Truth on trial

France 2 broadcast a boy cowering behind his father, with a voice-over solemnly intoning that Israeli soldiers shot the boy.

Soldiers [illustrative] 370 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Soldiers [illustrative] 370
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
The fourth round in the ongoing legal battle between Charles Enderlin and television station France 2 on one side and media critic Philippe Karsenty on the other took place recently in Paris with little media attention.
The subject of that legal battle is the alleged shooting by Israeli soldiers of a Palestinian boy identified as Muhammad al-Dura at the Netzarim Junction on September 30, 2000.
That evening, France 2 broadcast 55 seconds of footage of a boy cowering behind his father, with a voice-over commentary by its chief Israel correspondent, Enderlin (who was not present at Netzarim Junction), in which he solemnly intones that Israeli soldiers shot the boy.
The image of the terrified boy crouching behind his father quickly assumed iconic status.
When Daniel Pearl was beheaded in Pakistan, the photo was prominently displayed in the background.
The crowd that eviscerated two Israeli reservists in Ramallah at the outset of the second intifada chanted of revenge for Muhammad al-Dura. And Osama bin Laden made reference to the boy in the tape he released after 9/11. Palestinian TV has made a staple of Muhammad al-Dura, beckoning to young children to join him as jihad martyrs in Paradise. And most recently, Muhammad Merah, the cold-blooded murderer of four Jews (three of them children) at point blank range at a Jewish school in Toulouse turned out to be obsessed with al-Dura.
That 55-second clip in fact consisted of six different segments spliced together from a total of 27 minutes of footage filmed by Palestinian cameraman Talul Abu Rahmeh. Enderlin also spliced in a picture of an Israeli soldier firing a gun to suggest that he was firing at the boy and his father.
The legal battle commenced when Enderlin and France 2 sued Karsenty for defamation after the latter published a series of pieces in which he charged that the clip was a fraud. Karsenty was able to show that the boy in the film clip could not have been directly targeted by Israeli soldiers, as he was not in the line of fire of the Israeli stockade. At most, he could have been hit by ricocheting bullet. But all the bullet holes in the wall behind where the boy and his father were crouching showed direct shots.
Abu Rahmeh’s story that Israeli soldiers shot at the boy and his father for 45 minutes was absurd. Hundreds of rioting Palestinians were standing in front of the Israeli stockade. Had Israeli soldiers wanted to shoot Palestinians, there had hundreds of ready targets in front of them.
Enderlin and France 2 put on no case whatsoever.
They contented themselves with a letter from then-president Jacques Chirac attesting to Enderlin’s general excellence as a journalist. Amazingly, that proved sufficient for the court to rule against Karsenty.
Karsenty appealed, and the Appeals Court shocked the plaintiffs by ordering France 2 to produce all the footage shot by Abu Rahmeh. Enderlin claimed that he had not included in the final clip the boy’s actual death because the death throes were simply too painful for a TV audience to see. But in the full footage (or at least the 18 of the original 27 minutes which France 2 provided), there were no such death throes. The supposedly dead boy lifts his head, looks around, moves his leg and shields his eyes from the sun, while the crowd chants, “The boy is dead, the boy is dead.” Enderlin provoked titters in the courtroom when he suggested that the crowd really meant, “The boy is in danger of dying.”
Whether Enderlin knew from the start that he had been deceived by his Palestinian cameraman is unknown. That he is a liar is incontestable. In addition to the concocted story about nonexistent death throes, he provided the foreign press with a blatantly false drawing of the Netzarim Junction showing the boy and his father in the line of Israeli fire.
The outtakes provided by France 2 and clips filmed by other film crews at the same time clearly establish that the entire incident was staged. In those outtakes, bystanders stroll by casually and children ride their bicycles in front of the father and boy, apparently oblivious to the Israeli fusillade. A slow-motion examination of the outtakes shows the cameraman holding up two fingers to indicate “take two.” In a contemporaneous Reuters clip, Abu Rahmeh is shown filming another obviously staged scene involving a Molotov cocktail. (That staged event was omitted from the France 2 outtakes furnished to the court.) Nachum Shalaf, a civilian physicist who was placed in charge of the Israeli government investigation, discovered that a boy named Rami Jamal al-Dura had been declared dead in a Gaza hospital at 1 p.m. on the day in question, even though the supposed shooting of a boy initially identified as Muhammad Rami al-Dura did not take place until 3 p.m. The boy who died was much bigger than the one seen crouching in the film clips.
