The lie heard round the world

Posted: Sep 16, 2005 12:00 AM

The image has achieved iconic status: 12-year-old Muhammad al-Dura crouching behind a concrete barrier next to his father as (presumably) Israeli bullets ricochet around the pair. Moments later, the boy lies dead in his father's arms.
The video dates from September 2000, the start of the Second Intifada, and has become the world's favorite image of supposed Israeli brutality. France 2, the network that supplied the only footage of the shooting, reported that al-Dura had "died under a hail of Israeli bullets." Hussein Ibish, communications director of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, declared that the boy's death was "one of the most damaging images in the history of Zionism." The New York Times called the incident "a potent new symbol of what angry Palestinians contend is their continued victimization." The street in Cairo that houses the Israeli consulate was renamed "the Boulevard of Muhammad al-Dura." A park bears his name in Morocco. Belgium put his face on a stamp.

 Al-Dura's image is also spliced into the video Daniel Pearl's killers made of his beheading. As Stephanie Gutmann recounts in her outstanding new book "The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Struggle for Media Supremacy," "After Pearl makes his final statement in the confession portion -- 'my father is a Jew; my mother is a Jew; I am a Jew' -- there is a cut to Mohammed and father huddling together. Seconds before Pearl is laid on the ground and hands begin to saw at his throat with long knives, a still shot of Jamal al-Dura clasping his dying son flashes on the screen."

 Every major media outlet in the world carried the al-Dura story. The narrative: Father and son wandered too close to an Israeli outpost protecting the village of Netzarim. When Israeli soldiers fired upon the pair, the father, Jamal al-Dura, waved to show that they were innocent civilians. They were "answered," as put it, "with a fusillade of bullets." When every major news organization in the world reports a story, it would be fair to assume that many reporters observed this event. In fact, as Gutmann and Nidra Poller in Commentary both document, every single reporter was relying on the same snippet of tape provided by France 2, though many shamefully phrased their reports as if they were eyewitnesses. The cameraman, Talal Abu Rahmeh, a Palestinian stringer for a number of news agencies, testified that after a five-minute exchange of gunfire between Palestinian police and the Israelis, the Israelis had fired upon the unarmed father and child for 45 minutes.

 Only much later, after the story had blanketed the globe and become a recruiting tool for suicide bombers in many countries, did questions about the narrative begin to trickle out. The Israel Defense Forces performed a series of re-creations of the scene (after initially acknowledging that its soldiers might have accidentally shot the pair) and concluded that the father and son simply could not have been hit from the Israeli position. No autopsy was performed on the boy's body. No bullets were ever retrieved. But other investigators have noted that the size and shape of the bullet holes on the concrete wall behind the pair were inconsistent with M-16s the Israelis used.

 As both Gutmann and Poller document, the camera crews had set up at Netzarim in the morning before a single shot was fired. Why? Poller has viewed all of the footage she could obtain from the other news organizations stationed at Netzarim that day and discovered that, in addition to actual scenes, the cameras also captured a number of vignettes in which "Palestinian stringers sporting prestigious logos on their vests and cameras are seen filming battle scenes staged behind the abandoned factory, well out of range of Israeli gunfire."

 When Esther Schapira, a German documentary filmmaker, asked France 2 to permit her to view the entire day's film from Netzarim, not the just the 51 seconds that had so electrified the world, she was rebuffed.

 Some have theorized that al-Dura was accidentally killed by Palestinians and then immediately transformed into a martyr to cover up the mistake. Others believe it is possible that he was intentionally sacrificed because his father had been a little too friendly with Israelis. We will probably never know. But one thing is certain -- the story of the deliberate killing of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Dura by Israeli soldiers was a damnable lie.