Robert Mackey of the Lede blog at the NYT did a piece on the Silwan incident in which he ventured into Al Durah territory and cited my work. I’ve occasionally read his work when it deals with the Middle East (e.g. the Flotilla), and have not been particularly impressed with his acuity. Here at least he exposes his readers to some Pallywood analysis even if he does try and take it back by changing the subject to Charles Enderlin and Al Durah.
Last month, The Lede looked at how the shooting death of a Palestinian man by an Israeli private security contractor in the same neighborhood three weeks ago, and subsequent rioting, was covered by Israeli bloggers and international activists who oppose to the expansion of Israel’s settlements on the land it has occupied or annexed since 1967.
The “60 Minutes” report on the tension and clashes in Silwan includes images of a confrontation that took place there last week, when an Israeli settler, confronted by stone-throwing Palestinian boys on a street, drove his car into two of them, tossing an 11-year-old into the air.
While the boys reportedly avoided serious injury and were released from a local hospital the next day, graphic video of the incident was broadcast on Al Jazeera as well as Israeli television, and was posted numerous times on YouTube, where it has become the subject of fierce debate. (Be warned: viewers may find the clip distressing.)
This warning is one of the standard elements of the way the media handle Pallywood. Rather than warn that the images may be staged or manipulated, they assume they’re true, that the viewer will also see them as true and, appropriately be distressed. I’m not blaming Mackey for doing this. Within the framework the MSNM now have it makes perfect sense. I don’t know what should be done. Maybe: “Viewers may find the clip distressing either because it is true, or because it is staged.”
As is the case with many pieces of video evidence in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, this clip has been taken to mean very different things by activists and bloggers on opposite sides of the political dispute over who has the right to live in East Jerusalem.
The driver of the car, a leader of the settlers in the neighborhood named David Be’eri, claimed that he hit the children accidentally as he was fleeing in fear of being killed. A spokesman for Elad, the pro-settlement group Mr. Be’eri leads, told The Jerusalem Post, “His car was surrounded with tens of people with rocks.” The spokesman added, “It seems that they were lying in wait and the ambush was planned with rocks, it may have even been a lynch situation. He felt his life was in danger.”
Mr. Be’eri, who drove away from the scene with his rear window smashed, was later released on bail after being questioned by Israeli police officers. As the BBC reported, “His supporters in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, said the incident highlighted what they said was the Palestinian tactic of using children to terrorize local communities.”
Israelis who blame the religious settlers who have moved into the Arab neighborhood, just below the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, for provoking conflict, took a different view of the confrontation.
In a post titled “Silwan: The Blasting Cap,” Bernard Avishai, an Israeli-Canadian author, accused Mr. Be’eri of provoking trouble by “planting a vanguard of extremist families” in East Jerusalem. He added, “When the city descends into Bosnia-style civil violence, this is how it will start.”
You can always count on an Israeli to blame Israel, and a journalist to record his self-accusation. Even Avishai’s fans found his post “disingenuous” to say the least. I especially liked Avishai’s comment that
The kids were probably the same kids who had joined our peaceful demonstration last June.
Could be… but in that case my guess is that their presence at his “peaceful” demonstration doesn’t mean what he thinks it does. Might he not be a dupe of demopaths?
Of course, she wouldn’t have a blog (for very long), would she?
Yet Lenny Ben-David, an Israeli blogger who was a lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee [NB: He was not a lobbyist, did not register as one, but was head of research, which, for the uninformed, is the primary source of AIPAC's influence), suggested on his blog that whoever photographed and videotaped the incident were to blame for encouraging or even possibly staging the confrontation:
The film clip showing an Israeli car hitting two Arab children in Silwan on Friday was horrifying. No one can sit quietly and indifferently while children — any children — are hurt before your eyes. Thank God the children survived and were not seriously injured.
Then came the subtext: The children were part of a gang attacking the driver with rocks, and rocks can most definitely kill. The boys, emboldened by some militant organizer, covered their faces to avoid identification and arrest. There’s no doubt of their intention and premeditation…. I’ve now watched the clip scene-by-scene and in some parts frame-by-frame, and there’s a deeper, even sinister, subtext….
Reviewing the clip, it’s evident that there were as many photographers as there were rock-throwers. Who invited them and coordinated the time and place? Who recruited the boys? Did they plan to ambush dafka David Be’eri’s car? Was it an attempt to reenact the iconic death of Muhammad al-Dura, the boy allegedly killed by Israeli soldiers in 2000 in what we now know was a fake propaganda stage show?
People who follow the conflict in the Middle East on television or through video clips like this one posted on YouTube know that it is not unusual for several photographers and journalists as well as activists with video cameras to attend even small Palestinian protests. But Mr. Ben-David’s skepticism was echoed by an Israeli video blogger who posted the clip YouTube with the following commentary:
From what I can tell, there are more cameramen than kids throwing rocks, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d say the cameramen were encouraging the kids to do some action.
