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Muhammad al-Dura 370.(Photo by: reuters)
Discrepancies raised, inconsistencies revealed
People, so the adage goes, tend to see what they want to see.
People, so the adage goes, tend to see what they want to see. Nothing in recent history bears this out more consistently than the Muhammad al-Dura video Shot by Palestinian reporter Talal Abu Rahma and initially broadcast by the television channel France 2, the video is perhaps the most scrutinized, criticized and analyzed piece of visual information since the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination. This short clip of a young boy and his father being gunned down during a 2000 Gaza firefight has become a symbol of Palestinian nationalism; an iconic image of human suffering; a focal point for Arab rage, racism and violence against Israel; and the inspiration behind dozens, perhaps hundreds, of terrorist atrocities. It is also, in the eyes of a small but dedicated group of activists, an obvious fraud.

That group has now been joined by the Israeli government.

With the recent publication of an official report on the subject, the formal Israeli position on the incident is that it did not happen: Muhammad al-Dura was not killed, his father Jamal was not injured, and the video is a staged hoax.

Unfortunately, this is not a positive development, nor is the report on which it is based. While there are important questions to be asked about the al-Dura video and the journalism that surrounded it, there is no conclusive evidence of a hoax. In asserting one, the report ultimately defeats its own purpose. Rather than pointing out that many of the accusations made against Israel are insupportable, the report chooses to make a counterclaim it cannot prove.

Indeed, the report states unequivocally that France 2’s initial report on the incident was false: “Contrary to the report’s claim that the boy was killed, the committee’s review of the raw footage showed that in the final scenes, which were not broadcast by France 2, the boy is seen to be alive. The review revealed that there is no evidence that Jamal or the boy were wounded in the manner claimed in the report, and that the footage does not depict Jamal as having been badly injured. In contrast, there are numerous indications that the two were not struck by bullets at all.... The raw footage shows clearly that in the final scenes, the boy is not dead. In the final seconds of the footage, the boy raises his arm and turns his head in the direction of Abu Rahma in what are clearly intentional and controlled movements.”

There are several serious problems with this. The first and most important is that it is inaccurate. There is nothing “clear” about the al-Dura video at all. It is blurry, shaky, shot from a distance, and essentially useless in terms of determining culpability. The final seconds of the footage, moreover, do not show what the report claims. Muhammad does indeed raise his arm and turn his head, after which he slumps down and appears to be quite dead.

Nor can one contend that there is no indication that Jamal al-Dura is injured. At the very least, he appears to be in a state of severe shock, and considering that what appears to be a burst of gunfire has just passed, the hypothesis that he was hit by it is hardly unreasonable.

These facts, in and of themselves, do not prove anything conclusively. Someone can look dead without being dead, and wounded without being wounded, especially in a low-quality video. But it does indicate a disturbing willingness on the part of the committee to see what it wants to see, and to go well beyond the available evidence in reaching its conclusions.

Throughout the report, moreover, the committee puts demands on the al-Dura footage that it could not possibly fulfill. Put simply, the committee treats the video as if it were physical rather than visual evidence. It states, for example, that “at no point is a bullet seen striking either Jamal or the boy.”

It is, of course, completely impossible to see a bullet strike a body, whether on video or in real life. One sees only the results of such an impact and, again, the al-Dura video is simply inadequate in terms of quality to reach any conclusions on the subject.

The same problem appears when the committee states that “the shape and position of what appears to be bullet holes on the wall” behind the al-Duras “all indicate that the shots did not come from the Israeli position.”

It is difficult to see how the committee managed to reach such a definitive conclusion based on what are little more than fuzzy pixels.

Part of the problem is that the committee is forced to rely on visual evidence because, essentially, there is no physical evidence. Indeed, the committee all but admits as much when it says that the “cumulative impact” of the various contradictions and inconsistencies surrounding the case “demonstrates conclusively that some aspects of the France 2 narrative are false, and others highly doubtful.”

In other words, there is no compelling evidence at all, only the combined weight of various anomalies. This “cumulative impact” may indeed be profound, but it is a far cry from a “conclusive demonstration” of the falsehood of a particular narrative, let alone proof of a contrary narrative. Inconclusive evidence cannot, by definition, lead to any conclusions.

The committee’s failure to acknowledge this is particularly regrettable, because the report does, in fact, raise some important issues. It points out, for example, that “repeated contradictions and falsehoods have been found” in the testimony of Talal Abu Rahma. This is a significant observation, considering that he was “for all practical purposes the sole source of information for the France 2 report.” Indeed, the claim of Israeli responsibility was based almost entirely on his testimony, and not on the video.

This does not, of course, prove that Abu Rahma falsified the incident in any way. But it does bear out the report’s assertion that France 2 deserves to be criticized for doing little to check the claims of a journalist who has explicitly said that he “entered the profession of journalism in order to ‘defend the Palestinian cause,’” especially given the Palestinians’ well-known proclivity for manufacturing atrocity stories.

The report also gives us, at long last, some of the most important testimony connected to the case: That of the soldiers involved in the incident. Their commander testifies that “We were not at all aware of the presence of Jamal al-Dura or the boy. We only became aware of the incident the following day.” He further states that there were no soldiers with automatic weapons present in the necessary position, only “a sniper, a sharpshooter, and a soldier operating a grenade launcher.”

This is not, of course, any more conclusive than the testimony of Abu Rahma, in that we have no physical evidence to support either side. But it certainly gives significantly more weight to the report’s claims than its tendentious analysis of the video; and finally allows the soldiers, who have been largely silent for the past 13 years, to speak in their own defense.

Ultimately, however, the report gets us no closer to the full truth behind the al-Dura incident, which will, in all likelihood, never be known with absolute certainty.

Extraordinary claims, as skeptics often say, require extraordinary evidence. Had the committee been able to produce a living Muhammad al-Dura or a signed confession from one of the hoaxers, its conclusions might be convincing. But they have not, because – we must presume – they cannot.

The al-Dura report is therefore self-defeating. It could simply have pointed out the problems in the original France 2 report. It could have pointed out the inconsistencies and contradictions in the relevant testimony. It could have pointed out the lack of evidence for the claims of Israeli culpability. It could, in other words, have placed the burden of proof on the prosecution, where it should be.

Instead, Israel has now made a claim and an accusation of its own. It has become the prosecutor, and placed the burden of proof upon itself. And, one regrets to say, such proof does not exist.

For a society such as Israel, however, which is based in part on the idea that rationalism and logic are essentially good things, and that we ought not to believe theories that cannot be conclusively proven, such theories should not receive official endorsement. When they do, we are faced with a potential slide into irrationalism and conspiracy theory. We have seen the horrendous effect such thinking has often had on our enemies, and we should not wish it, let alone invite it, upon ourselves.

The writer is a Tel Aviv-based author. His latest book, Diary of an Anti-Chomskyite, is available at
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