Camera Obscura: How French TV fudged the death of Mohammed Al Durah

I finally get to blog on my own article. Here is the fully linked version with photos. (Apparently the folks at TNR don’t like too much hypertext wrecking the aesthetics of the electronic “page.”) I have added a couple of lines which are not in the TNR original. Since I agree almost entirely with the text, I won’t fisk or comment on it. I will put in the comments sections some of the disputes it has given rise to among those to whom I have sent it.

How French TV fudged the death of Mohammed Al Durah.
Camera Obscura

By Richard Landes

On September 30, 2000, images a father and his son, Mohammed Al Durah–cowering behind a barrel at Netzarim Junction, in the Gaza Strip–circulated globally, along with a claim that they had been the targeted victims of Israeli fire. If Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount two days earlier had sparked riots, these images triggered all-out war. The ensuing horror and outrage swept away any questions about its reliability. Indignant observers dismissed any Israeli attempt to deny responsibility as “blaming the victim.”

But, by 2002, two documentaries–one German, one French–raised troubling questions: the raw footage from that day reveals pervasive staging; no evidence, certainly not Talal’s footage, offers evidence of Israeli fire directed at the barrel, much less of Israelis targeting the pair; given the angles, the Israelis could scarcely have hit the pair at all, much less 12 times (indeed the only two bullets that hit the wall above them came from the Palestinian side, inexplicably 90 degrees off target); there was no sign of blood on the ground where the father and son reportedly bled for 20 minutes; there was no footage of an ambulance evacuation or arrival at the hospital; there was no autopsy; and none of the dozen cameraman present filmed anything that could substantiate the claim that the father and son had been hit, much less, that the Israelis had targeted them.

These documentaries had limited exposure, in part thanks to France2’s refusal to run the one by a sister station in Germany. But they did spark a demonstration in Paris outside the France2 offices by citizens outraged to discover that so horrendous an image may well have been a fake.

The demonstrations apparently ruffled feathers. An indignant and self-confident Charles Enderlin and France2 – using the same law invoked against Emile Zola in the Dreyfus Affair – has accused three critics of “striking at their honor and respectability.”

The statements might strike the American reader as mild: “come protest France2’s gigantic manipulation…” “Charles Enderlin has committed grave professional errors…” “grave presumptions of disinformation exist around this affair…” “France2’s continuous refusals [to open an investigation] constitute so many brutal and unacceptable obstructions in the search for and demonstration of the truth.” Karsenty’s article was the most vigorous, in that it called for Enderlin and France2’s boss, Arlette Chabot to resign after it became clear that Enderlin lied about the “death throes” scenes he allegedly cut.

Now, four years later, the lawsuits, having made their way through the courts, are at long last coming to trial, to Room 17 of the Palais de Justice in Paris. The three suits (one for each defendant) come in rapid succession: September 14, October 26, and November 30, with judgments four weeks following each hearing. And, in at least two of the trials, I, a medieval historian, have been asked to testify.

I have become involved for two reasons. First of all, I noted almost immediately, that Palestinians and anti-Zionists, insisting that Israel killed the boy on purpose, used Al Durah in a way familiar to medievalists – as a blood libel. This was the first blood libel of the twenty-first century, rendered global by hi-tech media from cable to internet. Indeed, within a week, crowds the world over shouted “We want Jewish blood!” (Jakarta) and “Death to Israel! Kill the Jews!” (Paris).

oct 7 republique
Rally in Place de la République, Paris, Oct. 7, 2000, where the demonstraters shouted “Death to Jews.”

For Europeans in particular, the libelous image came as balm to a troubled soul: “This death erases, annuls that of the little boy in the Warsaw Ghetto,” intoned Europe1 editorialist Catherine Nay. The Israelis were the new Nazis.

And secondly, when I saw the raw footage in the summer of 2003 – especially when I saw the abundance of cameramen at the Junction, and even there while the al Durahs were behind the barrel, and when I saw the scene Enderlin cut from his news broadcast, the last frames where the boy (allegedly shot in the stomach, but holding his hand over his eyes) picks up his elbow and looks around – I realized that this was not a film of a boy dying, but a clumsily staged scene.

take 6
Take 6. Enderlin and Talal have already declared the boy dead. He lifts up his elbow, looks out, then lowers it slowly, his feet rising in counterweight. The father has now turned away from his son (in the previous scene he faced the camera), and does not reach out to the boy.

On October 31, 2003, at the studios of France2 in Jerusalem in the company of Charles Enderlin and his Israeli cameraman, I saw the raw footage of Talal, the only Palestinian cameraman who actually captured the Al Durahs on film – footage France2 still refuses to release for public examination.

I was floored. The tapes feature a long succession of obviously faked injuries; brutal, hasty evacuation scenes; people ducking for cover while others stand around. One fellow grabbed his leg in agony, then seeing that no one came to carry him away, walked away without a limp. Having already seen Talal caught by Esther Schapira in a most revealing lie, I should not have been surprised. But I was. It was stunning. It was more than Talal. It was everyone… a public secret to which we, news consumers, had no clue.

But the real shock came when I mentioned this to Charles Enderlin, the man who completely trusted this cameraman. “Oh, they do that all the time,” he said. “It’s a cultural style.” So why not fake al Durah? “They’re not good enough,” he said. A year later, the higher-ups at France2 made the same remark to three French journalists who also noted the pervasive staging: «mais oui, tu sais bien que c’est toujours comme ça» [But of course, you know well that it’s always like that].

I tried unsuccessfully to interest the mainstream press in this obvious and stunning fakery (“I don’t know how much appetite there is for this material here,” noted one person at a major studio). So I made Pallywood (Palestinian Hollywood)–a video-essay showing the dishonesty and the still-more-astounding Western complicity in using this footage to inform us about the Middle East– a follow-up on Al Durah: The Making of an Icon (and soon, Icon of Hatred). I established a website, The Second Draft, where I posted the movies along with my evidence so that, unlike France2, people could check my sources.

And now the accused have asked me to testify.

Why did they want me? As the plaintiff’s lawyer said trying to dismiss my first testimony, “what does a medievalist know about images?” Well I know about the power of images, of narratives, and of forgeries, and especially blood libels. And, since my first book, Relics, Apocalypse, and the Deceits of History: Ademar of Chabannes, 989-1034, was about a set of forgeries that continued to fool historians for decades after a critic revealed them as fakes in the 1920s, I also know something about the difficulty of getting specialists to acknowledge they were duped.

But this image goes beyond blood libel and anti-Semitism, beyond Israel’s blackened image and the whitewashing of Palestinian violence. (“What choice do they have? Israel kills their kids!” was common reponse to suicide bombing during the first years of the intifada.) Al Durah became the icon not only of the Intifada, but of global jihad. Within months of the incident, bin Laden came out with a recruiting video that featured extensive Pallywood footage and highlighted Al Durah. Months later, Pakistani jihadis killed Daniel Pearl, interweaving Al Durah’s image into the execution.

So when the Europeans played their get-out-of-Holocaust-guilt-free card repeatedly on their televisions and in their magazines, they unwittingly waved the flag of global jihad before their Muslim immigrant populations. (Ironically, for Muslim radicals, Europeans – Westerners – are just as guilty, and Europe is just as much a target of their war cry as Israel.)

In 2000, anyone told of Muslim plans to Islamicize the West laughed with scorn. It was the least of Western worries. Today, some have already given up Europe for lost, others see it in the balance, even as others awaken with shock to the radical shift in the balance of forces. And every aspect of l’affaire Al Durah is emblematic of why: from the Palestinian forces that staged it… to the Western mainstream media and NGOs which presented it as news without asking hard questions, which believed any subsequent Palestinian claims of Israelis killing children, and resisted all efforts at correction… to the Muslim world that turned it into an icon of hatred and a call to genocidal holy war… to the “leftist” revolutionaries who jumped on the jihad bandwagon and via Durban, led the “peace” movement of Spring 2003 into the lair of Jihad… to a public distressingly eager for “dirt” on Israel and unaware of the forces empowered by diffusing such poisons into the global information stream.

These court trials, then–in which France2 seeks to bury any serious assessment of so critical and poisonous a tale–are also trials of France’s ability to defend her republican values against an Islamist onslaught that it seems ill-equipped to resist. It is Dreyfus redux: the path to modernity for the Army and Church lay in preferring honesty to honor; this time the challenge is to French Mainstream Media and French Muslims.

And, as France goes, so goes Europe. (Would France have it any other way?)

The plaintiff at the first trial, on September 14, was Philippe Karsenty of Media-Ratings, the boldest of France2’s critics. No one from France2 showed up. Their solitary lawyer had no witnesses, no questions for Karsenty’s witnesses, no comments about the evidence damning her clients. Her summation insisted on France2’s honor and reputation, offered a letter of praise from President Chirac, and cast aspersions on the defense’s witnesses.

Then the Procureur de la République (a court-appointed officer charged with assessing the case in the interests of civil society) gave her opinion. She rebuked France2 for not addressing the evidence, for not showing their raw footage, for not even showing up in court. She further admitted that, although Karsenty, had impugned Enderlin’s and France2’s reputations, he had offered enough evidence to make such assertions a legitimate part of public discourse. Judgment on Karsenty’s case, October 19. Next trial: October 26. So far, the best coverage – surprise! – comes from the blogosphere.

The critical immediate questions… When will France2 release Talal’s rushes? And how will the public react when it sees raw Pallywood from the man who brought us the first icon of hatred of the 21st century? Stay tuned.

4 Responses to Camera Obscura: How French TV fudged the death of Mohammed Al Durah

  1. […] plains the whole thing better than I can, so read all about it here, then tune in […]

  2. Eliyahu says:

    Richard, kol hakavod l’kha `al hama’amar b’TNR!

    Congratulations on your article in TNR!!

    Here is a link to the Jenin massacre mania, which treats it as a blood libel compared with the Damascus Affair of 1840.

    Best Wishes to you,

  3. Eliyahu says:

    I meant to say:
    … here’s an article on the Jenin massacre mania…

  4. […] Arab/Muslim World: Reception and Consequences Part I The raw material for Icon of Hatred. Camera Obscura: How French TV fudged t […]

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