The greatest 20th century leader, who looked eye to eye with the greatest evil of the world at that time and did not blink, understood very well the tactical and strategic danger of lies to open democratic societies. In his typical fashion, Winston Churchill said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on.”
In June the Governmental Investigative Committee set up by the Ministry for Strategic Affairs to examine the report by the France 2 TV network on the Mohammed Al-Dura affair concluded, “The central claims and charges of the French news report were baseless with no proof of IDF responsibility.” As 13 years have passed (plenty of time to put on one’s pants), with so much damage done to Israel, there is a question as to how effec- tive the report will be and if it even might be counterproductive. But the truth must be told. Buddha reportedly said, “There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.” Thankfully, in the end, that sentiment was heeded here.
There were questions from the beginning about the validity of the Al-Dura incident. In that summer of 2000, soon after the breakdown of the Camp David summit when Yasser Arafat refused to accept Ehud Barak’s peace proposal, each side returned to Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, respectively, where se- curity cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority police, supplied with Israeli weapons, was continually evolving. For most Israelis, still scarred from the incomprehensible savagery of Palestinian suicide bombers blowing up Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem busses packed with innocent civilians in the mid-1990s, this cooperation offered cautious hope that perhaps an accord might slowly be built de facto from the ground up.
A sudden and violent outburst during the High Holidays quickly became known as the Second Palestinian Intifada. Erupting a few days after the end of the Sydney Olympics (which caught the international media looking for a new story), thousands of armed Palestinian police and civilians mobbed and attacked Israeli settlements, bases and positions with automatic rifles and Molotov cocktails. As a sovereign body with a police force, the Palestinians had an endless supply of mostly Israeli-supplied guns and bullets.
The sudden explosion of violence was clearly orchestrated from above as Palestinian police, who were supposed to prevent violent mobs from attacking Israelis, instead stood behind the mobs firing their automatic weapons at Israeli targets. One such event occurred at the Netzerim Junction, a crossing point between Israel and Gaza. With Palestinian police spraying salvo after salvo in the direction of the Israeli position, Israeli soldiers responded. Palestinian Jamal al-Dura and a young boy, purported to be his son, Mohammed, were caught in the crossfire behind a concrete barrier. Despite a significant media presence at the junction (roughly the size of the Beaverton-Hillsdale/Scholls Ferry/Oleson Road intersection), only Tallal Abu- Rahman, a Palestinian from Gaza freelancing for the France 2 network, filmed this event. The Israel-based reporter for France 2, Charles Anderlin, was not present, reminding me of George Santayana’s second most famous quote: “History is a pack of lies written by people who weren’t there.”
The dramatic France 2 video was broadcast that day, voiced over with commentary implying the boy was killed by Israeli fire. Broadcast throughout the world, the video became one of the most memorable moments in the coverage of the Second Intifada, and perhaps of the entire conflict. Large segments of the international media and the Palestinian Authority instantly adopted it as the symbol of Palestinian bravery in the face of Israeli brutality. It shocked viewers indifferent to the violence of our region and reinforced hatred of Israel throughout many parts of the world. The name Mohammed al-Dura was exalted almost to sainthood status and turned into another symbol of resistance to Israel. Arab city leaders named thoroughfares after him, painted large urban murals of him and observed the an- niversary of the Netzerim incident.
Israeli complicity was further enhanced when Major-General Giora Eiland, the head of the National Security Council, admitted responsibility. Eiland rejected an investigation conducted at the time by Major-General Yom-Tov Samiah, head of Southern Command, which concluded it was not plausible that the death was caused by Israeli fire.
In the ensuing Arab and international media circus, Jamal al-Dura achieved celebrity status and immense exposure as a heroic and grieving father and victim of Israeli brutality. When this exposure aroused the suspicions of Israeli orthopedist Dr. Yehuda David, the long road to the truth began. In 1994 the doctor treated Jamal al-Dura for gunshot and other wounds inflicted by Hamas, which suspected him of collaboration with Israel. When al-Dura displayed the scars from the Netzerim incident, David went public in France and Israel stating these were the exact same injuries he treated years before the incident. Together with evidence that was beginning to accumulate, he suggested that not only was Israel not responsible for the death of Mohammed al-Dura, but that he might not be dead at all.
The additional evidence included a documentary by German journalist Esther Shapira, who painstakingly examined the angles with the help of physicists and ballistic experts – proving it was physically impossible for bullets fired from the Israeli position to have hit the alleged victims. She also revealed eye-witness testimony that, in contrast to the Israeli side, the firing from the Palestinian position was massive, wild and completely scattered, greatly increasing the plausibility that if the al-Duras were indeed hit by bullets, then it was from the Palestinian side.
