Rattling the Cage: Get real about Muhammad al-Dura

All the conspiracy theories flying around the right-wing Jewish cyberspace are nothing but Arab-bashing nonsense.

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
If I thought Jerusalem Post readers were being exposed to a full debate about the Muhammad al-Dura affair, I wouldn't feel the need now to go into the specifics of why I think it's ludicrous and morally blind to claim that the Palestinian boy's killing was a "hoax," a staged event. If there were other people writing in English against the hoax theores, I would rest my case with my column ("Al-Dura and the conspiracy freaks," May 29), and not react to the rebuttals by Philippe Karsenty and Richard Landes ("Conspiracy theories and Al-Dura," June 12), Jonathan Rosenblum ("For once, the good guys win," June 13), and a couple of hundred Talkbackers. But the debate on al-Dura, at least in English, is completely one-sided. The Web is swamped with right-wing Jewish writers continually piling up the "evidence" for their conspiracy theories, while all the prominent, disinterested investigative journalists who waved off that idea - even while disputing the original story that the IDF killed the boy - have moved on to other things. So since no other writer I know of is still busy taking up the cause of reason and decency in this unrelenting, supremely charged Israeli-Arab issue, I guess I'll have one more try. FIRST OF all, let me restate my basic point of view. I think it was probably Palestinian gunmen, not Israeli soldiers as first believed, who shot al-Dura to death and wounded his father, Jamal, at Gaza's Netzarim Junction on September 30, 2000. I never believed that Israeli soldiers deliberately, with malice aforethought, shot a cowering boy and a father pleading for mercy, which is how the Islamic world and the international Left typically portrayed the killing. As I wrote: "Israel and the Jewish world are right to be appalled at how the Palestinians and the Arab world distorted and exploited al-Dura's death as grotesquely as they did. They took what was at worst an accidental IDF shooting and turned it into a mind-shattering act of Israeli sadism." In that column, I didn't make any judgments on the original reporting by France-2 TV correspondent Charles Enderlin and cameraman Talal Abu Rahme, or on their handling of the challenges to their story afterward, except to say it was absurd to claim they cooked the whole thing up. (I was writing in reaction to Karsenty's May 21 acquittal on appeal of the libel charges filed against him in France by Enderlin and France-2 TV.) NOW, THOUGH, I think it's fair to say that Abu Rahme - the only cameraman who filmed the shooting - made extremely rash, hot-headed accusations against the Israeli soldiers involved, which damages his reliability and that of his assertions to Enderlin that the IDF had positively shot al-Dura, which is what launched the story in the first place. As for Enderlin, he has been accused of shoddy reporting, stonewalling and even lying not only by the conspiracy theorists, but by some of those prominent, disinterested investigators who nevertheless dismiss the idea of a hoax. After speaking by phone with him, I don't say he stonewalled or lied. He has reasonable answers to the accusations against him, and he still believes that what he reported and what Abu Rahme told him - that Muhammad and Jamal al-Dura were shot by Israeli soldiers - was accurate. He even has a reasonable answer to what seems the most damning accusation against him - that since there is no raw footage of Muhammad clearly dying, Enderlin had to have been lying all those years when he said he'd edited the boy's "death throes" out of the broadcast because they were "too unbearable" to watch. In response to my questions, Enderlin stands by his statement that the death throes can be seen in the raw footage. Evidently, he is referring to the final seconds of film that show the prone Muhammad raising his arm a little, then gradually drooping back down to a prone position. "The French term I used [translated as 'death throes'] was 'agonie,' which means the moments preceding death, not 'agony' as in the English term. We showed the tape to a coroner in France, and he said it was absolutely consistent with the moments just before death," said Enderlin. I DO, however, make one criticism of the veteran journalist. In his broadcast, he shouldn't have stated that the al-Duras were "targeted" by IDF soldiers. Instead, he should have allowed that they might have been shot either by the Israeli or Palestinian side. At first, his narration makes it clear that there were bullets flying from both directions. He even reported that the Palestinians started the shooting: "The Palestinians open up with live fire and the