Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mohammed al-Dura

Was Nakba Shooting Another al-Dura Libel?

The United States has joined a chorus of non-governmental organizations and international critics of Israel by calling for an investigation of an incident that took place last week in which two Palestinians were killed following a confrontation with Israeli forces in the West Bank. The Palestinians and various NGOs sympathetic to their cause claim the two, aged 16 and 17 were killed by live fire from Israel Border Police during a demonstration on Nakba Day—the anniversary of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948. What’s more, a video taken from a security camera at a Palestinian-owned business at the site of the confrontation purports to show the two being killed by gunfire while doing nothing that might have provoked the Israelis to shoot. If that evidence is accurate, then the IDF would have been guilty of, at best, using unnecessary force and, at worst, having committed a crime.

But though the world is eager to indict and convict the Israelis of murders that would be seen as validating criticisms about the unjust nature of its “occupation” of the West Bank, no one should jump to any conclusions about this incident. Washington is right about the need for an investigation. But unlike the kangaroo court of international public opinion in which the Israelis already stand convicted, a more sober and less prejudiced probe of what happened may well reveal something very different than the narrative of Israeli brutality and Palestinian victimization. Until we know how much the film produced as evidence was edited and just what the Palestinian demonstrators were doing prior to the shootings, it would be a mistake for anyone, including the Israeli government, to assume that the soldiers were in the wrong.

The first thing that must be ascertained is the context of the deaths. By all accounts, the demonstrators, who had gathered outside an Israeli security facility where Palestinian prisoners have been on a hunger strike, were engaging in violence. If, as has been reported, the Palestinians were throwing rocks and gasoline bombs—both deadly weapons—at the soldiers guarding the prison, the discussion of the soldiers’ response must necessarily be a very different one from the story the Palestinians are telling about peaceful protesters being fired on without provocation. Indeed, even the film of the killings shows one of the deceased wearing a ski mask and the other throwing rocks. While it is not clear whether the violence being used by the Palestinians was sufficient to satisfy the Israeli military’s rules of engagement for the use of fire, this was no Gandhi-like example of peaceful protest. But if the attacks did rise to the level at which the troops felt their lives were in danger—a situation that would certainly apply were the Palestinians approaching with fire bombs ­as well as rocks—then the soldiers were within their rights to defend themselves.

But if, as a senior Israeli defense official told the Times of Israel today, the film was doctored, then the discussion is entirely different. Why should we think that is possible? That’s because the Palestinians have been guilty of deceptions of this sort in the past. They have often staged such confrontations and then tried to sell the world on the idea that the Israelis had committed an atrocity.

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The United States has joined a chorus of non-governmental organizations and international critics of Israel by calling for an investigation of an incident that took place last week in which two Palestinians were killed following a confrontation with Israeli forces in the West Bank. The Palestinians and various NGOs sympathetic to their cause claim the two, aged 16 and 17 were killed by live fire from Israel Border Police during a demonstration on Nakba Day—the anniversary of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948. What’s more, a video taken from a security camera at a Palestinian-owned business at the site of the confrontation purports to show the two being killed by gunfire while doing nothing that might have provoked the Israelis to shoot. If that evidence is accurate, then the IDF would have been guilty of, at best, using unnecessary force and, at worst, having committed a crime.

But though the world is eager to indict and convict the Israelis of murders that would be seen as validating criticisms about the unjust nature of its “occupation” of the West Bank, no one should jump to any conclusions about this incident. Washington is right about the need for an investigation. But unlike the kangaroo court of international public opinion in which the Israelis already stand convicted, a more sober and less prejudiced probe of what happened may well reveal something very different than the narrative of Israeli brutality and Palestinian victimization. Until we know how much the film produced as evidence was edited and just what the Palestinian demonstrators were doing prior to the shootings, it would be a mistake for anyone, including the Israeli government, to assume that the soldiers were in the wrong.

The first thing that must be ascertained is the context of the deaths. By all accounts, the demonstrators, who had gathered outside an Israeli security facility where Palestinian prisoners have been on a hunger strike, were engaging in violence. If, as has been reported, the Palestinians were throwing rocks and gasoline bombs—both deadly weapons—at the soldiers guarding the prison, the discussion of the soldiers’ response must necessarily be a very different one from the story the Palestinians are telling about peaceful protesters being fired on without provocation. Indeed, even the film of the killings shows one of the deceased wearing a ski mask and the other throwing rocks. While it is not clear whether the violence being used by the Palestinians was sufficient to satisfy the Israeli military’s rules of engagement for the use of fire, this was no Gandhi-like example of peaceful protest. But if the attacks did rise to the level at which the troops felt their lives were in danger—a situation that would certainly apply were the Palestinians approaching with fire bombs ­as well as rocks—then the soldiers were within their rights to defend themselves.

