It's the case that seems to never die.
Twelve years after the "shooting of Muhammad al-Dura” on the second day of the Intifada in Gaza, the Israeli government has now concluded that IDF fire did not kill Muhammad al-Dura, and there is even no evidence that the 12-year-old Palestinian boy was injured. In the video – shot by a Palestinian cameraman – al-Dura can be seen moving his arm and leg, with no visible bloodstains.
France-2 television broke the story, with reporter Charles Enderlin describing how the Israelis had shot and killed the young al-Dura. The video clip was the lead story on evening newscasts worldwide, with the iconic image of the boy – huddling behind a cement barrel next to his father – splashed across every front page. The media accepted as “fact” that al-Dura was, in the words of 60 Minutes Australia, “targeted, murdered, by Israeli soldiers,” and Time magazine surmised the chilling scenario that “pleas for Israeli soldiers to cease fire [were] answered with a fusillade of bullets.”
Given the strategic timing at the beginning of the Intifada, it was a PR bonanza for Palestinians in their campaign to generate world sympathy – in the words of 60 Minutes, “one of the most disastrous setbacks Israel has suffered in decades.”
To add fuel to the fire, the Palestinian Authority produced a doctored photomontage of an Israeli soldier lining up his scope and shooting al-Dura at close range – an act of “artistic expression” that the PA’s Ministry of Information said was meant to “convey the truth… and nothing but the truth.” (ARD German Television, March 18, 2002)
Overnight, al-Dura became the Palestinian poster child, driving the nascent Intifada violence to dizzying heights. Days later, as Palestinians lynched two Israelis in Ramallah, the bloodthirsty crowd shouted: “Revenge for the blood of Muhammad al-Dura!” The boy was immortalized in epic poems, postage stamps and streets named in his honor. Over 150 schools in Iran alone were renamed after al-Dura.
There was only one problem. Enderlin, the French correspondent who narrated the al-Dura footage as if he was delivering an eyewitness account, was nowhere near the Netzarim junction that day. The veracity of both the film and the narrative was based solely on the word of the Palestinian cameraman, with no outside verification. It was a 100 percent Palestinian production – stamped with a France-2 voiceover.
Media monitors immediately suspected a fraud. Given the angle of the Israeli position – kitty-corner to the junction – the only way that Israeli bullets could have hit al-Dura was by ricochet. The video, however, shows symmetrical bullet-holes penetrating the wall behind him – indicating a straight hit.
It was a 100 percent Palestinian production – stamped with a France-2 voiceover.
So who fired the shots? An obvious way to solve the mystery would be to examine the bullets lodged in the wall: are they Israeli M-16, or Palestinian Kalashnikov? Inexplicably, there were no bullets to be found. In a filmed interview, Abu Rahma, the cameraman, admitted to having removed the bullets from the wall. When questioned about what he discovered – and why a cameraman would be involved in ballistics activities in the first place – Abu Rahma flashed a sinister smile and said: “We have some secrets for ourselves.”
As this information came to light, intelligent people not prone to conspiracy theories were becoming increasingly convinced that al-Dura was actually shot by Palestinians. Israeli M-16 bullets are smaller (5.56 caliber) than the Palestinian Kalashnikov (7.62 caliber); in a later reenactment, M-16 bullets fired from the Israeli position were unable to replicate the bullet holes that hit the cement barrel in the video; they merely pinged off its surface. When France-2 allowed award-winning producer Daniel Leconte and other senior French journalists to view all 27 minutes of the raw footage, Leconte concluded: “The only ones who could [have] hit the child were the Palestinians from their position. If they had been Israeli bullets, they would be very strange bullets because they would have needed to go around the corner.”
