Fallows Comments on Al Durah: Insights into Why the Story has taken so long to break

James Fallows’ piece on the Al Durah Affair was the first clue I had to the problem. After I did a fair amount of work and had an initial version of Pallywood, I showed it to him and Gabi Weimann in Washington. He seemed convinced and confessed to me that the reason he hadn’t believed it was staged was for the reasons he cites below in this article. In other words, his basic “take” on this has not changed despite the subsequent evidence of extensive (and undetected) faking that he has either seen (with me) or not noticed (e.g., the interview with Leconte and Jeambar). Below is Fallows’ latest comments, and my responses. If this seems like déjà-vu all over again, it’s because it is.

News on the al-Dura front: Israeli finding that it was staged
02 Oct 2007 06:58 am

Four and a half years ago — during the first weeks of the Iraq war, in fact — I was in Israel learning about the case of Mohammed al-Dura. He was the young Palestinian boy who, according to worldwide press acccounts, was shot dead by Israeli soldiers as his father desperately tried to shield him, near the Netzarim crossing in Gaza:

fallows picture of al durah
(Mohammed al-Dura instants before his death — as conveyed in worldwide news reports and memorialized, like a Pieta, in stamps, posters, and even statues in many Arab countries.)

Note that for Fallows the boy dies “on tape.” The final scene, where the boy picks up his elbow and looks out — the last time we see him — has made no dent on his understanding of what happened. In the original article, he has a particularly revealing comment about his own perceptions:

    The footage of the shooting is unforgettable, and it illustrates the way in which television transforms reality. I have seen it replayed at least a hundred times now, and on each repetition I can’t help hoping that this time the boy will get himself down low enough, this time the shots will miss.

In other words, no matter how many repetitions of the tapes he saw, he went through the same loop of starting out believing that the kid was shot, and hoping that somehow it would work out differently. Apparently, even the final scene, where the boy lifts up his arm and looks out was not reassurance. No comment speaks more eloquently to the power of suggestion over a trained professional who reviews the scene repeatedly.

Thanks mainly to evidence I was shown by Nahum Shahaf of Tel Aviv, a scientist who has devoted years to investigating the case, I ended up arguing in my article that the “official” version of the event could not be true. Based on the known locations of the boy, his father, the Israeli Defense Force troops in the area, and various barriers, walls, and other impediments, the IDF soldiers simply could not have shot the child in the way most news accounts said they had done.

I soon heard from Palestinian and related organizations who said that obviously I had been duped by the Israelis. They didn’t bother to argue their case at length, because the truth was so obvious: news reports everywhere had shown Israeli soldiers firing at the boy, and the boy being hit, slumping, bleeding, and dying.

I imagine lots of people voiced their unhappiness. Is “I soon heard” an understatement? Just how strong and widespread was the opposition, and in particular, Palestinian and “related organizations” aside, how many colleagues from the MSM voiced their unhappiness with this report?

But I also heard from people in Israel, Europe, and North America with the opposite complaint: that I’d shied from the real truth. Saying that the IDF was innocent was the easy part, they contended. I should go all the way to the harder, more terrible reality: that the boy had not been killed at all — or if he had, that he had been murdered by his own side — and that the whole “death” was a giant fraud, staged to incriminate Israeli in the eyes of the world.

There is, if you will, just a hint of “we’re criticized by both sides so we must be doing something right” in this formulation.

Like the man who had first introduced me to the story, Prof Gabriel Weimann of Haifa University , I became fully convinced by the negative case (IDF was innocent). But I did not t think there was enough evidence for the even more damning positive indictment (person or persons unknown staged a fake death — or perhaps even a real death, for “blood libel” purposes). I have kept in intermittent touch with people involved in al-Dura studies and followed a bitter case in French courts, involving the France2 correspondent who produced the most influential coverage of the shooting.

So, in other words, by default, you come up with scenario number 3: Palestinians by accident. Of course to hold that position, you have to explain why at least three individual bullets (not a wild spray of machine-gun fire) come from the “Pita” opposite the wall, a Palestinian position where we see gunmen, and whose aim, in order to shoot at the wall, has to have missed by almost 90 degrees.

pita

And of course, you also have to explain why the father and son are behind the barrel at all since they are visible in that position long before the “shooting” occurred, why two other cameramen are there while the father and son are behind the barrel, with no fear of being hit. Not to mention all the other evidence of the lack of a dead body — no blood, no bullets, no ambulance evacuation scene or arrival at the hospital.