But if, as a senior Israeli defense official told the Times of Israel today, the film was doctored, then the discussion is entirely different. Why should we think that is possible? That’s because the Palestinians have been guilty of deceptions of this sort in the past. They have often staged such confrontations and then tried to sell the world on the idea that the Israelis had committed an atrocity.

The most outstanding example of such behavior came in 2000 during a firefight between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers at the Netzarim junction at the start of the Second Intifada. That incident near the border between Israel and Gaza left a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohammed al-Dura, dead. Film taken by a French TV crew seemed to back up the idea that he had been killed by Israeli gunfire and died in his father’s arms, a tragedy that was immortalized in a famous photograph. But subsequent investigations showed that the bullets that hit the boy could not have come from the Israeli position. The French film had been heavily edited and an honest accounting of the story has led objective observers to believe bullets fired by the Palestinians killed the boy. Others are even more skeptical and claim the entire event was a fraud—a Pallywood production in which a credulous world was sold a bill of goods whose only purpose was to smear the Israelis. The fact that the film, which purports to show a demonstration that no one disputes had turned violent, depicts the two casualties merely walking along minding their own business and then falling onto their outstretched palms has rightly raised doubts about its authenticity.

We don’t want to prejudge the investigation of last week’s shootings. But it would appear that, at the very least, the Palestinians who staged the demonstration were doing their best to provoke exactly what happened. The only point of throwing rocks and bombs at armed soldiers is to get them to fire and thus create an international incident. At best, the two Palestinians were merely the latest example of youths who were needlessly sacrificed in order to generate bad publicity for the Israelis. At worst, the story is yet another fraud. Even if the truth lies somewhere in between and Israeli soldiers did fire when perhaps they should not have, responsibility for the incident lies with those who send teenagers into such a situation hoping that they will be injured or killed.

But the most important point about this is that both Israel’s friends and its critics should wait until an investigation is conducted before assuming that the story is as egregious as the Palestinians claim it to be. Those who cry bloody murder at the Israelis today will owe them an apology if, as may well be the case, the film is a fraud and the Nakba killings are a new version of the al-Dura blood libel.

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Why the al-Dura Blood Libel Still Matters

Nearly 13 years ago, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak journeyed to Camp David to end the conflict with the Palestinians. With the approval of President Clinton, he offered Yasir Arafat an independent Palestinian state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and in part of Jerusalem. Arafat said no. A couple of months later, the Palestinians put an exclamation mark on that refusal by launching the terrorist offensive that came to be known as the second intifada. Yet in spite of the fact that it was the Palestinians who had rejected peace and who were engaging in terror attacks on Israeli targets that would cost more than 1,000 Israeli lives, they were still portrayed in much of the Western media as the victims. While the process that brought about this perplexing reversal was complex, one particular incident became the symbol of this vicious distortion: the Muhammad al-Dura affair.

The story promoted at the time by the Palestinian propaganda machine was that Israeli army fire killed a small boy while he and his father were seeking shelter from fighting near a Gaza checkpoint. Film footage provided by French TV made this tragedy an international cause célèbre and an official Israeli apology reinforced the Palestinian narrative and helped turn al-Dura into the poster child for Israeli beastliness and their own suffering. Yet soon doubts began to surface about the veracity of the claim of Israeli responsibility and the discrepancies and falsehoods in the Palestinian narrative were exposed in various Western outlets. Over the years, the initial story has been debunked in a variety of places. A German documentary proved that the shots that killed the boy could not have come from Israeli positions and French gadfly Phillipe Karsenty, who pointed out the original report was false, was sued in the courts by prominent journalist Charles Enderlin (who had broadcast the initial lie) but ultimately vindicated. Now it appears the Israeli government has finally caught up to the problem and issued what may be a definitive report that comes to the harshest possible conclusion about the al-Dura myth. As Haaretz reports:

Thirteen years after an exchange of fire in Gaza appeared to have resulted in the death of a Palestinian boy at the start of the second intifada, an Israeli investigative panel has found “there are many indications” that Mohammed al-Dura and his father, Jamal, “were never hit by gunfire” – neither Israeli nor Palestinian – after all.

The national panel of inquiry further claims that contrary to the famed report carried by the France 2 television network on the day of the incident, September 30, 2000, 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura appears to be alive at the end of the complete footage captured of the event.

The response to this report is predictable. The Muslim and Arab world will reject any investigation into it that will not accept their narrative. But more troubling will be the answer from many in the West and even in Israel who will ask why anyone should bother with such an old story. We should, they will assert, care about how to end the conflict, not who killed al-Dura. For Israel or its friends to spend any time on this issue is a diversion of effort from the peace process that will only anger Palestinians who will say that any argument about the incident demonstrates insensitivity, even if the facts are correct. But anyone who doubts the importance of debunking what has become a new version of the old Jewish blood libel is the one who is wrong.