The man in the car did stop, but quickly took off, as the other kids didn’t seem to care about their wounded friends, and kept on throwing rocks at the car.
In the end, I think the kid was more traumatized by the people trying to help him (shoving him into a car) than by getting ran over. I think, that every bystander that didn’t try to stop the rock throwers, should be jailed.
Let me add that the most interesting parts of the video from the perspective of Pallywood were:
1) the presence of photographers and older kids (throwing stones) whose presence we only find out after we see the incident. One of the exercises in detecting Pallywood is realizing the "scene" at which the specific incident is being filmed. Note that the driver could see the older kids with stones, even if we, viewing the young kid get upended don't.
2) the "evacuation." The kid is clearly resisting being put in the car, which suggests his injuries are far less serious than one might expect. The people "helping" display all of the characteristic brutality of Pallywood evacuations, where the actors seem to think that throwing wounded kids in ambulances shows how urgent the situation and how concerned they are for the victims.
I think it's quite fair of Mackey to give so much space to Pallywood analysis. Normally this would be dismissed as "accusing the victim," and Western audiences would be sheltered from its nasty accusations. It would have been interested in getting Mackey's further thoughts on this footage. Instead, he veers my way.
Mr. Ben-David’s point of reference for the allegation that such video might be staged was the long debate over footage of the death of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy named Muhammad al-Dura during clashes in Gaza in 2000. The boy’s horrifying last moments were captured on tape and broadcast around the world, sparking a fierce debate about the authenticity of the footage and detailed Israeli investigations into the unresolved question of whether he had been killed by shots fired by Israelis or Palestinians.
France 2/Agence France-Presse
A frame from video shot in Gaza in September, 2000, showed Jamal al-Dura attempting to shield his son Muhammad, 12, during a gun battle between Israelis and Palestinians.
A blogger named Richard Landes even developed an elaborate theory that the whole thing might have been fake. According to Mr. Landes, the video of Muhammad al-Dura’s death, which was shot by a Palestinian cameraman working for French television, was a symptom of a wider phenomenon. He told The International Herald Tribune in 2005, “Palestinian cameramen, especially when there are no Westerners around, engage in the systematic staging of action scenes,” to create the type of dramatic news footage he calls “Pallywood cinema.”
Mackey's either playing catch-up here and knows little, or is just abbreviating the story for the space in his blog. I was certainly not the first to claim this was a fake - that honor goes to the physicist who secured the additional tapes from that day, Nachum Shahaf. And our explanation is hardly an elaborate conspiracy theory. We argue that it's a straightforward scam, no big conspiracy which, like 9-11, would involve (tens of) thousands of people in very high and low places. This scam just calls for a "street" in cahoots with Palestinian cameramen working for sloppy (or worse) Western journalists.
Mostly it's just hard for Westerners to even conceive of such a scam. I remember when I first discovered this story in 2003, I'd give people five alternative scenarios:
5... Staged, something the vast majority of people I talked to couldn't even imagine. It was almost more unthinkable than Palestinians on purpose - an accusation which was, by all public standards, considered hate-mongering racism (hence Doriel's firing). For an example of this attitude still at work, see remarks about Lisa Goldman below.
But at least Mackey doesn't call it a conspiracy theory (I assume "elaborate" is a stand-in), which is Goldman's way of dismissing (below) and Larry Derfner's.
Mr. Ben-David’s suggestion that the video shot in Silwan last week was perhaps staged or set up to make a leading Israeli settler look bad might have been prompted by the fact that the distressing images of Muhammad al-Dura’s death were filmed and broadcast almost exactly 10 years ago.
As Lisa Goldman, a Tel Aviv-based journalist and blogger, noted in a post, the French-Israeli journalist at the center of the controversy over that report, Charles Enderlin, just published on the 10th anniversary of the incident, titled “A Child Is Dead.” Ms. Goldman points her readers to this video of a recent interview with Mr. Enderlin in which he discusses his book on the report and the controversy that followed (note: the ad is in French but the interview is in English):
Ms. Goldman’s post also includes a link to this Web version of the original report (in French), from September 2000, on the young boy’s death, narrated by Mr. Enderlin (again, viewers should be warned that the images in this video are graphic):
I will fisk Enderlin’s interview (and if I ever have time, his book) in the near future. Let me just make several final observations here:
1) Mackey’s article is at least notable for mentioning the opposing perspective, which has not been the case in most journalism of the last decade, at least on the Middle East. The article he cites in the International Herald Tribune was the exception, and the journalist who wrote it was discouraged from following up. No one in the MSNM did follow up that I know of. On the contrary, when Karsenty lost in the first trial, the media ran headlines like “France2 blanchi pour l’image choc de l’intifada.” (Neat allusion to honor-shame culture: when you’re honor is in question, your face is blackened, when exonerated, you are whitened.”) When Karsenty won, they fell silent. Curiously, one of the few exceptions to that generalization is Mackey himself, who, for reasons unclear, doesn’t bother to mention Karsenty’s case in this column.