The “father” in the France 2 clips later pointed to wounds as corroboration of the claim that he had been under fire. But an Israeli doctor later proved that he had treated the man for identical wounds years earlier. The father subsequently sued the doctor in a French court and lost.
The French Appeals Court reached the only possible conclusion and ruled for Karsenty. One would have expected Enderlin to retire in disgrace and the French government to pose an inquiry as to the standards of veracity of the state-owned station. But nothing of the sort occurred. Enderlin appealed to the French Supreme Court.
Even more troubling, Enderlin’s journalist colleagues rallied to his defense. A petition describing him as the victim of a “seven-year hate-filled smear campaign” appeared on the website of the left-wing Le Nouvel Observateur and quickly garnered more than 300 signatures from some of the leading names in French journalism.
Anne-Elisabeth Moutet published a 2008 piece in The Weekly Standard called “L’Affaire Enderlin: Being a French journalist means never having to say you are sorry,” based on interviews with many of the signatories.
None argued that Israeli soldiers had harmed the boy cowering in the TV clip. Rather, they expressed sympathy for their colleague, who had, in the words of one, probably made a mistake in haste under a tight deadline, and then doubled down on his lie. Jon Randall, the former Washington Post Paris correspondent, complained about journalists being subjected to the scrutiny of watchdog groups with their own agendas.
Others sniffed that Karsenty is not a real journalist because he publishes on the Web.
The most amazing “defense” was that of French journalist Claude Weill Reynal, who wrote that Karsenty must be a madman for spending so much time proving that France 2 had broadcast a staged clip purporting to reflect reality because “[fake images] are used all the time everywhere on television and no TV journalist in the field or film editor would be shocked.” Enderlin himself expressed the philosophy behind Reynal’s argument: Even if Muhammad al-Dura was not killed by Israeli fire, other Palestinian children have been.
Therefore, at a deeper level, the clip was true.
Meanwhile, the route suffered by Enderlin and France 2 in court received almost no coverage in France or the international press.
There was still one more amazing twist to come.
The French Supreme Court ruled that it had been a mistake for the Appeals Court to compel France 2 to produce the outtakes, despite that fact that they constituted by far the best evidence of the journalistic integrity – or lack thereof, of Enderlin – Talul Abu Rahmeh, and France 2.
The Supreme Court ordered another trial, at which Karsenty was forced to present his case without benefit of the most probative evidence. In short, he was required to show not only that Enderlin and France 2 had perpetrated fraud, but that he had grounds to know that when he wrote his harsh criticisms. That was the trial that took place last month.
Richard Landes, a Boston University historian who has followed the al-Dura case from the beginning, was in the courtroom for the fourth round (actually the sixth hearing). He describes the hearing on his website “The Augean Stables,” devoted to the al-Dura case in particular and Palestinian use of faked images (Pallywood), in general.
Karsenty presented a detailed forensic case, beginning with a mock-up of Netzarim Junction, to show how wildly implausible the whole story was. Then he deftly went about demonstrating the ways in which France 2 consistently used staged footage in its broadcasts.
In response, France 2 did nothing more than show four news broadcasts dealing with the al-Dura “killing” – the very clips that Karsenty had just deconstructed – as if repeating a fraud again would turn it into the truth.
The French Societé des Journalistes and SNJ de France Television called on their members to attend the trial to show their support for Enderlin, who had little to say for himself. And the avocat général – an independent figure in the French legal system – reminded the judges that the truth of what happened at Netzarim Junction was not the issue – only Karsenty’s good faith in slamming Enderlin.
The trial took place the same week Jeffrey Goldberg quoted US President Barack Obama as saying that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu does not serve Israel’s best interests because he has caused Israel’s growing international isolation. The president’s remark assumes that the world is an impartial observer ready to give Israel a fair hearing.
Sadly, however, the manner in which the French elites – media, political, and judicial – have treated a lethal blood libel against Jews and the Jewish state suggests that the world is not much concerned with truth or justice when it comes to Israel.The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.