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Nearly 13 years ago, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak journeyed to Camp David to end the conflict with the Palestinians. With the approval of President Clinton, he offered Yasir Arafat an independent Palestinian state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and in part of Jerusalem. Arafat said no. A couple of months later, the Palestinians put an exclamation mark on that refusal by launching the terrorist offensive that came to be known as the second intifada. Yet in spite of the fact that it was the Palestinians who had rejected peace and who were engaging in terror attacks on Israeli targets that would cost more than 1,000 Israeli lives, they were still portrayed in much of the Western media as the victims. While the process that brought about this perplexing reversal was complex, one particular incident became the symbol of this vicious distortion: the Muhammad al-Dura affair.

The story promoted at the time by the Palestinian propaganda machine was that Israeli army fire killed a small boy while he and his father were seeking shelter from fighting near a Gaza checkpoint. Film footage provided by French TV made this tragedy an international cause célèbre and an official Israeli apology reinforced the Palestinian narrative and helped turn al-Dura into the poster child for Israeli beastliness and their own suffering. Yet soon doubts began to surface about the veracity of the claim of Israeli responsibility and the discrepancies and falsehoods in the Palestinian narrative were exposed in various Western outlets. Over the years, the initial story has been debunked in a variety of places. A German documentary proved that the shots that killed the boy could not have come from Israeli positions and French gadfly Phillipe Karsenty, who pointed out the original report was false, was sued in the courts by prominent journalist Charles Enderlin (who had broadcast the initial lie) but ultimately vindicated. Now it appears the Israeli government has finally caught up to the problem and issued what may be a definitive report that comes to the harshest possible conclusion about the al-Dura myth. As Haaretz reports:

Thirteen years after an exchange of fire in Gaza appeared to have resulted in the death of a Palestinian boy at the start of the second intifada, an Israeli investigative panel has found “there are many indications” that Mohammed al-Dura and his father, Jamal, “were never hit by gunfire” – neither Israeli nor Palestinian – after all.

The national panel of inquiry further claims that contrary to the famed report carried by the France 2 television network on the day of the incident, September 30, 2000, 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura appears to be alive at the end of the complete footage captured of the event.

The response to this report is predictable. The Muslim and Arab world will reject any investigation into it that will not accept their narrative. But more troubling will be the answer from many in the West and even in Israel who will ask why anyone should bother with such an old story. We should, they will assert, care about how to end the conflict, not who killed al-Dura. For Israel or its friends to spend any time on this issue is a diversion of effort from the peace process that will only anger Palestinians who will say that any argument about the incident demonstrates insensitivity, even if the facts are correct. But anyone who doubts the importance of debunking what has become a new version of the old Jewish blood libel is the one who is wrong.

There have been many good accounts of this affair, including this piece by Nidra Poller published in COMMENTARY in September 2005. I’ve also written about it on our blog several times, including this piece from last year about the French court case. Yet even before those were published one of the first Western accounts of the al-Dura affair got to the heart of this problem. James Fallows’s June 2003 article in the Atlantic, “Who Shot Mohammed al-Dura?” pointed out not just the fact that there was good reason to doubt the initial version of the story but that the facts wouldn’t change anyone’s mind because of the iconic status of the photo allegedly depicting the boy and his father. Indeed, he seemed to suggest in a deconstructionist spirit that objective truth was itself impossible since both sides sought to create their own facts in order to prove they were right.

Fallows had a point about the intractable nature of this debate. But the problem here is that the lie about al-Dura isn’t peripheral to the widespread misperceptions about the overall conflict. If, as I wrote last month, a mainstream media figure like CNN and Time magazine’s Fareed Zakaria can assert that Israel has never offered peace to the Palestinians, and get away with it, there is something profoundly wrong with the way our culture has accepted Palestinian lies as either reasonable assertions or even truths. It’s not just that the Israelis didn’t kill al-Dura; it’s that the fault for the continuation of the conflict at the moment in history when he was supposedly slain rests almost completely on the people who have elevated him to sainthood and used his mythical spilled blood to justify boycotts of Israel.

This story matters not because the truth can help undermine efforts to isolate Israel. It’s important because so long as the Arab and Muslim world clings to its blood libels all talk about peace is futile. The “Pallywood” productions, of which the al-Dura hoax is the most prominent, haven’t just deceived the West. They’ve also reinforced the Palestinian myths about themselves. As such, they’ve done more real damage to the prospects of peace than any Israeli settlement. Unless and until the Palestinians give up their campaign of incitement against Israelis and Jews and stop seeking to depict this conflict as one in which they are only the victims of a violent Zionist plot, there is no hope for any solution, let alone the two-state solution most in Israel and the West believe in. 

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