Yesterday, news: a credible-seeming report that the Israeli Prime Minister’s office has thrown its support behind the idea that the death was staged. You might say, So what? The fact is that until recently the Israeli government has studiously kept its distance from the case, apparently feeling that no good for the country could come from discussion of it in any form.

Actually, it’s not the Israeli government, but the Government Press Office. There are still many in the government and out, who feel differently (see next post on Nachman Shai).

There are holes and loose ends in the available accounts of this statement. So there will be more to say later about what exactly this means, and what the government is contending, and what evidence new findings might be based on, and what other participants have to say . But for now, and at face value, it looks like a significant development in the case.

In a subsequent post, which he put up the next day, Fallows links to my blog and that of Charles Enderlin for people who want to know what’s going on, and then adds the following comment, which he made to me back when we spoke in Washington in 2004.

My general experience in life makes me skeptical that large-scale conspiracies can be pulled off — and kept secret for seven years, which is how long it has been since the original event. So based on what I have personally seen (not having devoted myself to the story for the last few years), I am not ready to say: Yes, for sure, this was a huge, big-lie, blood-libel, conspiratorial hoax. But Landes et al seem more fervent about turning up all available evidence and getting to the bottom of things than their antagonists do, which tells me something.

There are several issues here that need unpacking: 1) is this a conspiracy or a trick? 2) can the “Palestinian street” keep a secret? 3) what’s the role of the MSM in all this? 4) what makes this story a blood libel?

1) The “conspiracy,” if there is one, is on the part of Talal abu Rahmah and the other cameramen who were there but left before the “shooting.” I would not call this a conspiracy, but a trick, an almost everday occurence in the PA by Pallywood photographers and directors. We know they’re at work, we know they stage, and we know that Talal is one of them. Why one would call this a conspiracy — which implies conscious cooperation at the highest levels — I’m not sure. I think there’s a big difference between a conspiracy and a trick. Tricks happen all the time.

2) Had this happened, would there have been leaks from Palestinians. Here I wonder where Fallows’ “general experience” comes from. Is it mostly Western, even American cases, where whistle-blowing is a traditions? I have no difficulty imagining the pressures on anyone from the “street” at Netzarim not to tell anyone. Indeed, I have trouble imagining who might want to spill the beans, even without having him (almost entirely men at the intersection) think about the consequences of such a deed. It’s classic cognitive egocentrism on Fallows’ part to imagine that the participants in the public secret that is Pallywood would blow the whistle on their own greatest success. For most of them, this is a big joke — on us — which they revel in, even as they show no fear of the Israelis who are, presumably, shooting their “wounded.”

3) Here’s where it gets interesting. 95% of “conspiracy theories” turn out to be cover-ups. Conspiracy theories demand extraordinary competence on the part of a fairly vast scheme of participants. Most often the evidence for such conspiracies is really the evidence of people covering up much more mundane screw-ups. And that seems to account for the seven year period when the MSM, with the notable but rather brief exceptions of courageous mainstream journalists like Fallows, Schapira, Jeanbar, Leconte, Rosenzweig, fell silent on this topic. (And those of us who have kept on the case, like Nidra Poller, Philippe Karsenty, the journalists at MENA, and myself, are all kept at a distance.)

Indeed, when this story breaks, one of the great scandals will be the profound negligence and neglect of the MSM, which never asked a hard question, never followed up on the story… indeed, did their best to bury it. (The fellow at WGBH that Fallows sent me to as someone who might be interested in the story, even as he admitted the evidence was convincing, told me he couldn’t do “just this” story, he’d need to do something about Israeli cameramen staging news.) When you read the comments of Clément Weill Raynal on how everyone in the MSM does it and knows it’s done, combined with the responses of France2 higher ups to the three journalists who saw Talal’s tapes, and Enderlin’s to meit happens all the time — you begin to realize that this kind of staging, editing, and presenting as news is a public secret among the MSM as well.