2) Despite it’s openness to letting the reader know about both sides, the framing favors those, like Goldman and Avishai, whose comments fit in so much better with the frame of Palestinian David / Israeli Goliath, which this particular incident is designed to illustrate. Is it mere coincidence that, Mackey ends his discussion with a fairly elaborate nod to Goldman, who adopts Charles Enderlin’s dismissal of the evidence as conspiracy, without looking at the evidence. This was certainly true for a number of foolish “friends of Charles” who signed his petition of support after his loss to Karsenty in appeals court, who just assumed they could trust him.
3) Goldman seems firmly in this camp that in her words “eschews conspiracy theory” (and includes Jim Fallows):
In the grand clash of narratives, the fact that Muhammad al-Durrah had been killed came to seem less important than determining the provenance of the bullet that killed him.
Goldman doesn’t elaborate on the meaning of this remark – did determining his killers detract from the fact that he was killed? – but I suspect the sentence is there just to reaffirm the fact that the boy was killed that day. Which is precisely what she can’t affirm except as an act of faith.
4) This raises the fundamental question of journalistic “epistemology” in the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the Muhammad al Durah episode, the MSNM journalists adhered to an approach that runs as follows: What Palestinians claim is believed until proven false; what Israeli’s claim is disbelieved until proven true. And when convincing evidence appears, the MSNM falls silent. I would suggest that, with obvious variants in some cases, this remains the dominant approach to this day. In the case of the Turkish flotilla, this may have shown a shift of some significance, but I don’t think very likely to shift dramatically in the immediate future. One journalist I spoke with told me that complaining about how journalists cover this conflict is like a general complaining about the rain on a battlefield, an astonishing admission of shoddy moralism at work. For a brilliant spoof on this attitude, see the latest Latma video.
5) Enderlin is at the heart of this enterprise in more ways than one. The term Pallywood occurred to me after a stunning afternoon, watching Abu Rahmah’s raw footage with Enderlin (perhaps the first non-screened person to view them), and being surprised at how much of the footage, when not boring, was staged, in some cases ludicrously so. When I noted this pervasive staging to Enderlin, he replied, “Oh yes, they do it all the time; it’s a cultural thing.” That’s when it hit me: I had seen plenty of evidence that they staged scenes (some of which is in Pallywood), but I never imagined that Western journalists had no problem with it, no problem with running it. Imagine a news desk in the USA where a photographer regularly produces staged scenes to be used in the evening news. How long before he was fired. And yet, Enderlin had worked for over a decade with Abu Rahmah at the time of the Al Durah episode, and continues to honor him, as does Jim Clancy of CNN. Since that day, I have been grappling with the likely possibility that our journalists, either not understanding, or not caring, or actively siding with the Palestinians, have been systematically poisoning our information systems for the last decade with lethal narratives concocted by Palestinians to sow hatred and violence. Al Durah is an icon of hatred.
6) So let me, as the grader at Second Draft, give Mackey’s blogpost at the Lede a grade. On a curve, it’s an A-. No one in the NYT has come close to a serious examination of these issues in this last decade. In terms of the standard of journalism that we will need to meet if we are to survive as a free society, it’s falls short by a great deal. But it is, after all, just a blogpost.
I’d hope that either Mackey, or someone else at the NYT take the next steps. They are, of course, not, like so many journalists before, to raise the topic, frame it in a way to caution most people away from further investigation, and drop it. The next steps are to examine the evidence and either agree with our analysis, or actually respond to the key findings, offer more convincing explanations or interpretations of the following evidence:
a) all the bullets whose provenance we can identify came from the Palestinians side – from the pattern of dust they kick up on the wall at impact.
b) the blood that we see (red area around stomach in the footage, red blood under the father the next day) does not correspond in any way to the gaping wound of the boy in the hospital identified as Al Durah, or the ambulance driver’s claim that he scooped up Al Durah’s guts from the sidewalk.
c) The last time we see the boy on Abu Rahmah’s tape, he’s alive and, arguably, well. Indeed, the last “take” of 10 seconds, which Enderlin cut from his report (he had declared the boy dead in “take 4″ shows the boy not clutching his stomach wound (from which he allegedly died) but rather, stretched out, holding his hand over his eye, deliberately raising his arm up, looking out, and slowly lowering it, even as his feet rise behind in counter-balance.
e) We do not have any evidence that Israeli bullets were shot, despite, allegedly, 40 minutes of firing “like rain,” and eleven bullet wounds in the father and son. Indeed, Talal abu Rahmah is on video lying about the bullets.
These are only some of the many anomalies I’d invite you to explore before you weigh in again on this matter. And of course, I sincerely hope you do choose to weigh in again. This may just be the story of the last and next decade.