Questions were beginning to be asked about whether the al-Duras were hit by bullets at all, if Muhammed was killed and if the boy in the France 2 video was actually Muhammed al-Dura. Doubts were raised because a Mohammed al-Dura had been reported at Shifa Hospital in Gaza at 9 am that day, while the Netzerim incident began after 3 pm. The more significant question was raised when several witnesses reported that in footage of the France 2 video that was not aired, it appeared the young boy was moving after he was supposedly shot and killed. Dr. David, who claimed that Mohammed al-Dura was alive in Gaza, and French Jewish politician Philippe Karsenty, who accused France 2 of airing a staged video, soon found themselves in court, sued by France 2.
After initially losing the case in 2007, David appealed and last year was exonerated. The case between Karsenty and France 2 is ongoing. These two individuals (as well as Boston University Professor Robert Landes) are fighting their legal battles on their own. Karsenty has paid a great personal price but has succeeded in undermining the credibility of France 2. David, who served as a divisional surgeon under the command of current Defense Minister Ya’kov “Bogi” Ayalon, approached Ayalon, who then established the committee of enquiry in the last government when he served as Minister of Strategic Affairs. In addition to the above discrepancies, the committee also noted there was no sign of blood at the site only a few hours after the incident and that the bullet holes in the area could not have been caused by Israeli fire. Of no less importance, the report raised serious doubts regarding the ethics and practices of certain elements in the foreign media covering Israel. The reliance on local “fixers,” so widely used even today by the international media in the West Bank and Gaza, is responsible in large part for the prevalence of anti-Israel bias. Since many foreign reporters do not understand the context, fixer-generated, one-sided reports and video often get through the filters of the media outlets straight ont
o TV, computer and newspapers, causing irreparable damage to Israel’s besieged cause. The case of al-Dura might be one of the most extreme examples, but is far from the only case.
Even though the government woke up very late, the France 2 Committee report hopefully will constitute a precedent, and individual attempts to refute continuing Palestinian attempts to lie through altered video and stills will receive government sup- port. Knesset Member Nahman Shai, author of the book Media Wars, wrote when the report was released, “Israel cannot behave like an ostrich, lifting its head for an instant and then burying it in the sand again. Every time I asked why Israel did not try to verify the validity of the France 2 footage earlier, I was given the same banal response: ‘Why should we bring this subject up again? The dust has already settled.’ Yet this incident has not been forgotten. It still appears in the French media with the libel lawsuit against Karsenty.”
Some will scoff, claiming the report’s objectivity is in doubt coming from a government committee, but Israel’s robust democracy prevents the kind of whitewashing these critics com- plain about. Will the international media admit their mistake? Not likely; but if they improve their reporting procedures to prevent this kind of fiasco in the future, it will have been worth the wait.
Furthermore, with what Israeli media watchers refer to as “Pallywood” continuing to churn out semi-staged video and altered stills to the international media, Israeli government resources and assets are crucial to fight this ongoing anti-Israel offensive that constantly attempts to portray Arabs and Palestinians as innocent, peace-loving victims of Israeli aggression.
To the majority of the Israeli media who believe this issue should not have been revived for fear of further criticism, I bring to their attention something written by Hanoch Marmari, one of their most esteemed colleagues, who was editor-in-chief of the critical Ha’aretz paper during the Second Intifada. After the release of the report and the ensuing questioning by the media, he wrote: “The important lesson that I learned from years of covering the two intifadas is that there is no way to be a journalist with veiled eyes. And even when the purity of shame blurs the vision, it is forbidden to drop even in the most difficult circumstances, the basic tools of reporting: curiosity, skepticism and criticism. … It finally dawned on me how successful the Palestinian side has been at manipulating this embarrassment and shame of Israeli journalists like me as a tool in its struggle. … Whoever tried to continue to delve into this affair was perceived to be crazy or with a political agenda, or both. … We let this incident go especially when the flames engulfed the territories and our journalistic resources. Today it is clear that we should have been doubtful at what we saw, especially as the eyes were one camera only, that of Tallal Abu Rahman, a supplier of hot footage from the front, footage defined as Pallywood, the Palestinian video drama industry.”
Finally, one welcome development should provide a significant boost to not only coping with Pallywood, but also in going on the offensive: July will see the launch of I 24, the first Israeli-based, 24-hour news channel broadcasting in English, French and Arabic. With new, modern studios in Jaffa, the first Israeli CNN-style operation, launched by French Jewish Cable TV mogul Patrick Derhi, will be available throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle and Far East. Unfortunately the American launch will be in 2014 at best, but in the meantime will be ac- cessible via streaming on their website (i24news.tv). I wish them the best of luck and hope Derhi will be able to sustain this mas- sive operation that will inevitably accumulate expenses exceeding revenue. It is crucial they succeed. Maybe the MSA can follow the belated commission of enquiry of the Mohammed al-Dura affair with another positive stop by supporting I 24 in a significant manner.
Mylan Tanzer is a Portland native who moved to israel in 1981. He was the founding CEO of the first Israeli cable and satellite sports channel. Since 2005, he has launched, managed and consulted for channels and companies in Israel and Europe. Tanzer lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and five children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.