A look back at the Muhammad al-Dura affair, 20 years later

While itself not apocalyptic, the Muhammad al-Dura icon fed an apocalyptic jihadi narrative.

Muhammad al-Dura mural 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Muhammad al-Dura mural 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of one of the most disastrous events in the year 2000, an event that cast a long shadow over the unhappy early decades of a troubled new millennium. On September 30, 2000, a Palestinian cameraman clumsily filmed what he claimed was footage of a boy who came under fire and was killed by Israelis. A French-Israeli journalist then edited the brief fragments, cutting the last contradictory scene, and broadcast the accompanying narrative on France2.
The image of Muhammad al-Dura via the narrative that the IDF had targeted him became the global symbol of Palestinian suffering at the hand of Israeli cruelty. It rapidly became an “icon of hatred” that had a greater immediate and long-term effect on the new century than any other such vehicle of incitement.
A cry arose, for some of pain, for some of rage, but for all a clear sign that the Infidel, led by the twin Satans Israel and USA, were making war on Muslims. Indeed, no single event so far has done more to arouse the spirit of jihad against the West than this footage, which, as Bin Laden quickly pointed out in his recruiting video for global jihad, demanded vengeance against al Yahud and their allies. Vengeance justified suicide attacks on civilians (two previously “forbidden” practices).
The sentiment so resonated, that even “conservative” al Azhar had to yield before the sanctification of their combination martyrdom operations. While itself not apocalyptic, the Muhammad al-Dura icon fed an apocalyptic jihadi narrative: to #GenerationCaliphate Israel was the Dajjal (Antichrist).
The West followed suit. Lethal journalists like Robert Fisk quickly affirmed the charge of deliberate murder. Where before such comparisons were considered ugly if not worse, now comparing Israel to the Nazis became common. A prominent French news anchor, speaking for many, declared that al-Dura “erased, replaced the image of the boy in the Warsaw Ghetto.” It was a new, post-modern “replacement narrative.”
Instead of Christians or Muslims replacing Israel as the true Chosen People, it was the former chosen people replacing the Nazis, and the poor Palestinian victim suffering the fate of the Jews. The progressive refrain, “Israel has lost the moral high ground.” Nobel Peace Prize winners, politicians, diplomats, award-winning playwrights and journalists, prominent academics, UN officials, Jews and non-Jews, all joined in the chorus, aligning with the jihadi apocalyptic narrative. Israel was the new Nazi secular Antichrist.
Any effort to resist, for example, to argue that the France2 footage of al-Dura was staged, indeed a cheap fake, showed cruel indifference to Palestinian suffering, “blaming the victim,” undermining a “higher truth.” Israeli journalists like Bet Michaeli insisted, “100% the Israelis killed him,” and Larry Derfner mocked those who objected as conspiracy theorists.
Even James Fallows, who affirmed that the Israelis did not shoot the father and son, could not believe that it was staged, since surely someone would have blown the whistle. Israeli spokespeople spurned anyone who believed such a ridiculous conspiracy. The Kuperwasser Commission’s 2013 study, like so many other attempts to draw attention to the most tragic aspect of the affair, failed, even among most Israeli journalists.
Al-Dura justified terrorist attacks on Israel in the minds of both Muslims and non-Jews, especially Europeans. “What choice do they have?” progressives responded when Palestinians targeted Israel civilians. They were merely resisting, and the violence of their desperate protests – blowing up pizzerias filled with schoolkids and their grandparents in downtown Jerusalem, for example – was taken as “a measure of Israel guilt.”
At the height of the suicide terror campaign, siding with the Palestinians was a “litmus test of liberal credentials.” Suggesting this heinous violence was genocidal aspiration, not state-deprived desperation, was a ticket to cancellation.
When the Western-legacy media spread the meme of the “Jenin massacre” in April 2002, everything the Palestinians had claimed about al-Dura – IDF intentionally murders children – buttressed new and equally dishonest claims of mass executions of hundreds and thousands. For weeks, even after given access to the camp, a credulous legacy media published these claims as news.
ANGRY PROTESTS in the West accused Israel of genocide, and a large plurality of Europeans believed it. “Politicians like Livingstone, Gallaway and Corbyn, pacifist academics like Judith Butler, openly sided with Hamas despite its openly espousing genocide.” As Irwin Cotler noted, Israel is the only country that is at once the object of threats of genocide and accused of committing it.
Intentionally or not, by conveying the lethal al-Dura narrative and its derivatives; by correcting itself only by falling silent about past mistakes; by continuing to trust the voices of those who first made the accusations; by rejecting Israeli objections as propaganda; by promoting the images of Palestinian suffering every time the IDF clashed with jihadis; by not or by belatedly reporting the repeated cases in which Hamas rockets killed Gazan children, nor the genocidal, Nazi-like propaganda of Hamas and the PA, the Western legacy media constituted one of the most potent weapons in the cognitive war “Caliphaters” waged against the West.
It was a matter of faith in the West not to talk about “radical Islam” because it might affirm the jihadi recruiting narrative of a “clash of civilizations.” But that was nothing compared to the way al-Dura footage, and all the subsequent lethal narratives of the Israelis constantly killing innocent Muslims, inflamed that “narrative.”
The icon of al-Dura was the first successful blood libel in the West since the Nazis rode their ecumenical Jew-hatred to mega-death for all in 1930s and ‘40s. Unlike earlier versions, this was spread by a Jew and carried by the professional news media, and its primary impact was on progressive, leftist circles, giving birth to a “new antisemitism” in its 21st-century avatar, eliminationist “anti-Zionism.” Today’s rising tide of Jew-hatred from all directions – Right, Left, Muslim, Christian, secular, knowing and unknowing – started on September 30, 2000.
For some, it still sears their hearts. Others have never heard of it, thanks to a news media that when confronted with its errors about Israel, prefer to drop the story. Whether we know it or not, those of us entering this very grim-looking third decade of the 21st century are the inheritors of this al-Durah-triggered new wave of Jew-hatred and its accompaniments: fake news, conspiracy theories and violence.
While many consider this episode history, it has a particularly sharp meaning in 2020, the year of the first Abrahamic accords. While the libel of al-Dura did terrible damage to both Israel’s reputation and to a morally disoriented West, by far its greatest victim was the Arab and Muslim world, which was driven by its news media’s constant replaying of this horrendous libel into the arms of the suicidal jihadis. For those moderates today, realizing that Israel is not their enemy but potentially an ally in making life better for their people, reconsidering the Muhammad al-Dura affair offers a particularly valuable lead.
As some honest Arab journalists point out, #FakeNews is something of an Arab specialty, and for far too long public opinion has been manipulated by dishonest and malevolent actors masquerading as journalists. In the spirit of self-criticism, reappraising this incident could contribute immensely, both to Arab-Israeli relations and to Arab journalistic integrity. Who knows? Maybe all those Western journalists who think it’s a silly conspiracy theory will learn from their Arab colleagues.
The writer is a historian living in Jerusalem, the author of Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience, and editor of a book on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Paranoid Apocalypse. He is currently working a book on the disastrous opening years of the 21st century: Stupidity Matters: A Medievalist Guide to the 21st Century. He blogs at The Augean Stables, tweets at @richard_landes, and can be reached at [email protected]