Israelis shoot back. Ambulance drivers, journalists and passersby are caught in between." That's no Israel-bashing hatchet job; that sounds like impartial reporting. The problem is what Enderlin says right afterward: "Jamal [al-Dura] and his son Muhammad are targeted by fire from the Israeli position. A new burst of shots - Muhammad is dead and the father is seriously wounded." After describing a scene of crossfire between Israelis and Palestinians, Enderlin jumped to the conclusion, based on what Abu Rahme filmed and told him from Gaza, that it was the Israeli side that shot the al-Duras. Many other international reporters, however, were more cautious. "Print outlets were generally careful to say that Muhammad al-Dura was killed in 'the crossfire' or 'an exchange of fire' between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians," noted James Fallows in his June 2003 Atlantic Monthly article on the controversy. Whatever one believes about the al-Dura case, the critical sentence in Enderlin's story represented a rush to judgment. BUT LET'S have a little sense of proportion. Even if Enderlin had reported that it wasn't clear which side killed Muhammad al-Dura, the boy still would have become the icon of the intifada. His father was blaming the Israelis, all the Palestinians were blaming the Israelis - the change of a phrase in Enderlin's report wouldn't have made any difference to them or the rest of the Islamic world. And to cite the images of Muhammad al-Dura as having ignited the intifada is likewise stretching things way too far. The pictures of the al-Dura killing definitely threw a lot of fuel on the flames, but the intifada had been ignited the previous day when six or seven Palestinian rioters were killed by Israeli police on the Temple Mount, following the riot there the day before in response to Ariel Sharon's visit. By the time al-Dura was killed and Enderlin's report aired, the rioting had spread from the Temple Mount to the rest of Arab Jerusalem, to the West Bank, and to Gaza. The Palestinians were already calling it the "al-Aksa intifada." On the day al-Dura was killed, 10 other Palestinians were killed as well, the New York Times reported. If that poor boy hadn't become the intifada's inspirational symbol, some other Palestinian victim would have been found. Blaming the intifada on the tale of Muhammad al-Dura is like blaming settler vigilantism on the tale of Shalhevet Pass, the Hebron infant killed by a Palestinian sniper. Martyrs don't create the bloodshed - bloodshed creates the martyrs. TO GO back to the question of who shot the al-Duras, the reason I figure it was not Israeli soldiers is because that was the finding not only of the IDF probe, but also of Fallows and three other highly respected, disinterested journalists. They include Esther Schapira, a German documentary filmmaker; Denis Jeambar, editor of the French news magazine L'Expresse; and French documentary filmmaker Daniel Leconte. Add to this list Haifa University communications Prof. Gabriel Weimann, whose students in a class he taught at the Israel Military Academy also investigated the shooting. The key finding by these investigators was that the al-Duras, by crouching behind an impenetrable concrete cylinder, were out of the line of fire from the IDF outpost at Netzarim Junction. At the same time, the father and son were in the line of fire of Palestinian gunmen. This conclusion, reached by Fallows, Schapira, Jeambar, Leconte and Weimann, is the decisive reason why I believe the al-Duras were shot accidentally by Palestinians, not by the IDF. Furthermore, that each of these investigators also dismissed the possibility that the shooting was "staged" - I think that alone is reason enough to brush aside the idea that Abu Rahme, the al-Duras and a cast of helpers pulled off a colossal hoax to blacken Israel's name by faking the death of a 12-year-old boy. As far as I know, there is not one impartial observer, someone unconnected to the reflexively pro-Israel/anti-Arab media, who believes the al-Dura killing was staged. While one of the conspiracy theorists, Luc Rozenzweig, is a former editor of Le Monde, he became a contributor to Metula News Agency (MENA), a French Jewish Web site that's been one of the chief disseminators of hoax "evidence." YET THE affiliations and agendas of the investigators are only part of why I know, about as well as I can know anything, that Jamal al-Dura was really wounded that day in Gaza, that Muhammad al-Dura was really killed, and that all the conspiracy theories flying around the right-wing Jewish cyberspace are nothing but Arab-bashing nonsense. I start with the basic facts. The father and son were at Netzarim Junction on the third day of the intifada; there was real shooting going on there between Palestinians