Fallows on al Durah: What is your Position?

James Fallows has posted at his blog about the al Durah affair, in which he apparently continues to keep his distance from what he calls the “complete fabrication” hypothesis. Interesting language suggesting a totalistic position. What’s wrong with plain fabrication? What would “partial fabrication” involve? What’s wrong with “staged”?

The strange case of Muhamed al-Durah

Three and a half years ago, during the invasion of Iraq, I was not there but in Israel, reporting for this story in the Atlantic. It concerned whether al-Durah, the famous Palestinian child martyr of the Second Intifada, had in fact been killed by Israeli forces, or indeed whether he had been killed at all.

A year or so later I met Richard Landes, an academic who has pursued the possibility that the event was staged from beginning to end. He has published a new summary of his views. He correctly reports that I have not accepted his “complete fabrication” hypothesis, but this is a good way to grasp his side’s argument.

Let me right off thank James Fallows for that article, which was the beginning for me of the journey I’ve been on since then (and for his subsequent help in pursuing leads). Indeed, in his piece he allowed Shahaf to articulate his position so cogently that a number of people I spoke with subsequently thought that Fallows took that position as well, even though he scrupulously avoided pronouncing on the more controversial aspects of Shahaf’s position.

I call his position, the “minimalist” position, because although he does conclude that both scenarios 1 and 2 (Israelis on purpose and by accident) are so unlikely as to be nearly impossible, he does not really pursue the matter and investigate the probabilities of 3-5 (Palestinians by accident, on purpose, and staged). Thus rather than follow up on the stunning revelation that we’ve be profoundly decieved, he has stopped at a preliminary finding.

Now granted that that finding is fairly obvious, nonetheless, given the vast consensus against it at the time Fallows wrote his piece in 2003, just making that point took a good deal of courage. On the other hand, it seems that by now — with three more years of increasing violence of the sort first aroused by Muhammad’s image beamed around the world — that we should go beyond this initial finding to ask: if not the Israelis, then what did happen?

Part of what’s so striking about the whole affair is that the alternative explanations (1-4) have so many problems that they strike me as “Rube Goldberg machines” and hence, extremely unlikely.

So my question to James Fallows is, “how do you explain take 6, and the lack of blood, not to mention the absence of footage of the ambulance evacuation and of recovered bullets?

My estimation is that the probability of the staged scenario is above 95%. What’s yours? And what other scenario do you think even remotely plausible?


James Fallows has added to his posting in response to this query, which I reproduce here:

On his site, Landes asks which “side” I myself take in the al-Durah case. He lays out five possibilities:

1. That Israeli soldiers killed the boy on purpose;
2. That Israelis killed him by accident;
3. That Palestinians killed him by accident;
4. That Palestinians killed him on purpose;
5. That nobody killed him and the whole “death” was staged.

My article was devoted to proving what I called the “minimum” case — that explanations 1 and 2 could not be true. As a matter of physics and forensics, the Israeli soldiers know to have been on the scene that day could not have shot the boy.

I was then, and remain now, agnostic on what I called the “maximum” case, scenarios 3 through 5. To me this case has analogies to a criminal trial. In presenting a defense, the accused doesn’t have to prove who actually did commit the crime; it is sufficient to show that he himself could not have done so — though of course it helps, legally and dramatically, if he can finger another culprit. Since the Israeli soldiers had essentially been convicted in world opinion of killing the boy, there seemed to me value in establishing that they themselves were in all probability innocent — whoever else might have been guilty of whatever the crime in this case turned out to be.

I have listened for hours to explanations of why the event “had” to have been staged; many of them are reproduced in Landes’s various postings. Those could be true. I myself am not yet convinced that they must be true. (For instance: there is a staged event involving many hundreds of people, and not one of them has broken discipline to brag or confess about what happened?) My position is genuinely agnostic — and reflects my experience that there are many episodes whose underlying truth we never come to know.

On this point I wrote three years in my article, “The truth about this case will probably never be determined. Or, to put it more precisely, no version of truth that is considered believable by all sides will ever emerge.” That last sentence has become more obviously true with the passing years. The first still reflects my views.

I understand and agree with Fallows, although I approach this not as a lawyer in a trial, but an historian doing research. Therefore, given the limited number of possibilities, having eliminated the ones most widely accepted, I think the obvious thing to do is explore which of the remaining ones is more likely. And again, without a “smoking gun” none of this is “proven.”

But, take for example, the following reasoning:

there is a staged event involving many hundreds of people, and not one of them has broken discipline to brag or confess about what happened?

First of all, given the kind of culture of “solidarity” that prevails among Palestinians, breaking ranks and whistleblowing (which we in the West might expect) is not only counter-indicated, but potentially suicidal. As one Arab said to me when I told him not to show a copy of an early draft of Al Durah to anyone: “Are you kidding? The boy is a martyr; just having this in my possession could be a death warrant.”

Second, if Western reporters had been as investigative as Fallows, and pressed for the story (also at the risk of their own lives), they might well have gotten someone to brag about it. But no one tried; on the contrary they rushed to affirm the tale they were being told by Talal et al. It took me five minutes with an Arab cab driver in Jerusalem who was initially indignant at the mere suggestion, to have him accept the likelihood that al Durah was a fake. All I had to do was phrase my claim as an occasion for admiration of how the Arabs fool the Western media, and not as condemnation.

Third, if it wasn’t a fake, but he was killed by Palestinian fire, either by accident (less likely) or on purpose (second most likely hypothesis) — in either case, hit by 11 Palestinian bullets! — why would there not have also been a leak, if leaking were “in the cards” as Fallows presumes? The lack of “breaking rank” does not, it seems to me, constitute any kind of evidence for or against the staged hypothesis, certainly not a decisive argument against it.

Finally, if we are interested in understanding the nature of the conflict and the dynamics of media coverage in affecting what the media are covering, then it seems of vital importance to discuss whether this is indeed a fake or not. Getting Israel “off the hook,” and admittedly only for a small group of people willing to consider the evidence dispassionately, is just the beginning of the job. Waking up people — the Europeans! — to the way in which their lives and their culture are being damaged by an irresponsible media which, instead of acting like a dialysis machine and filtering out the poisons, actually pumps those poisons into their information system, seems like a fairly important task for anyone concerned with the future of a free press and the civil society which makes it possible.

4 Responses to Fallows on al Durah: What is your Position?

  1. […] of the “five scenarios” and James Fallows current position on the matter, see Fallows on al Durah: What is your Position? For a long med […]

  2. France 2 TV seeks revenge upon the local whistlebl

    The political and court situation in France can be very awful, and that’s certainly the case now, what with France 2, the TV channel that conducted the fauxtography with a Muslim boy named Mohammed al-Dura, now suing three local media monitors who da…

  3. […] y Media-Ratings’ Web site. “Blatant forgery,” is like Fallow’s “complete fabrication.” Doesn’t sound good. No […]

  4. […] have an ongoing debate with James Fallows about the Al Durah Affair (here, here, and here). Indeed, he and Gabriel Weimann (mentioned below) are the first people to whom I […]

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