The al-Dura case

I believe that today there are good grounds to reopen the case the origins of the al-Aksa intifadah without fear.

Palestinian children 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
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 incident.
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.
In 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.