’s father
Jamal fought it out in the courtrooms of France. David claimed that the
father’s wounds were in fact a prior injury, which David had treated in the
mid-1990s when he was a doctor at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer. The
father attempted to attribute the wounds to the event at the Netzarim junction.
The French Supreme Court ultimately determined that David was not lying and that
his testimony was reliable.
However, the subsequent rejoicing on the part
of the government and other factors in Israel are misleading. It is not the
al-Dura affair that has come to an end, but a secondary matter, important in and
of itself. It may be representative of the entire incident and it certainly
damages the France 2 TV channel. This is an important beginning, but it does not
put an end to the debate over who killed Muhammad al-Dura.
Last week I
asked the Prime Minister’s Office to re-open the al-Dura case. This might appear
problematic since it would mean reopening a public debate that many feel should
be played down. I disagree. The al-Dura case has already received
unprecedented coverage. Its dimensions cannot be exaggerated. If possible,
Israel must finally reach a clear verdict regarding the death of this
child. There is evidence, some of it on video, and there is a strong
basis for making the case that it was actually the Palestinian police who were
shooting indiscriminately at the junction at the time who were responsible. It
is true that the scene of the event has been dismantled and cannot be
reconstructed, but it is still possible to hold a thorough investigation of the
incident, as did Yom Tov Samia at the time.
I believe that shedding doubt
on the “original story” will constitute an important achievement for Israel in
the media-public diplomacy arena. The media played an important role in shaping
the conflict in the eyes of public opinion and continues to do so. In the
episode under consideration, the media was a full partner in determining its
public frame. The intifada taught us that even if you win in the military arena,
you may lose the public battle in the media. That is why the intifada is
considered “the war of perceptions.”
If a serious, fundamental
investigation reveals that what was considered to be the truth at the time does
not stand up to the test of credibility today, the reliability of the entire
seminal story of the al-Aksa intifada will be called into question. Israel has
already been held responsible for al-Dura’s death, so there’s nothing to lose. I
believe that today there are good grounds to reopen the case without fear. The
potential benefit outweighs the possible damage.The writer is a member
of Knesset for Kadima and holds a PhD in political science and communications
from Bar-Ilan University.
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