Below are a list of FAQs for the Al Durah case written at the time we launched the Second Draft. I will revise this list to include some newer FAQs shortly. Suggestions welcome.
FAQs for al Durah case
1. Who is Muhammad al Durah?
Muhamed al Durah grew up in El Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. On September 30, 2000, he was in Netzarim Junction where Palestinian youth had gathered to throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the Israeli police station on the northeast corner of the intersection. He and his father crouched behind a concrete cylinder on the southwest corner (see map). Allegedly shot dead in a hail of bullets, captured on tape by a Palestinian photographer working for France2 television, Muhammad was buried that day without autopsy, as his picture went out around the world. He became the poster boy for the intifada, inspiring much of the violence, including the first rounds of suicide bombing (2001).
2. Who took the video or film footage of the events of the deaths of the al Durahs?
A Palestinian cameraman named Talal, shot the footage for the French television network, France2, which was then edited and presented as news by Charles Enderlin, the France2 Middle East Correspondent stationed in Jerusalem.
3. What actually happened?
There are five possible scenarios: 1) Israelis on purpose (broadcast version); 2) Israelis by accident (soft interpretation of broadcast version), 3) Palestinians by accident; 4) Palestinians on purpose; 5) staged. Subsequent study of the layout of the scene, the direction of bullets hitting the wall, the footage compared with the narrative all eliminate with an extremely high degree of probability that Israeli fire could have hit the two al Durahs once (much less 11 times). Most journalists who go that far, refuse to go further and speculate on what actually happened, preferring to go with 3, despite the numerous anomalies to such a scenario.
4. Why has it taken so long to publish the reconsiderations about this case?
Once the story came out the way it did – that the Israelis killed him on purpose Israelis – and spread around the world, the biggest adjustment that most journalists would accept was that perhaps it was not intentional. Any effort to exculpate the Israelis was immediately greeted with cries of “blaming the victims.” Enormous conceptual resistance surrounds this case – political, psychological, cognitive. The political atmosphere aside, however, the reluctance of the media to reconsider this case comes from a deep-seated aversion to self-examination and self-correction, starting with France2’s refusal to release the rest of the footage shot by Talal abu Rahmah that day.
5. Who is Talal abu Rahmah?
He is a Palestinian cameraman who works for both CNN and France2. He was the only cameraman (among at least a dozen cameramen) present at Netzarim Junction on September 30, who filmed the scenes of the al Durahs behind the barrel (which he claimed went on for over forty minutes). For the 59 seconds of the actual incident, he received numerous awards in Europe and the Arab world.
6. Who is Charles Enderlin?
He is the France2 Middle East correspondent stationed in Jerusalem. He has worked closely with Talal, and believed his account of what happened that day. Thus in his news report he had the boy and father “the target of fire coming from the Israeli position.” He has since refused to reconsider the possibility that he might have made a mistake, and dismisses any challenges as coming from “tiny far right-wing groups.”
7. Who is Nahum Shahaf?
He is an Israeli physicist and inventor who carried out the first investigation of the al Durah affair. His insistence that the scene was staged put him at odds with his associate Yossef Dorriel (who argued for Palestinians on purpose) and the army (which preferred to exculpate the Israelis and leave it at that). He continues to work on the case on his own.
8. Are you claiming that the footage of al Durah was staged, and neither the boy nor the father were shot?
That, in the opinion of many people who know the dossier well, is the most likely conclusion. It explains almost all of the evidence, including all the inconsistencies between Talal’s testimony and the evidence of the tapes. But it can’t be proven, and ultimately it is up to each person to come to his or her own decision, based on the available evidence. That is why we set up Second Draft: to permit the public to decide whether its media have served them well in this case.
9. Isn’t this a bit too conspiracist? Are you claiming a huge conspiracy to lie about the story of this boy?
No. Staging the story only required the cooperation of the crew at work that day and the silence of any observers. If it were a conspiracy, it would mean that Charles Enderlin, France2, Jacques Chirac and the PA were involved. One of the more interesting part of this story is the credulity of those on the outside who accepted Talal’s narrative along with his tapes. Accusations of conspiracy frequently greet the claim that the al Durah footage was faked; this is both a reflexive response – “you know, there are so many conspiracies in this part of the world, I don’t believe any…” – and a way of comparing those who argue for staging the scene with those who claim that the Mossad blew up the Twin Towers on 9-11-01. Understanding the difference between conspiracy theories, and the argument made here represents one of the most important distinctions one can make in trying to wade through the rhetorical minefield of Middle East information delivery.
10. Is the boy still alive?
He may be or may not be. Most believe he is dead. There are some who believe he is alive. Our position is agnostic. We only assert that the last time we see Muhamed on Talal’s tape that afternoon [link to scene 6 of 59 seconds], he is still alive. What happened to him afterwards is a question we do not feel we know enough to decide. A comparison of the picture of Muhamed al Durah from his home, and the face of the boy at the hospital who was later buried, do not match very closely. A good investigation – which should have occurred immediately after the claims were made – may well reveal the tale of his fate.
11. Even were it staged, is it not symbolic of all the Palestinian children killed by Israeli troops occupying the territories?
This represents the most fundamental issue in this case, one that Charles Enderlin invoked several years after the event when he defended his use of the footage by arguing that it “corresponded to the situation on the West Bank and Gaza,” Many people, confronted with even the possibility of the scene being staged, retort, “Whether genuine or not, there are hundreds of other Palestinian children killed by the Israelis.” But such a reading reverses the historical sequence – the symbol precedes the “reality” it supposedly describes. Before al Durah there were no cases of the Israelis shooting defenseless boys during the Oslo process. Within a month, Palestinian sources claimed over a hundred and the Mainstream media accepted their claims unquestioningly. How much did this symbol create the “reality” it symbolizes, either by making the press naïve about any Palestinian claims, or by so igniting hostilities that children got caught in the crossfire?
Furthermore, the key claim is not that Israelis kill children — everyone at war in urban zones ends up killing children — but that they do it deliberately, “in cold blood.” Once this story passed, journalists believed (and in the case of Chris Hedges, claimed) that the Israelis killed Palestinian children on purpose. And yet, like the al Durah story, the evidence for deliberation (which is a judgment call in any case), has never been substantiated. No case of an Israeli deliberately killing an innocent child has ever been documented. On the contrary, we can document numerous cases of Israelis foregoing military advantage and even endangering their own lives not to harm children and other civilians.
The scene is symbolic, no doubt. But symbolic of what? What “greater reality” does it reveal to us? Is this a symbol of the behavior of the Israeli army, whose code of arms and record, up to that point had stood high in any military comparison? Or does this footage symbolize the behavior of the Palestinian elite, who use propaganda to sell hatred and war to their honor-bound captive audience, and the problematic state of our mainstream media at the turn of the millennium, which could neither detect the flaws in this footage, nor find the will in the course of five long and violent years, to correct itself?
This has become a myth of great power for the Palestinians. Myths help orient people in the present, and this one has oriented them towards nothing but hatred and ruin since it first broke. Ironically the most liberal observers who realize the deception at work here, hold out no hope for any change in the way the Palestinian, Arab, or Muslim world views the narrative. We at Second Draft do not partake of the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” and believe that there are people in the Arab world eager to start building a real civil society based on self-criticism and a learning curve… and that our global future lies with them.
12. What do you think is the most decisive evidence?
There is no smoking gun, and people differ in what they find most decisive. Journalists, who know the value of such footage had the father and son really been shot, find the presence of two other cameramen there at the time [link to 3D animation], combined with such little footage of what, according to Talal was an hour-long ordeal, the clearest evidence of staging – no shots of the gunfire, no ambulance evacuation scene, no scenes of arrival at the hospital 40 minutes away. Others are impressed with the direction of the two bullets that we do see hit the wall around the al Durahs in Talal’s footage coming from the Palestinian side. All viewers can see the movements of the boy in the last scene where he is supposed to be dead, but lifts up his arm and seems to look out. (Enderlin cut this scene from his broadcast.) Others see the pervasive contradictions between Talal’s testimony and the visual evidence, and Talal’s propensity to lie. When all the anomalies in the evidence are considered, the odds that it was staged seem extremely high. By contrast, any explanation that real injuries were recorded bogs down in so many contradictions that one must resort repeatedly to elaborate and unlikely explanations (e.g., all three cameramen ran out of batteries at 3 pm in the afternoon of a day where, till that point, nothing had happened). The odds of such explanations are so low that only a true believer can, without hesitation, assert that things happened as they were reported.
13. What’s in the famous France2 Secret Tapes, and why hasn’t France2 released them?
The 20+ minutes of tape that France2 shows to the occasional pre-screened viewer represent (to all appearances) the footage Talal shot just before he took the famous sequence. They end with the three minutes Enderlin made available to journalists. Whether there is more footage that was taken earlier we cannot know yet. Certainly the Reuter’s cameraman took about two hours that day, and for Talal to claim his batteries were dying would imply that he had shot a good deal that day. In the meantime, the earlier footage gives us no specific information on the al Durahs (their presence behind the barrel well before any heavy shooting occurs is visible on the 3 minutes we already have, and on AP and Reuters’ footage (the Reuters’ cameraman is directly behind them not protected by the barrel, apparently not in danger of being shot).
What the tapes do show is that aside from boring scenes of rock-throwing and tire burning, Talal filmed one staged scene after another, similar to the work of the Reuters’ cameraman. Indeed, you can see Talal shooting staged footage in the Reuters’ cameraman’s filming of Molotov kid. When I saw the rushes I was stunned by both the pervasiveness of the staging, the participation of the cameramen, and the complacency of Enderlin. When I left, the term Pallywood occurred to me to describe the film industry I had just seen at work. All three of the French journalists who saw the film — the first independent group to publicly see the rushes — had the same reaction of shock at the staging, and the same response from the “higher-ups” in France2. “Oh, this kind of thing happens all the time.” For several discussions of viewing the footage from me, Leconte and Jeambar, see here.
