Al Durah as “Staged”:
Reflections on the Resistance
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 my 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 Gérard Huber and Nidra Poller entitled “Blood libel international.” 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 one commentator put it:
In the Muslim community there are extremists who think that Mossad did 9-11, and in the Jewish community extremists who think Al Durah was staged.”
This is the line that Enderlin is still pushing. In response to a recent article in La Libre Belgique he wrote:
That serious newspapers like Libération and La Libre Belgique publish even on the debate page, the feverish nightime workings (élucubrations, apparently Enderlin’s equivalent of Dan Rather’s “pajamas” remark) and defamatory accusations appalls me. Are you also going to publish an “opinion” from an author affirming the the towers of NY were destroyed by the CIA?
The idea that one can compare a cheap fake that fooled a reporter as appallingly complacent about his own cameraman’s sending him staged footage with the argument that the CIA planned 9-11 in 9 months, is pretty amazing in itself. But it gets at the core of Enderlin’s strategy: marginalize the dissenters. As he put it to me in conversation, “groupuscules d’extrême droite” [tiny groups from the far right].
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.” The footage broadcast around the world showed nothing of the sort, and the cliip Enderlin cut, the final “take” of the sequence (after Enderlin had pronounced the boy dead in showing the previous “takes”), showed him, hands over his eyes rather than clutching his fatal stomach wound, picking up his elbow and looking around.
[Take 6 of the 59 seconds of “al Durah under fire”. He has already been hit take 4 where he clutches his stomach, take 5, where his hand is over his eyes. This take is the only section of Talal’s mere 59 seconds that Enderlin cut from his broadcast. Enderlin did admit to cutting some of the footage, but assured his audience that it was the “death throes” of the child, and too unbearable to show.]
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 and poems 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?
[Note, the “fifteen bullet holes” that Suzanne Goldenberg found the next day are not yet up, like the blood.]
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.
“No, that would be a Palestinian.”
“The Red Cross?”
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.” [Note, that probably applies best to the likelihood that something as dastardly as a CIA plot to blow up the WTC and Pentagon would take place without one of the thousands of US civil servants who had to be involved, not spilling 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. By affirming these “lethal narratives” as Nidra Poller calls them, actually empower those who oppress the Palestinians the most, their elites who feed them hatred, rile them up to violence and cash in on the sympathy the world feels for those innocents hit when Israel strikes back at their cruel captors. By leveling a playing field of war in this fashion we do not show sympathy for the Palestinian people who are the first and constant victims of their leaders’ violent ambitions, we prolong a war that can only hurt everyone but the warmongers. For reasons I still don’t understand, 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 a reporter for ABC (presumably a rival network), 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.”
Of course, he had enough honesty to admit to being convinced. Most “media experts” refused to even go that far. Gerry Holmes, Middle East correspondant for ABC, posted in Israel from 1999-2002, told me he had never seen anything even remotely resembling the making of fakes in his entire period of working there, and after seeing the Pallywood footage, remarked, “We could argue about every frame.” After that visit, he never answered another call to discuss “every frame.” What a 12-year-old would look at and say, “No duh! It’s fake,” a sophisticated producer would insist “could be” true.
I became increasingly convinced that this story was like the emperor’s new clothes. Here Talal and his gang of assistants were the tailors who spun the ludicrous lie, Enderlin was the Chamberlain who affirmed it, the MSM were the court that accepted it and made it politically correct, and the crowd was the public expected to “consume it.”
I showed an early version to an Israeli “new historian.” He watched it with interest, showing the kind of reactions that suggested he agreed. But in the end, he said, “I don’t think you have enough proof.” “What do you mean?” “It won’t convince the public.” As I meditated on what he meant, it occurred to me that he, and many, watched this with two sets of eyes, their own (in which it was pretty clearly fake) and the eyes of some larger public which they imagined, rightfully, to be more resistant (in which it was not clearly enough fake). What happens if you say the emperor’s naked and the crowd turns on you and tells you to hush?
Furthermore, in the tale, the motivation for accepting the storyline was so as not to appear stupid. Here I suspect that other factors played, not the least the eagerness with which the public — especially in the Arab/Muslim world and in Europe — seized on the story of Israeli maleficence. Just as the Arab world seems to have an insatiable thirst for demonizing images that permit them to hate the Israelis, the Europeans have an insatiable thirst for images that permit them to despise the Israelis. As one commentater, journalist Catherine Nay proclaimed on Europe1 TV:
The Death of Muhammed cancels out, erases that of the Jewish child, his hands in the air from the SS in the Warsaw Ghetto.
[From Ramsey Clark’s International Action website.]
With the picture playing such a key role in absolving Europeans of Holocaust guilt, who could stand in the way? As the French say, “il ne faut pas mettre le doit entre l’arbre et l’ecorce.” [Don't put your hand between the tree and the bark.] And as the Chinese say, “A man needs ‘face’ the way a tree needs bark.”
In a larger sense, the reason I think the tale found such ready acceptance especially among the media even in the USA (which has little Holocaust guilt) 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 challenge the paradigm, with troubling consequences. Indeed the very day before, a similar distortion of images from the region had occurred via AP in the NYT. An Arab mob had beaten a Jewish student nearly to death, and the boy, Tuvya Grossman, had fled to the protection of an Israeli policeman who, protecting him, brandished his club angrily at the mob. AP identified the Tuvya as a Palestinian and the Israeli as his attacker and identified the location of the “Israeli” assault on the Temple Mount despite the gas station visible in the background. (It took the NYT four days to correct itself and seven to tell the real story.)
On another level, of course, to question the al Durah stuff — especially once it had made the rounds — meant confronting an intimidating opposition to anything that shed the Palestinian leadership in an unflattering light. As one Arab to whom I gave an early copy of the work, urging him to keep it confidential put it, “Are you kidding. This boy is a martyr. I could be killed for having this tape.”
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 — found the case too dangerous to risk. Some of them, committed to the “Oslo Peace Process” long after it had been killed by suicide terrorism, felt that to attack al Durah would wreck the prospects for peace. No argument that it was precisely the opposite — that as long as the Palestinians could trash any agreement by producing these lethal narratives and get world sympathy in the process, they would never hold to any negotiated commitments — made a dent.
Even the vocal critics of Oslo, the pro-Israel Media-Watch groups eager to criticize the MSM’s coverage, were reluctant to take it on. Understandably. These groups have worked hard to establish their credibility, to avoid getting labeled right-wing nut cases, and they 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 (i.e., the Jews were malevolent demopaths). 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 [http://www.seconddraft.org./ess_conspiracy.php]. 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 critical intelligence and good judgment, therefore, I address my work on Pallywood and Muhamed al Durah.
A child, however, who had no important job and could only see things as his eyes showed them to him, went up to the carriage.
“The Emperor is naked,” he said.
“Fool!” his father reprimanded, running after him. “Don’t talk nonsense!” He grabbed his child and took him away. But the boy’s remark, which had been heard by the bystanders, was repeated over and over again until everyone cried:
“The boy is right! The Emperor is naked! It’s true!”
The blogosphere is that venue whereby the words of the Nahum Shahaf make the rounds. I am one of those bystanders who heard him and have repeated it… may it be “over and over again.”