Bustling Stage of Alfresco Cinema
And then the levee broke:
Professor Richard Landes of Boston University discovered “outtakes” – hours of additional footage shot that same day at the Netzarim junction. These tapes – produced by more than a dozen Palestinian cameramen working for Reuters, Associated Press and other networks – depict a variety of unmistakably staged battle scenes. One clip shows a group of Palestinian men running with rifles, then shooting through an archway, Rambo-style. One would assume that the Palestinians were in the heat of battle, firing on Israelis. Yet the unedited footage shows that the archway leads to nothing more than a brick wall. No Israelis, no battle. Just a dramatic, contrived production, what Landes calls “a bustling stage of alfresco cinema.” (seconddraft.org)
Incredibly, the following day Enderlin and France-2 broadcast this sequence of men firing into the brick wall as if it were real news footage.
Palestinian “emergency crews” are seen laughing and goofing around.
Other videotape from that day at the junction shows Palestinian actors in multiple roles: Palestinian fighters are carted off to an ambulance, despite showing no signs of injury. Other men fall in apparent agony, then get up, dust themselves off, and re-enter the action. “Emergency evacuation crews” are seen laughing and goofing around – while Palestinian schoolgirls stroll merrily through the scene.
Suspicious of a hoax, Professor Landes tracked down France-2’s Enderlin and together they viewed some of the outtakes. During one obviously faked scene of an ambulance evacuation, Enderlin shrugged it off as a matter of course. The Arabs “do that all the time,” he said. “It’s their cultural style. They exaggerate.”
The hoax was now clear. That day at the junction provided the perfect combination of dramatic factors: a terrified young boy, clinging to his frantic father, apparently shot in cold blood – the ultimate image of “Israeli aggressor and Palestinian victim.” Best of all, since there was no Western presence at the junction that day, staging this scene required only the cooperation of Palestinian camera crews. France-2’s Enderlin – seduced by the lure of a major international scoop – ignored the obvious deficiencies in the credibility of Palestinian cameraman Abu Rahma, who once declared, “I went into journalism to carry on the fight for my people.”
Upon viewing the raw footage, Luc Rosenzweig, former editor-in-chief of France’s daily Le Monde, called this the “almost perfect media crime.”
As the story unfolded, other journalists conducted their own investigations and found the inconsistencies between fact and fiction too great to discount. Esther Schapira, a German television producer, traveled to Israel convinced of IDF guilt – and came away concluding that the boy had been killed by Palestinians. James Fallows, one of America’s most respected journalists, documented in The Atlantic Monthly how he reached the same conclusion. And Jean-Claude Schlinger, an adviser on ballistic and forensic evidence in French courts for 20 years, recreated the shooting and concluded that al-Dura could not have been shot by Israeli gunfire.
Was France-2 duped? Enderlin, at his meeting with Professor Landes, drew a map of Netzarim junction that placed the Israeli position on the wrong side of the road. Landes says: “This indicated one of two equally distressing possibilities”: Either that Enderlin “understood so little of what had happened that day that he didn’t even know the most basic elements of the layout of the scene.” Or alternatively, he was outright lying – and must have assumed that Landes “was so little informed that he could get away with it.”
For this propaganda work, Abu Rahma was nominated for MSNBC's Picture of the Year.
French journalist Claude Weill Raynal defended Enderlin with the following bit of logic: “[People are] so shocked that fake images were used and edited in Gaza, but this happens all the time everywhere on television, and no TV journalist in the field or film editor would be shocked.” In other words, Palestinian photo fraud is so commonplace, there’s no reason to get excited.
For this exceptional piece of propaganda disguised as camera work, Abu Rahma was nominated by MSNBC for “Picture of the Year,” and received various “Journalist of the Year” honors including the coveted Rory Peck award from the Sony Corporation. He achieved legendary status in Arab circles and went on speaking engagements around the world.
[Meanwhile, the boy’s father, Jamal al-Dura, was engaging in his own bit of media manipulation. He held a press conference where he lifted his shirt to show journalists the scars on his chest as “proof” that Israeli soldiers had fired on him. In truth, these scars were the result of tendon transplant surgery that Jamal had undergone years earlier at an Israeli hospital, after being severely wounded by a Palestinian thug. Dr. David Yehuda, the surgeon who operated on Jamal, recognized the scars: “His wounds are not bullet wounds, but were produced by two things – first, the knife of the Palestinian who cut him, and second, my knife that fixed him. He faked the case.” Jamal had displayed the height of ingratitude: After being saved by an Israeli doctor, he turned that around to foist a libel on the Jews.]