What the tapes reveal is a modus operandi that is widespread in the PA (all the cameraman filmed by the Reuters and France2 cameras are doing the same thing), an exceptionally low standard of realism (the evacuations are so brutal they would kill genuinely injured people), and an exceptional incompetence or complicity on the part of Western journalists like Enderlin and Bob Simon (which explains why Pallywood never developed any realistic techniques — didn’t have to).
14. Why hasn’t France2 released the rushes?
One might imagine that France2 would seek to hide such damning evidence. But it’s not at all clear that they — or Enderlin, which is more astonishing — understand how damaging they are. (They would have destroyed them long ago had they realized. Leconte told me that Arlette Chabot, then the head of France2 turned as pale as the wall paper when she saw them.) Enderlin has said to everyone who asks, that he would happily give the Israelis a copy if they formally request them, but he claims they have never formally asked for them. (Shahaf says he did, but he can’t find the copy of his letter.) Enderlin shows them to select people, who come to him via friends and trusted colleagues (my case).
But now that the Israelis have requested them, Enderlin speaks about the problem of journalists revealing their sources. And in interviews (to me, to Esther Schapira on film) Enderlin has commented that he won’t give the film to the Israelis “so they can whitewash themselves.” Until now France2 has only shown them to pre-screened folks whom they expect to side with them, and several, including both Israeli journalists and French Jewish journalists have come away claiming that there’s nothing new in the footage about al Durah (true). The ability of people to see this footage and not be shocked just testifies to the degree that journalism’s Augean Stables have numbed the senses of people to the point where pervasive staging isn’t even worth a mention. In the meantime, Enderlin has welcomed the court order to show the rushes as an opportunity to “lance the boil” and “show the authenticity of these images.”
15. Why if it’s so obvious, haven’t the media covered this massive fraud?
There is no simple answer. Partly it’s the pack mentality. No one wants to break ranks, fearing ostracism by colleagues for contradicting the overwhelming consensus; and those who do break ranks, largely because they have re-examined the data, do get ostracized, even lose their access the public sphere (articles not published, exclusion from talk shows). Partly it’s related to the media’s intimidation by Palestinian and Arab political groups. Partly it’s the power of suggestion so that even when people read articles claiming that it’s staged, they still think in terms of the boy being shot. But at another level, as one of my students put it, “I’m afraid that if I admit that this is a fake, I’ll be taking sides with the Israelis…” a sentiment that can move both someone committed to “even-handed/level playing field” and a partisan for the other side. In the end, this case will remain one of the great mysteries – and hopefully one of the great shames — of modern journalism. That it took five years, and recourse to the web to finally bring it to the attention of the public, that public which is committed to civil societies around world and who have and continue to suffer from the story’s poison, represents one of the great failures of our time.
16. Why do you think this is like the emperor’s new clothes?
Of all the comparisons with parables and allegories, perhaps the best image for understanding the dynamics of this tale comes from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. In this case, the tailor is Talal, who spun both the cloth and its description. Enderlin corresponds to the chamberlain, the first to inspect the robe, and although seeing nothing, came out with a glowing report of the magical clothing. The courtiers who agree with the tailor and the chamberlain, are the media – reporters like the New York Times’ William Orme, the Guardian’s Suzanne Goldberg, Le Monde’s Gilles Paris — who hastened to confirm and amplify the story in circulation. The emperor in this tale is the main stream media, parading naked before the public, orchestrating a great public event with elaborate narrative, inspired by the power of the fabricated image. And the crowd watching corresponds to all “consumers” of media coverage, unable, unwilling, uninterested (?) in challenging mainstream media which, for better or for worse, constitutes our eyes and ears on the world beyond our living rooms. The “child” in the tale corresponds to those people who refused to deny what they saw for what they were told to see, starting with Shahaf. The biggest difference between the two tales concerns the reaction to the public to the comments of the dissenters. Where a bystander said, “listen to the child…” in Andersen’s fairy tale, we have, so far, heard mostly an echo of what the child’s embarrassed father said: “hush child,” how dare you question the authority of the Chamberlain. Of course Andersen’s tale is a comedy we tell to our children to encourage “speaking truth to power.” So far the al Durah affair is a tragic myth. How will the tale end? That depends on how our crowd responds.
17. Why is it important to know the facts of the case, what really went on in the al Durah affair?
If this tale tells us more about Palestinian propaganda and media incompetence rather than Israeli war crimes, then understanding how it came to be and how it has played out, sheds a bright and harsh light on some major components of our present painful and violent situation. In a sense, this event has set the tone for the new century, not only in its role in inspiring Jihadi hatreds, but also in shaping how we have interpreted almost all violence emanating from the Muslim world. It tells us volumes about the role of propaganda in contributing to the “cycle of violence” as well as the lapses and blind-spots that mark our current thinking and reporting on the conflict. If the problems with the mainstream media are as serious as this affair suggests, then it will take a generation of change to flush them out of the system, and this story is as good a place to start the process as any. If you understand the details of this case, you can unravel some of the forces that contribute to the disturbing direction of global culture since 2000.