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AL DURAH AS STAGED

AL DURAH AS STAGED: 

REFLECTIONS ON THE RESISTANCE

Richard Landes

 

Like everyone who saw the initial footage, in early October 2000, I was horrified at the sight of Muhamed al Durah dying on camera in what seemed like a hail of bullets. But I was equally dismayed by the wave of virulent hate-speech that filled both the Arab media and, to a lesser but significant extent, the European and radical "left", in its aftermath. As a medievalist who specializes in millennialism, I had suggested that 2000 might mark a shift - fairly common in the Middle Ages - from a sustained period of philo-Judaism since the end of the Holocaust, especially in the USA, to a shift towards anti-semitism, and these developments gave me the unenviable role of Cassandra.

 

The specific image of Al Durah returned to may attention in the summer of 2003, when I read James Fallows' article on the case. Although Fallows himself does not give the case his assent, he does give voice to Nahum Shahaf's argument that the scene was staged. The issue came round full circle to the Middle Ages when I read an article by Amnon Lord entitled "Who Killed Muhammad Al-Dura? Blood Libel -- Model 2000". By then I was well behind the times. A small but growing group of people who had looked closely at the evidence, were convinced that it had been staged. I first met Nidra Poller and Gerard Huber in Paris in the summer of 2003 where I had my first viewing of footage shot that day. It did not take a great deal of footage to convince me that I was viewing a fake. The evidence seemed overwhelming… as did its implications. What revelations this story had for us not only about the Middle East conflict, but about our own media's most elemental incompetence!

 

But the story, for all its explosive impact in the past, and the equally explosive potential impact, was having trouble getting out. The initial investigation by Shahaf and Doriel had run into problems with the media as early as late 2000, when both Ha-Aretz and Bob Simon on 60 minutes dismissed it as unprofessional. As Simon put it, "they came to their conclusions before a shot was fired" - without a mention that the shots fired confirmed the obvious hypothesis that the round clouds of dust kicked up by the only two bullets caught on tape, came from the Palestinian position.

 

The story stayed buried until the 2002 German documentary by Esther Schapira, which aired neither in France (where as a sister-station of Hessische Rundfunk [link to station], one might have expected coverage of an issue of national import (it was France2 that had "broken" the story), nor in the US or Britain. The story became better known to a larger audience when, in the Spring of 2003, when a series of articles appeared, the most widely circulated of which was James Fallows in the Atlantic Monthly. Neither Schapira nor Fallows espoused the thesis that the footage was staged, preferring the minimal position that it was most unlikely that Israeli fire, intentional or accidental, had struck the al Durahs. Implicitly, that meant Palestinian bullets in the cross-fire, but even to question the initial story was difficult, no one wanted to tread the path of how the Palestinians might have killed the boy.

 

I soon found out why they had taken such a cautious position. Virtually everyone I spoke to, no matter how "skeptical" of Palestinian media sources, found the thesis of a fake so outlandish that they warned me about sounding like a conspiracy-theorist. Indeed. I should have taken note of the fate of Gerard Huber, whose book, the only full length analysis of the al Durah Affair, "Contre-expertise d'une mise en scène", had garnered him comparisons with the people (on the other side) who thought that 9-11 was a plot of the Israeli secret services.

 

As I continued to work on the subject, I found that, for reasons I still don't understand fully, the resistance to seeing the footage as fake was enormous. Fallows, who admits to viewing the footage over a hundred times, and each time hoping the boy would get up, describes nonetheless how "[t]he final few seconds of [Muhamed al Durah's] life, when he crouched in terror behind his father, Jamal, and then slumped to the ground after bullets ripped through his torso, were captured by a television camera and broadcast around the world." Apparently viewing, even repeated viewing, did not prevent people from seeing what they expected no matter how little the footage supported those expectations. How many articles have described - often in the headline - how the boy "died in his father's lap", when in fact he "dies" at his father's feet and his father never makes any motion towards him?

 

It was only gradually that I became aware of how hard it was to get people to even think of this possibility of staging. Most people, when I told them I thought neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians killed the boy, could not even imagine a fifth option.
"The father?"
"No, that would be a Palestinian."
"Suicide?"
"Again Palestinian."
"The Red Cross?"
"The Press?"
It was almost as if anything was more credible than "staged." It was then that I began to realize the role of cognitive egocentrism in this case: most of us could not even imagine a journalistic culture that would lie so baldly. As one investigative reporter put it to me, "I didn't believe it was faked because I assumed that at least someone there would spill the beans." After all, it would happen that way here. Hopefully. In principle, it would happen in a civil society that had overcome omertà.

 

Add to this resistance, that of an intellectual culture in which siding with the underdog is a sign of moral integrity. As one of my students remarked after seeing the footage: "The evidence seems clear, but I feel like if I agree, then I'm taking sides with the Israelis, and I don't want to take sides in this conflict." Then I understood how "even-handedness" contributes to the positions people take. Bob Simon notes in reference to Muhamed al Durah, "In the Middle East, one picture can be worth a thousand weapons…" Indeed. And since many people feel that the Israelis have all the weapons, it seems only fair to "level the playing field" by giving the Palestinians the "PR" victory. This may seem logical, and offer some emotional benefits, but upon reflection, it turns out to victimize the very people it allegedly supports. Not too many people seem to want to make that reflection… so far.

 

Add to all this resistance, the understandable reluctance of the media to admit so striking, so damning a mistake, Enderlin and France2 for sure, and the rest of the purveyors of Pallywood as well. I showed this to someone in one of the two "other" (and presumably rival) public networks, and he admitted to being convinced by the evidence. But when I asked him if his show might be interested in breaking at least the story of Pallywood, he replied, "I don't know how much appetite there is at this station for something like this." On one level, part of the reason that the media seized so eagerly on this image was because it confirmed the overriding paradigm that the Palestinians were the David and the Israelis the Goliath in this conflict. To question that, was to question the paradigm, with troubling consequences . On another level, it meant confronting an intimidating opposition to anything that shed the Palestinian leadership in an unflattering light.

 

Indeed, I found that the organizations I expected would be most eager to hear this news - American and French Jewish and Israeli leaders, Israeli government officials, even pro-Israel Media-Watch groups, found the case too dangerous to risk. Understandably, these groups work hard to establish their credibility, and understood the risks to their reputation, the danger of an even bigger backlash (as happened when Shahaf's investigation first appeared) without a "smoking gun." As one person put it to me, "without 110% proof we dare not go public with this." And as another put it, "if you go public with this and fail, you only remind people of this terrible image and make things worse."

 

Many of these remarks reminded me of when I first read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in 1985. I was astonished at the argument - I thought it was about Jews using the capitalism to enslave mankind - but it was more than that. It's actually a relatively sophisticated argument that the Jews used democracy, including free press, as a way to enslave mankind. And the individual accusations were repeated without people knowing where they came from, I wanted to prepare a scholarly edition of the Protocols to alert the public. "You think you are inoculating people, but you'll only spread the virus," a major German scholar told me.

 

That was before the internet hit. Now the Protocols are everywhere, and daily feeding an growing culture of conspiracy theory. The internet has changed everything. And I personally feel - and this is one of the most elementary aspects of liberalism to which I adhere passionately - that if you can't trust the public to exercise intelligence and good judgment, then democracy is not possible. To those people in cyberspace and beyond, who are capable of such good judgment, therefore, I address this website's dossier on Muhamed al Durah.

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