Does Fallows not know this? Possibly. First of all, he himself is a scrupulously honest reporter, and I don’t believe for a minute that he would engage in such things, and being a decent human being, I don’t think he’d think so badly of his colleagues. Second, even though I think American reporters are (almost) as likely to engage in this as European ones — Bob Simon is our Pallywood example — by and large, Americans are less cynical than Europeans and therefore more likely to deny the evidence rather than wink an eye and make an honest, off the record comment. Gerry Holmes, the Middle East correspondent for ABC’s Nightline from 1999-2002 (i.e., the height of Pallywood) told me he never saw anything like it, and when I showed him Reuter’s footage, he responded: “We could argue about each frame.”

Contrary to Fallows’, my experience suggests that this story had many reasons to be buried by a general consensus of the MSM. The (largely unconscious) thinking runs something like this: if we all agreed that it was true at the beginning, then calling it into question opens too many cans of worms — how could we have been so gullible? why didn’t we ask the hard questions? why didn’t anyone follow up? why were the critics marginalized? what will the public think of our already slipping credibility? And given the likely backlash from the Palestinian/Arab/Muslim world, sticking one’s neck out doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. As another reporter from ABC, also convinced by the evidence, said to me, “I don’t know how much appetite there is for this kind of thing here.”

Indeed, were it not for Enderlin’s folly in attacking three French individuals who were small-time players and thoroughly marginalized, and thus giving us one last chance to bring it to the public’s attention, it would still remain buried. Ultimately only the combination of a trial and an Israeli demand for the footage could make it “legitimate” for the MSM to cover this tale without drawing heat from the guardians of Palestinian honor.

4) This is a blood libel regardless of whether the boy is dead or not. Most blood libels begin with the discovery of a dead boy and move towards two key accusations: a) the Jews did it, and b) on purpose. This is precisely what the Palestinians did with this footage, including the insertion of a scene of an Israeli firing a gun, taken days later from riots provoked by the footage, into the original sequence so that it looks like this gunman killed Muhammad on purpose. Their excuse: the Palestinian version of “fake but accurate.”

small hezollah al durah
Hizbullah poster, up within two weeks of the event, with the “blood libel” already highlighted.

I look forward to Fallows’ further thoughts, and possibly even evolution on this matter.

11 Responses to Fallows Comments on Al Durah: Insights into Why the Story has taken so long to break

  1. Anat says:

    RL,
    Concerning point no.2 “2) can the “Palestinian street” keep a secret?”,
    I think the answer is actually quite simple. After all, in addition to the staged scenes there was also a real exchange of fire on that day. With the exception of Talal, Jamal and very few others actually involved, why should anybody else be aware what actually happened on a particular spot at a particular moment? Even most of those present were probably busy with other things. The knowledge of most Palestinians in this matter does not come from their own eyes but from television, just like everybody else.

  2. Solomonia says:

    Why Did it Take So Long?

    Richard Landes has a couple of new posts up on Al Dura.  First, responding to James Fallows: Fallows Comments on Al Durah: Insights into Why the Story has taken so long to break, and second, responding to some statements from…

  3. […] Kliph Nesteroff wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt […]

  4. David M says:

    Trackbacked by The Thunder Run – Web Reconnaissance for 10/05/2007
    A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day…so check back often.

  5. The Persistence of Lies

    “A lie can go around the world before the truth gets its trousers on.” Mark Twain (attributed)Richard Landes has been doggedly searching for the truth since that terrible day 7 years ago, September 30, 2000, when Mohammed al-Dura was apparently

  6. Joanne says:

    Fallows may be decent, and all that, but I thought his tone was rather condescending. The only point he made in RL’s favor was that Landes and others like him seemed to be more fervent about getting the bottom of this incident than their antagonists. Other than that, Fallows was pretty dismissive. I don’t necessarily see him as a friend of what he calls “Landes, et. al.”

  7. fp says:

    joanne,

    correct. these people don’t really comprehend what is at stake here and i don’s think they really care.

  8. Mohammed Al Dura Prozesse in Frankreich

    Richard Landes hat seine Al-Dura-Sammlung aktualisiert.

  9. […] is the core of the resistance to the “staged hypothesis.” It’s the argument that Fallows has been sticking to for years now. It strikes me as an astonishingly naive argument, a remark that tends to inspire not modesty but […]

  10. […] impact on what is said and done, what we know about and what we don’t. And to think that James Fallows still thinks that al Durah couldn’t have been staged because someone would have leaked it… […]

  11. […] 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 showed […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *