The image is as disturbing and iconic as any seen during the many decades of the Arab-Israeli conflict: Mohammed al-Durra, just 12 years old, caught in a cross-fire in Gaza, trembling against a wall, his father desperately attempting to shield him. And then, heartbreakingly, Mohammed al-Durra, shot and killed by Israeli gunfire.
His death, in September 2000, inspired poems – and suicide bombings. According to the 2001 Mitchell report it was one of the events that set off the intifada.
A poster of Mohammed al-Durra is in the background of the video of the butchering of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Osama bin Laden used the boy’s image in recruitment tapes and began a list of indictments against America by saying that President Bush “must not forget the image of Mohammed al-Durra and his fellow Muslims in Palestine and Iraq.”
But there is something most people don’t know about this story: It didn’t happen the way I described it above. It may not have happened at all.
This is not a new revelation. Back in 2002, a documentary made by the German State Television station, ARD, concluded that Palestinian rather than Israeli gunfire must have killed the child. In June 2003, the veteran journalist James Fallows wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly presenting “persuasive evidence that the fatal shots could not have come from Israeli soldiers.”
More recently, Denis Jeambar, editor-in-chief of the French newsweekly, L’Express, and documentary filmmaker Daniel Leconte, were permitted to review the raw, unedited video of the shooting. They reached the same conclusion. “The only ones who could hit the child were the Palestinians from their position,” Leconte told the Cybercast News Service (CBN). “If they had been Israeli bullets, they would be very strange bullets because they would have needed to go around the corner.”
What’s still not clear is whether Mohammed al-Durra’s story was a tragic misunderstanding – or a spectacular fraud, intended to stoke the fires of anti-Israeli hatred and establish, in the public mind, a moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorists and Israeli soldiers.
The original footage of the incident was produced and distributed to news organizations worldwide – at no cost – by the government-owned France 2 television network. Only one cameraman, Talal Abu Rahma, a Palestinian, filmed the incident. None of the other cameramen and journalists present that day witnessed it. The France 2 reporter on the story, Charles Enderlin, was not at the scene. The information for his voiceover came exclusively from Rahma.
At this point, at least, Enderlin does not claim to be sure of his facts. Instead, he says that his assertion that Israelis killed al-Durra “corresponded to the reality of the situation, not only in Gaza but in the West Bank.”
Put otherwise, whether Israeli soldiers murdered al-Durra is irrelevant because Enderlin believes that other Israelis have killed other Palestinians. An astonished Leconte told CBN: “I find this, from a journalistic point of view, hallucinating. That a journalist like him can be driven to say such things is very revealing of the state of the press in France today.”
Recently, the International Herald Tribune quoted France 2’s news director hedging: “No one can say for certain who killed (al-Durra).” But in his report, Enderlin was quite certain: “The shooting comes from the Israeli position,” he said; and “One more volley and the child will be dead.”
That’s not all. Although Israel initially issued an apologetic statement that al-Durra might have been accidentally killed in crossfire, it later assigned a civilian physicist, Nahum Shahaf, to investigate. He, too, determined that the fatal shots could not have come from Israeli rifles. But he went further, concluding that Rahma staged the incident. “Going through the film in slow motion,” wrote journalist Stephane Juffa, “he could even see the cameraman’s finger making a ‘take two’ sign, used by professionals to signal the repeat of a scene.”
Juffa obtained testimony from “Dr. Joumaa Saka and Dr. Muhamad El-Tawil, two Palestinian doctors of the Gaza Shifa hospital, who said that al-Durra’s lifeless body was brought to them before 1 P.M.” But France 2 reported that the shooting did not begin until 3 P.M. “How can someone be killed by bullets that were fired hours after he was already dead?” Juffa asks. He believes the answer is simple: The child in the morgue and the child in the France 2 report were different children.
What’s more, Philippe Karsenty, director of the Paris-based Media Ratings, notes that Enderlin had initially claimed that the unedited footage included “the child’s death throes,” scenes too “unbearable” to watch. But the unedited tape contains nothing of the kind.
Because France 2 is government-owned, French President Jacques Chirac could step in and right a wrong that has resulted in hundreds of deaths. To do so, argues Juffa, would promote the peace process because “for peace we need reconciliation and for reconciliation we need the truth.”
So far, however, Chirac has shown no interest. And France 2 says it will sue those who “defame” it. Karsenty told me he plans to file his own lawsuit this week. His attorney, he said, is confident. He added: “And he gets paid only if we win.”
(Clifford D. May is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)