Eight years on, the case of Muhammad A-Durra, the 12-year Palestinian who became the “poster boy” of the Israeli-Palestinian violence will not go away.
Last week a French activist, who has been fighting a legal battle to prove that the television footage of the boy’s death was faked, triumphed when a French court ruled he would not be condemned for defamation for saying the state-owned television station France 2 falsified footage from the scene.
But French media activist Philippe Karsenty feels let down that the Israeli government has not come to his aid on this issue, and says Israel should use his legal victory as leverage to boost the country’s image.
Karsenty says he cannot understand why Israeli officialdom is so reluctant to back him.
“We’ve been fighting against them to have the case on our side,” Karsenty told The Media Line after the victory. “I think that since we’ve won the case they should be on the front line. They should ask France 2 and the French government to reveal the truth, and we haven’t heard from them since we won the case.”
Karsenty, a French media critic and founder of the website Media Ratings, claims that France 2 broadcast a falsified report about the killing of a Palestinian boy, Muhammad A-Durra, by Israeli fire on September 30, 2000.
On that day a France 2 camera crew was in Gaza and captured A-Durra on film crouching with his father against a wall, caught in the midst of a gun-battle between Israeli troops and Palestinians in Netzarim junction, in the Gaza Strip.
The 55-second footage released to media outlets around the world showed the boy cowering behind his father and then cut to the boy’s lifeless body, apparently killed by gunfire.
The voice of France 2’s Jerusalem correspondent Charles Enderlin, who was not at the scene during filming, said in the report that the boy was killed by Israeli gunfire.
The pictures of the frightened boy and the shocked father became a symbol of Palestinian suffering throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds and sparked anger against Israel.
Observers believe it was one of the triggers leading to the escalation in violence which began immediately afterwards.
Admittedly, many Palestinian children have been wounded or killed while caught in the line of fire between Israelis and Palestinians over the past eight years.
However, none left as strong an impression as the young Muhammad A-Durra, whose image was screened repeatedly on Arab television channels and websites and displayed on banners at anti-Israeli protests as a symbol of the Palestinian resolve and Israeli brutality.
Karsenty wrote that the France 2 report was a hoax and was based on footage doctored by the Palestinian cameraman Talal Abu Rahma, which made it seem as if Israeli soldiers were responsible for A-Durra’s death and that in fact the boy was not killed at all.
He was sued by the French station in 2006 for libel and it won the suit.
The May 21, 2008 ruling overturned this previous verdict and upheld Karsenty’s appeal.
It is important to clarify that the French court has not ruled on what happened that day, or whether France 2’s coverage of the events was accurate or false. It only ruled that Karsenty would not be found guilty of defamation and would not be fined.
Israel is fighting an uphill battle to improve its image in the world media and is constantly refuting what it claims are falsehoods or blatant lies about Israel in the Arab and international media.
But the A-Durra case has been a hot potato that the government has preferred to steer away from, even though there appears to be a difference of opinion on this matter among Israeli officials.
Daniel Seaman, director of the Israel Government Press Office, has in the past criticized the Foreign Ministry for not taking a proactive stand on the matter. He said the ministry’s tendency was to “avoid both looking for the truth and to protect the reputation of the State of Israel.”
The ministry thinks any mention of the A-Durra affair would bring about “bad associations,” Seaman said, calling the case a “blood libel.”
In September 2007, when the French court ordered France 2 to turn over rushes of the video footage it filmed on September 30, 2000, there were indications that Israel would change its strategy after seven years of virtual silence. An Israeli Foreign Ministry official told The Media Line at the time that the ministry was “now looking into the matter.”
But it appears Israel is maintaining its silence.
Following the most recent verdict, Yigal Palmor, the spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said Karsenty was a private individual and that no one in the Israeli government asked him to take on his battle against France 2. Therefore Karsenty had no right to demand Israel come to his aid, Palmor said.
“All calls on the Israeli government to come and ‘save’ him are out of place,” he told The Media Line. “He was summoned to court because of a complaint of the French television channel. I don’t see where there is room for the Israeli government to get involved.”
Palmor said the government’s lack of involvement is in no way an admission of the accuracy or falsehood of France 2’s report.
The government, he said, did not have an official stand as to what exactly happened on September 30, 2000 at Netzarim and sees the issue as an internal French affair, not Israeli.
Regarding the damage the A-Durra affair has inflicted on Israel’s image, Palmor said any governmental involvement in Karsenty’s legal fight against France 2 would not help better this image, and would even be damaging.
“The Israeli government has a policy not to attack or to sue any media outlet in a court of law, not in Israel and certainly not outside of Israel,” Palmor said.
“From a PR standpoint this would be totally counterproductive,” he said.
Palmor explained that if the government took legal steps against a foreign media outlet, the local media in that country would automatically take the side of the media, and public opinion will also be driven against Israel.
But there are opinions that perhaps the Muhammad A-Durra case should be given special treatment, given the shockwaves this case generated worldwide.
“There is no doubt that this case has become an icon, there is no arguing about that,” Palmor says. “But still, this would be an unwarranted exception if the Israeli government filed a law suit against France 2. It won’t help erase the impression the icon made and it would even have the opposite effect.”
Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office also responded that it would not get involved in Karsenty’s legal battle against France 2.
“The head of the Government Press Office backed Karsenty unequivocally, as did Ra’anan Gissin who was the prime minister’s foreign media adviser [at the time],” the PMO stated. “The government thinks it’s best to let things take their course in the court in France, without it seeming as though the Israeli government is trying to intervene.”
Enderlin’s lawyer, Benedicte Amblard, insists Karsenty’s claims against France 2 are still considered defamation, even by the court.
“The court said Mr. Karsenty did commit defamation but he was not condemned because he’s considered as being of good faith. The defamation exists but the condemnation is not pronounced,” she said.
Enderlin’s lawyers plan to take the case to the French Supreme Court on Friday. If the court overrules the previous decision, it will go back to the appellate court, which will rule yet again on whether Karsenty was acting out of good faith or not and whether he can be charged with defamation.
As to Karsenty’s request for the Israeli government to take up the issue with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Palmor said this was not on the agenda and any pressure on Paris to fire Enderlin, a senior journalist, would constitute “a mistaken PR move.”