The PR bonanza sparked by Muhammad al-Dura gave birth to Pallywood, a cottage industry dedicated to producing Palestinian propaganda films. When Palestinian officials alleged that Israel was using radioactive uranium and nerve gas against civilians, official PA television broadcast fake “news footage” of “victims” plagued by vomiting and convulsions. Another clip from state-run Palestinian TV used actors to depict Israeli soldiers “raping and murdering” a Palestinian girl in front of her horrified parents.
So this is what Israel is fighting against: Palestinians generate video footage of “Israeli atrocities,” then obscure the evidence to ensure that Palestinian “eyewitnesses” remain as the only source of information. The media then pronounces Israel guilty until proven innocent. By the time Israel can gather the facts, the party is over.
These iconic images create a “record of events” that forms the historical narrative for generations to come. Consider the four reels of footage from the Warsaw Ghetto discovered after World War II, which for decades served as the authentic resource for Holocaust scholars. At least until 1998, when a fifth reel turned up – showing outtakes of the ghetto scenes – proving the “historical record” to be a staged fraud.
Once an image sears into the public consciousness, it is almost impossible to undo. According to Hany Farid, a Dartmouth professor and expert on digital photography, on a neurological level the brain tends to reduce each major historical era into a single emotional image that encapsulates the complex story: raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, the Vietnamese Napalm girl, facing the tank in Tiananmen Square, electrocution wires at Abu Ghraib prison – and Muhammad al-Dura.
In the coming days, another French court is expected to rule once again.
This is more than just a convenient memory device. Like the medieval blood libels that launched pogroms across Europe, the legend of al-Dura has become the battle cry of violent Muslim extremists committing the most heinous crimes. In an al-Qaeda recruitment film, Osama bin Laden invoked the memory of al-Dura as a call to arms. In Ramallah, the mob that disemboweled two Israeli reservists declared it as “revenge for the blood of Muhammad al-Dura.” And in Daniel Pearl’s beheading video, the killers interwove scenes of al-Dura with the gruesome slitting of Pearl’s throat.
Philippe Karsenty, a French media watchdog, accused France-2 of fraud, the discredited Enderlin tried to shift the blame by calling this "a campaign designed to harass foreign correspondents," and – in an amazing show of chutzpah – sued Karsenty for libel. The case wound its way through the French legal system – in 2006 France 2 won its case, in 2008 the judgment was overturned by the Paris Court of Appeal; in 2012, France's high court re-reversed the ruling. And now in the coming days, another French court is expected to rule once again.
This is all on the backdrop of the Israeli government probe concluding that the al-Dura event was rife with fraud. Even Enderlin himself wrote in the French newspaper Le Figaro that his report "may have been hasty," but was justified because "so many children were being killed." In other words, fabricating news coverage is acceptable – when used to support some greater, unproven claim against Israel.
Yet when an urban legend starts it is nearly impossible to erase. Everyone knows that before Columbus sailed to the New World, scientists thought the world was flat. Not true. It was only in 1828 that novelist Washington Irving popularized the flat-earth fable in his best-selling biography of Columbus. Writers of American history then picked up the story, and since textbooks tend to be clones of each other, Irving's little hoax persists to this day.
So too, "the shooting of Muhammad al-Dura" has become a permanent part of the lexicon – a 21st century version of the Flat Earth Society. As Mark Twain said, "A lie told well is immortal."
Tragically, these lies are more than just factual inaccuracies or a PR issue. These myths remain firmly engraved in Palestinian lore, fomenting an atmosphere of mistrust that will linger for decades, and that ultimately undermine the possibility of peaceful coexistence. As one Palestinian woman said on camera regarding another hoax (the Jenin “massacre”): "We'll never forget this massacre. This is similar to the Holocaust. We will teach our generations not to forget this."
Hooray for Pallywood.
(Excerpted from “David & Goliath: The Explosive Inside Story of Media Bias in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” See there for all sources.)