and IDF soldiers. In the footage (which can be viewed on YouTube), you see bullets hitting the wall a foot or so from where the al-Duras were crouched. There is a blood stain on Muhammad's midsection after he is hit. That's staged? Boston University medieval history Prof. Richard Landes's explanation for the bullets hitting the wall is that a "marksman" probably was brought in on the hoax. Physicist Nahum Shahaf, who pioneered the field of al-Dura conspiracy theory after cutting his teeth on the Rabin assassination, explains the blood stain as a "red cloth" that was concealed in the boy's shirt and fell out on cue, giving the appearance on camera of blood. Dear God. People really believe this stuff. ANOTHER PLAIN and simple reason why the hoax theory is bunk came to mind from reading a quote from Enderlin, which reminded me of the kind of numbers of people who, after the shooting, were around Muhammad's corpse and/or his father. How many people had to have been in on this conspiracy? How many people must still be hiding this explosive secret? Let's see: The doctors at Gaza's Shifa Hospital who pronounced Muhammad dead of multiple gunshot wounds, and the doctors, nurses and other staffers who treated Jamal for what the hospital said were also multiple gunshot wounds; The Jordanian ambassador to Israel, who brought Jamal from Gaza to Amman to be treated at a military hospital; The doctors, nurses and other staffers at the Amman hospital, where Jamal stayed for four months; The bystanders around the wall where the al-Duras were shot; The al-Dura family. AND THESE are just the people who had first-hand knowledge of the "truth" - that Muhammad al-Dura was still alive and his father unharmed, or, in the alternative theory, that Muhammad had been shot deliberately by Palestinians determined to produce an intifada "poster boy." But just think: Aside from the al-Dura family, the staffs of the two hospitals, the Jordanian ambassador and who knows which other people, how many of all these co-conspirators' family members, friends and acquaintances must also know about the great hoax? And how many more people did they tell? And so on. A story like that would be kind of hard to keep under wraps. So how has this priceless information escaped the Shin Bet and the rest of official Israel? How has this historic scoop evaded all the news media in the Middle East and beyond? And where is Barry Chamish when we need him? Finally, you have to ask: Even if this really were the Twilight Zone and such a hoax could have been pulled off, why would Talal Abu Rahme et al. stage a Palestinian boy's death when 1) they couldn't have known in advance the kind of reaction it would get, and 2) Abu Rahme and other Palestinian cameramen had already filmed literally thousands of Palestinians - children and adults - actually being wounded or killed in clashes with the IDF? This is the problem with Landes's popular "Pallywood" concept: Despite his claims, the Palestinians don't need to stage scenes of death and suffering; they've got hours upon hours upon hours of the real thing, and they get fresh material just about every day. HOWEVER, I know that Jeambar, Leconte and some other level-headed observers of the al-Dura case say that in the raw footage, they've identified scenes of Palestinian youths, cameramen and ambulance drivers staging injuries and evacuations. (Again, they stress that the brief scenes of the al-Duras cowering from the bullets and finally getting shot don't appear staged to them at all.) Myself, I didn't see the full 27 minutes of raw footage that Jeambar and Leconte (along with hoax theorist Rozenzweig) watched, I only saw the 18 minutes shown in court, along with Landes's 14-minute documentary "Al Durah - The Birth of an Icon," both of which are on YouTube. I must say, I didn't see or hear any stagings, just chaos - stone-throwing, shooting, smoke, fire, tear gas, lots of high-spirited Palestinian boys running, ambulances driving in and out. In the middle of all this, the idea that Talal Abu Rahme, Jamal al-Dura, Muhammad al-Dura and their accomplices are staging a fatal shooting is beyond incredible. Yet to the conspiracy theorists, it's plain as day. For instance, when Abu Rahme holds up two fingers in front of his lens while filming the al-Duras being shot, this is the cameraman making "a take two sign," according to the narrator of Landes's documentary. For another instance, when a group of young Palestinians run past the al-Duras while the father and son remain crouched against the wall, the narrator wonders - over the sound of gunfire - "Were they running away, or clearing the set?" THE AL-DURA conspiracy theories are wild and irrational, but they're also more (or less) than that - they're indecent. To believe that the boy is still alive and that the father was never shot, you have to assume that every Palestinian, from the highest to the lowest, is the biggest liar imaginable, and that when Palestinians work together, they invent hoaxes and cover-ups of inhuman genius and precision. To believe that the bullets never even hit the al-Duras, you have to explain away everything that doesn't fit your theory about the implacably evil nature of Palestinian behavior by saying: Someone's lying, or someone's covering up for a lie. For example, Karsenty and Landes had no difficulty solving the puzzle of how Jamal al-Dura suffered no injuries that day in Gaza, yet an Amman military hospital let him lay there in bed (for four months) faking his recovery for the cameras, and even for King Abdallah's visit. "As for the doctors in the Amman hospital," they wrote, "once this story had 'taken,' who were they to blow the whistle on so powerful and successful a blow against Israel? Like Enderlin, even after realizing it was fake, they couldn't admit it publicly." Karsenty and Landes are actually satisfied with that explanation. Such rigorous detectives. And then if you believe the alternative conspiracy theory - that Palestinians carried out a planned murder of the boy for the sake of propaganda - you not only have to assume Palestinians are naturally satanic liars, you have to assume they're naturally satanic child-killers, too. You have to be convinced that even Muhammad's father, mother and the rest of the al-Dura family are playing along with the boy's assassination. SO ENOUGH already, conspiracy freaks. What you're doing is sickening. And you're not helping Israel's cause, either, you're damaging it. Outside the right-wing Jewish echo chamber, you're making Israel look bad. To anyone else who's interested, there is a very reasonable, decent-minded defense of the IDF's conduct in the al-Dura shooting to be made - and it has been made by people such as James Fallows, Esther Schapira, Denis Jeambar, Daniel Leconte and Gabriel Weimann. What's more, I think their efforts have had an effect; my sense is that journalists in general are no longer convinced that al-Dura was killed by the IDF, and that they've taken a cautionary lesson from this story. ONE LAST thing about conspiracy theories: Years ago I was interviewing someone who believed that the Shin Bet, or Shimon Peres, or both of them together were behind the Rabin assassination. The man pointed up a telltale detail at Kings of Israel (now Rabin) Square shortly after the murder: "There were hundreds of yartzeit candles burning there. Now most homes keep a maximum of one yartzeit candle on hand. It was Saturday night, all the grocery stores were closed, so there was no place to go out and buy so many yartzeit candles. How did they all appear so fast in the square? There's no other explanation except that they were prepared in advance." I was at the square that night after the assassination. I remembered lots of yartzeit candles burning - but my memory was mainly of Hanukka candles. "There are what, 20 Hanukka candles in a box?" I said. "Most families keep a box or two at home. How many people would have had to bring a box of Hanukka candles to the square to light it up like that? Not that many." The guy thought for a moment. "That's an interesting point," he said. "We'll look into it." The al-Dura conspiracy theorists have an endless supply of supposedly telltale details and damning discrepancies, and neither I nor anyone else can explain them all because you'd have to be able to prove what happened at every moment, in every spot, and what was going through every relevant mind, and nobody can do that. But since every major historical event from the Lincoln assassination to the moon landing to 9/11 seems to have legions of conspiracy theorists, and they've all got reams and reams of telltale details and damning discrepancies, that's no reason to take the hoax theories about al-Dura seriously. There's a simple, reasonable explanation for what happened: The boy and his father, who were shielding themselves from the direction of the IDF outpost, got caught in a crossfire. Abu Rahme and Enderlin jumped to the conclusion that they were shot by the Israeli soldiers. The boy became the icon of the intifada, and the story was wildly distorted by the Islamic world to demonize Israel and motivate Palestinians to fight. So there's no need for fabulous hoaxes to explain what happened, especially fabulous hoaxes that demonize the Palestinians. The truth, at least in this case, isn't terribly strange at all. If some people want to prove Muhammad al-Dura is still alive, let them produce him. If some people want to prove that Palestinians deliberately assassinated the boy, let them start by producing a witness. Until then, this case finally ought to be closed.