How French TV fudged the death of Mohammed Al Durah.
Camera Obscuraby Richard Landes Only at TNR Online Post date 10.17.06Discuss this article
In September 30, 2000, images of 12-year-old Mohammed Al Durah and his father--cowering behind a barrel at Netzarim Junction, in the Gaza Strip--circulated globally, along with a claim that they had been the targeted victims of Israeli fire. If Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount two days earlier had sparked riots, these images triggered all-out war. The ensuing horror and outrage swept away any questions about its reliability. Indignant observers dismissed any Israeli attempt to deny responsibility as "blaming the victim."
But, by 2002, two documentaries--one German, one French--raised troubling questions. The raw footage
from that day reveals pervasive staging; no evidence (certainly not the most widely circulated tape offers evidence of Israeli fire directed at the barrel, much less of Israelis targeting the pair; given the angles, the Israelis could scarcely have hit the pair at all, much less 12 times (indeed the only two bullets that hit the wall above them came from the Palestinian side, inexplicably 90 degrees off target); there was no sign of blood on the ground where the father and son reportedly bled for 20 minutes; there was no footage of an ambulance evacuation or arrival at the hospital; there was no autopsy; and none of the dozen cameraman present filmed anything that could substantiate the claim that the father and son had been hit, much less that the Israelis had targeted them. These documentaries had limited exposure, in part thanks to France2's refusal to run the one by a sister station in Germany. But they did spark a demonstration in Paris outside the France2 offices by citizens outraged to discover that so horrendous an image may well have been a fake.
The demonstrations apparently ruffled feathers. Some writers lambasted France2's coverage--most prominently Philippe Karsenty, who called for Al Durah beat chief Charles Enderlin and France2 chief Arlette Chabot to resign, and, in response, Enderlin and France2 itself--using the same law invoked against Emile Zola in the Dreyfus Affair--have accused three critics (including Karsenty) of "striking at their honor and respectability."
Now, four years later, the lawsuits are finally coming to trial in Room 17 of the Palais de Justice in Paris. The three suits (one for each defendant) come in rapid succession--September 14, October 26, and November 30--with judgments four weeks following each hearing. And, in at least two of the trials, I, a medieval historian, have been asked to testify.
I have become involved for two reasons. First of all, I noted almost immediately that Palestinians and anti-Zionists, insisting that Israel killed the boy on purpose, used Al Durah in a way familiar to medievalists--as a blood libel. This was the first blood libel of the twenty-first century, rendered global by cable and the Internet. Indeed, within a week, crowds the world over shouted "We want Jewish blood!" and "Death to the Jews!". For Europeans in particular, the libelous image came as balm to a troubled soul: "This death erases, annuls that of the little boy in the Warsaw Gherro," intoned Europe1 editorialist Catherine Nay. The Israelis were the new Nazis.
And second, when I saw the raw footage in the summer of 2003--especially when I saw the scene Enderlin had cut, wherein the boy(allegedly shot in the stomach, but holding his hand over his eyes) picks up his elbow and looks around--I realized that this was not a film of a boy dying, but a clumsily staged scene.
On October 31, 2003, at the studios of France2 in Jerusalem in the company of Charles Enderlin and his Israeli cameraman, I saw the raw footage
of Al Durah from the only Palestinian cameraman who actually captured the scene on film--footage France2 still refuses to release for public examination. I was floored. The tapes feature a long succession of obviously faked injuries; brutal, hasty evacuation scenes; and people ducking for cover while others stand around. One fellow grabbed his leg in agony, then, upon seeing that no one would come to carry him away, walked away without a limp. It was stunning. That was no cameraman's conspiracy: It was everyone--a public secret about which news consumers had no clue.
But the real shock came when I mentioned this to Enderlin, who said he trusted this cameraman. "They always do that," he said. "It's a cultural style." So why wouldn't they have faked Al Durah? "They're not good enough," he said. A year later, the higher-ups at France2 made the same remark to three French journalists who also noted the pervasive staging: "You know well that it's always like that," they said.
I tried unsuccessfully to interest the mainstream press in this obvious fakery, but nobody was interested. "I don't know how much appetite there is for this material here," one person at a major studio told me. So I made Pallywood (Palestinian Hollywood)
--a video-essay showing the dishonesty and the still-more-astounding Western complicity in using this footage to inform us about the Middle East. Then I made a follow-up, Al Durah: The Making of an Icon
(and soon, Icon of Hatred). I established a website, The Second Draft
, where I posted the movies along with my evidence so that, unlike France2, people could check my sources. And now the accused have asked me to testify.
Why did they want me? In trying to dismiss my first testimony, the plaintiff's lawyer wondered, "what does he know about images? He's a medievalist." Well, I know about the power of images, of narratives, and of forgeries, and especially blood libels. And, since my first book, Relics, Apocalypse, and the Deceits of History
, was about a set of forgeries that continued to fool historians for decades even after a critic revealed them as fakes in the 1920s, I also know something about the difficulty of getting specialists to acknowledge they were duped.
But this image goes beyond blood libel and anti-Semitism, beyond blackening Israel's image and whitewashing Palestinian violence. Al Durah became the icon not only of the Intifada, but of global jihad. Within months of the incident, bin Laden came out with a recruiting video that featured extensive Pallywood footage and highlighted Al Durah. Months later, Pakistani jihadis killed Daniel Pearl, interweaving Al Durah's image into their tape of the execution.
In 2000, anyone told of Muslim plans to Islamicize the West laughed with scorn. It was the least of Western worries. Today, some have already given up Europe for lost; others see it in the balance; and others are finally awakening with shock to the radical shift in the balance of forces. And every aspect of l'affaire Al Durah is emblematic of why: from the Palestinian forces that staged it; to the Western mainstream press and the NGOs that presented it as news without asking hard questions (and that believed any subsequent Palestinian claims of Israelis killing children and resisted efforts at correction); to the Muslim world that turned it into an icon of hatred and a call to genocidal holy war; to the "leftist" revolutionaries who jumped on the jihad bandwagon in Durban, South Africa; to a public distressingly eager for "dirt" on Israel and unaware of the forces empowered by diffusing such poisons.
Three court trials, then--in which France2 seeks to bury any serious assessment of their coverage--are also trials of France's ability to defend her republican values against an Islamist onslaught that it seems ill-equipped to resist. And, as France goes, so goes Europe. (Would France have it any other way?)
The plaintiff at the first trial, on September 14, was Philippe Karsenty of Media-Ratings, the boldest of France2's critics. No one from France2 showed up. Its solitary lawyer had no witnesses, no questions for Karsenty's witnesses, and no comments about the evidence damning her clients. Her summation insisted on France2's honor and reputation, offered a letter of praise from President Jacques Chirac, and cast aspersions on the defense's witnesses.
Then the procureur de la republique (a court-appointed officer charged with assessing the case in the interests of civil society) gave her nonbinding opinion. She rebuked France2 for not addressing the evidence, for not showing their raw footage, and for not even showing up in court. She further admitted that, although Karsenty had impugned Enderlin's and France2's reputations, he had offered enough evidence to make such assertions a legitimate part of public discourse. Judgment on Karsenty's case is Thursday. Next trial: October 26. So far, the best coverage--surprise!--comes from the blogosphere
, medieval history professor at Boston University, established www.seconddraft.org and blogs at www.theaugeanstables.com. He is the author of Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience (forthcoming).