Another battle of hearts and minds

Now that Israel has made its new official decision on the al-Dura affair public, will media around the world admit their mistake?

Muhammad al-Dura mural 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Muhammad al-Dura mural 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The al-Dura incident was the defining moment of the second intifada. It occurred on September 30, 2000, which is considered the first day of the second intifada.
Although the process leading up to it was long and included political milestones such as Camp David, and violent incidents such as Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, the large-scale fighting only began immediately following the incident at Netzarim junction.
The French France 2 TV footage of Jamal al-Dura protecting his son Muhammad from live fire was one of the most memorable moments of the new Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I included this incident in the research study I prepared due to its newsworthiness – how often do we see a person shot to death in front of a camera? – as well as for its far-reaching repercussions that are still valid today.
The truth must be told. In the case of al-Dura, there were questions from the beginning about the validity of the incident that made it difficult to reach a clear-cut conclusion.
Firstly, why did only one cameraman, Tallal Abu Rachman, a freelancer for the French TV station, catch this footage, while all of the other photographers and journalists were busy focusing on the Israeli outpost?
Secondly, why did the IDF respond so slowly and uncertainly immediately following the Netzarim incident, while the French station’s report appeared in headlines worldwide?
Also, why did Maj.-Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, the former head of Israel’s National Security Council, so quickly admit that Israel was responsible for the incident?
And why was the investigation which was led by Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yom Tov Samia, the former head of IDF Southern Command, and came to the exact opposite conclusion as Eiland, rejected?
The only conclusion I have been able to reach is that Israel was not responsible for the death of al-Dura. The junction was teeming with people and Jamal and Muhammad were no doubt caught in the crossfire. Photos acquired by Nahum Shahaf, an Israeli physicist who thoroughly researched this subject, show this clearly.
The position of the IDF outpost, which was the initial target of the Palestinian throngs that day, made it impossible for bullets fired from it to penetrate the cement blockade at the intersection.
But what made the investigation so difficult was the fact that the IDF Southern Command decided to raze Netzarim junction, including the scene of the incident.
The scene had to be reconstructed later on so that the investigation could be carried out. It didn’t occur to anyone to collect evidence before it was all destroyed.
Over the years, there have been a number of attempts to reexamine the incident, mostly due to the perseverance of two highly motivated individuals: Philippe Karsenty, a French media watchdog, and American historian Professor Richard Landes from Boston University, both of whom invested a great deal of effort in their research.
Karsenty became embroiled in lengthy legal battles in France, but despite the great price he paid, he succeeded in undermining the credibility of the French TV network. Landes’s aim was to prove that the incident was but another example of the “Pallywood” phenomenon in which Palestinians stage and film incidents for media consumption.
I do not agree with all of their findings, but in the al-Dura case, there is no doubt that Karsenty and Landes’s research helped to uncover what truly happened on that day.
Every time I asked why Israel did not try to verify the validity of the French TV footage, I was given the same banal response: “Why should we bring this subject up again? The dust has already settled.”
And yet, we all know that this incident has not been forgotten. It has been appearing in the French media with the libel lawsuit against Karsenty and its eventual overturning, and Israeli physician Yehuda David was sued after claiming that scars Jamal al-Dura showed the media were the actually the result of an attack years before by Hamas operatives who suspected him of collaborating with Israel, and not from the Netzarim incident.
Al-Dura’s name has continuously appeared in the media. Therefore I recommended that if Israel is truly convinced it was not responsible for his death, it was imperative to officially reopen the investigation. It was my belief that this was the only way to prove that we are not afraid of dealing with this ghost, and to reshape the event in the eyes of the public.
It’s important to remind ourselves that we are engaged in a battle of hearts and minds. In this type of battle, it is not good enough to present the media with dry facts.
How the event is perceived by the public and then later stored in its memory are much more important.
This past Tuesday, the government review committee published a new report that concludes that al-Dura was not killed or wounded at Netzarim junction by IDF fire on that day. This is the conclusion that specialists involved in the investigation reached after reviewing the raw footage and other material that was collected for that purpose.
Years ago when I first heard this claim, I refused to endorse it out of caution.
But now the professionals’ claim is backed by facts which I believe are reliable.
My only concern is that there may be parties who fail to accept this thesis and who are suggesting that 13 years after the event the body should be exhumed and examined. I do not recommend doing this.
From my point of view, we should be satisfied with the current claim that Muhammad al-Dura was not shot by IDF soldiers. He was shot by Palestinian policemen who were firing indiscriminately that morning of September 30, 2000. From Israel’s point of view, this is enough.
Now comes the most intriguing and significant stage: How will the international media cover this announcement – especially the France 2 TV channel? Throughout the intifada, there was extensive evidence that the international media were being pressured and sometimes even threatened by the Palestinian Authority.
This was uncovered following another incident – the Ramallah lynching of two IDF reservists, Vadim Nurzhitz and Yossi Avrahami, who mistakenly passed an Israeli checkpoint and entered Ramallah.
The question is whether this pressure affected the coverage of incidents such as the al-Dura one. It is essential to examine whether the tragedy that occurred at the Netzarim junction was dealt with according to internationally accepted journalistic standards. Did the international media take these questions and the doubt about the veracity of these reports into account? And now that Israel has made its new official decision public, will media around the world admit their mistake? This is how battles of hearts and minds are waged.
The writer is a Labor MK and is the author of Media Wars, which was published recently and deals with the second intifada. The book is based on his PhD thesis.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.