We did not abandon Philippe Karsenty

Israel has not been silent on the questions of France 2's behavior in the al-Dura affair.

Muhammad al-Dura 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Muhammad al-Dura 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
As developments surrounding the France 2 - Al-Dura affair have unfolded in recent weeks, many have voiced harsh criticism over the perceived silence of Israeli officialdom on the matter. That impression, while not entirely unfounded, is nonetheless inaccurate. Admittedly, in the seven years since the broadcast of the Palestinian father and son caught in a cross-fire were first aired - in which Israel was reported to have deliberately shot the young boy dead - Israeli officials responsible for public diplomacy failed to convene to determine an official position. Accordingly, the belief of some officials that any reference to the iconic images would only serve to perpetuate the damage already caused to Israel's standing abroad became the unofficial attitude. While the merits of this stand can be argued, other government individuals, who expressed open hostility toward those questioning the France 2 report's credibility, did so for personal and political reasons. Yet at no time had any of these government figures actually viewed the colossal amount of evidence which contradicted the assertions made in the initial France 2 report. These Israeli officials also lacked the intellectual integrity to familiarize themselves with the phenomenon of widespread media-manipulation prevalent in the Palestinian territories, in itself basic for understanding how such a libel against Israel could be created in the first place. This situation was disingenuously presented by France 2 to further suggest that Israel agreed with the premise of its report. Before that, it repeatedly pointed to Israel's original acceptance of responsibility for the incident as an indicator of the report's accuracy. All along, France 2 failed to reveal that Israel's primary position was based solely on the France 2 edited report, its officials not having been given the opportunity to verify the facts independently before responding. That the State of Israel has not revoked the press credentials of France 2 correspondents has also been criticized. Yet journalists reporting for Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian and even Iranian media carry official credentials from Israel. This testifies to the tolerance and character of Israel's democracy. It does not suggest agreement with the content of their reports, or appraisal of their professional abilities. THOSE WHO concentrate on these aspects overlook the fact that Israel has, at the same time, maintained a more active position challenging the France 2 report. Immediately after the story swept through the international media on September 30, 2000, OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yom Tov Samia initiated a non-military investigation into the events reported by France 2. By virtue of his rank, this was an official investigation. He assembled a team of experts, which included both ballistic and forensic officials. Led by physicist Nahum Shahaf, they were the first to thoroughly examine the events and analyze the footage presented by France 2. The analysis and findings were presented to the prime minister's foreign media adviser, Dr. Ra'anan Gissin, and then to myself in early 2001. After reviewing dozens of hours of materials, and only after all our questions had been addressed to our satisfaction, was our initial skepticism transformed into confidence that there was no basis for the accusations leveled against Israel in the France 2 story. Armed with that knowledge, both Gissin and I, as official representatives of the State of Israel, challenged the integrity of the France 2 report in several media interviews. A civil servant must not and cannot express personal views or opinions. They answer to their superiors, the political appointments of elected officials. Any actions taken by a civil servant or statements he or she issues have legal consequences for the state and therefore must meet the test of the Attorney-General's Office, or not enjoy its protection in legal proceedings. SOON ENOUGH, France 2 in Israel indeed demanded an apology, and three times threatened the Prime Minister's Office with legal action over statements issued by the Government Press Office on the Al-Dura report. In each instance, its demands were rejected after the basis for the GPO statements was presented, verified and legally validated by the Attorney-General's Office, in concurrence with the support of the Prime Minister's Office. In 2005, the head of the National Security Agency, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, was presented with the arguments challenging the France 2 narrative. The findings of the investigation questioning the credibility of the France 2 footage were so overwhelming that Eiland publicly retracted the original admittance of IDF responsibility in the alleged incident and sent a letter to that effect to the French court. THE LIBEL case in France against Philippe Karsenty put Israel in an awkward position. Israel could not appear to be meddling in the legal proceedings taking place in France, both for diplomatic reasons and out of genuine respect for and trust in the judicial process of a fellow democratic country. At the same time, Israel's reluctance to openly side with Karsenty was misrepresented by France 2 as a validation of its claims. Therefore, Israel's official position on this matter was made public in September 2007 through a Government Press Office statement approved by the Prime Minister's Office and defended by the attorney-general's representatives in the Supreme Court. The State of Israel did not abandon Karsenty, and has not been silent on the question of France 2's professional behavior in the Al-Dura affair. However, a nation does not always have the freedom to operate in the same manner as an individual. That is not to say that officials in Israel cannot learn from this situation. One of the most important lessons of this case has been that we should not rush to take responsibility for accusations before all the facts have been uncovered. Exposure of the truth surrounding the affair has shown that Israel can also benefit by enlisting the efforts of private citizens and professionals in the fields of media, forensics, ballistics, physics, etc. Such experts can analyze the often doctored and staged footage that is presented as fact to the media and verify its accuracy - before the image becomes an icon. The writer is director of the Government Press Office.