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Propaganda against Israel: The Mohammed Al Durah Case and Staging Reality in the Media

A few weeks ago, a French appellate court overturned the defamation conviction of Philippe Karsenty, who operates an independent news agency. Karsenty had described the Al Durah case as a “masquerade” that “does dishonor to France and its state-run television”.

By: Esther Schapira

Published: June 18, 2008

Esther Schapira

The pictures went around the world in autumn 2000: Gunshots strike a Palestinian child in his father’s arms – shots fired by Israeli soldiers. And the French television reporter’s voiceover: “Mohammed is dead, his father gravely injured.” Ever since, young Mohammed Al Durah has been fêted as a martyr in the Arab world and the picture used for political purposes. But did it really happen that way? A few weeks ago, a French appellate court overturned the defamation conviction of Philippe Karsenty, who operates an independent news agency. Karsenty had described the Al Durah case as a “masquerade” that “does dishonor to France and its state-run television”.

Three shots supposedly struck Mohammed, then 12 years old, at least one of which was purportedly fatal. Talal Abu Rahme, the Palestinian cameraman for France 2 state television, filmed the dramatic scene that unleashed worldwide indignation and pilloried the Israeli army as cold-blooded child murderers. The scene became a beacon, young Mohammed an icon of the Intifada. Mohammed the martyr. The scene shot by Talal Abu Rahme was broadcast countless times on Palestinian TV, with one image spliced in: an Israeli soldier, shooting. Through this manipulation, the clip acquired the unambiguousness lacking in the original footage.

In the Arab world, however, no further evidence was needed. Countless streets and squares were named after Mohammed Al Durah; films, songs and poems lauded the martyr and stamps, even toilet paper, were manufactured with his likeness. Tunesia renamed the street in front of Yassir Arafat’s former villa “Mohammed Al Durah Street”, Egypt did the same with the street in front of the Israeli embassy. In Mali’s capital, there is a “Square of the Palestinian Child Martyrs”. Enraged demonstrators demanded Israel’s destruction, and Muslims were exhorted to avenge Mohammed Al Durah on TV and the Internet, in Friday sermons and leaflets – a call that became grisly reality with the Islamists’ brutal beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl. In the video of his execution, the “death sentence” was justified as revenge for the “murder” of Mohammed Al Durah.

Yet we still don’t know what actually happened that day – on the contrary. Eight years later, there are more questions and doubts about the scene than there were at the time. Supposed certainty has yielded to the suspicion that possibly we were duped by a huge Palestinian propaganda hoax. But didn’t we see with our own eyes how young Mohammed was shot and finally lay dead in the lap of his gravely wounded father? No, we did not. Fifty-four seconds of the footage that Talal Abu Rahme shot that day at Netzarim Junction were made public, and only 31 seconds show father and son. Charles Enderlin, the correspondent who edited the film and provided the commentary, was not himself at the scene. He relied on his cameraman’s account. In the film’s voiceover, it’s said that the gunfire came from the direction of the military outpost. And then the decisive sentence: “Mohammed is dead, his father gravely injured.”

The power of news images and commentary is so great that most viewers are certain that they saw how father and son were struck. But in fact, the film footage shows not one single shot and no blood. We see the two sitting next to each other, see the father looking and gesticulating in the direction of the Israeli outpost, then a hand covers the lens and at the decisive moment, clouds of dust obscure the view. When the picture again becomes clear, Mohammed’s head lies in the lap of his father, who seems listless and leans against the wall, his head tilted to one side.

Actually, nothing is visible that provides evidence for the assertion that the child is dead, the father gravely injured. Yet it took over a year until clear questions emerged from cautious doubts and inconsistencies openly came to light. Those who wanted precise knowledge about the incident and persistently inquired were immediately suspected of pursuing a political agenda.  France 2 also tried through judicial means to quell any doubts as to the authenticity of the broadcast images. Yet all attempts to nip inquiries in the bud failed – the scene had gained too much symbolic impact.  For some, it was visible proof of Israel’s murderous policy of occupation and of the legitimacy of the struggle to annihilate the “Zionist creation”.  For others, it was a key scene in the media war, a prime example of Palestinian propaganda,  “Palliwood”. What, in the meantime, is unequivocally certain?

France 2 always maintained that they released all footage of the scene. This is false. There are at least 10 additional seconds that show father and son. The supposedly final image, for which Charles Enderlin supplied the voiceover “Mohammed is dead”, is not the last image that was shot. The take was cut before one sees how Mohammed Al Durah, allegedly dead, raises his head and looks into the camera. The additional seconds of footage were first shown in the Paris courtroom on November 14, 2007. France 2 had taken Philippe Karsenty to court for libel; he had publicly maintained that France 2 falsely spread information that Mohammed Al Durah had been shot dead in the scene. Yet fundamentally, not Karsenty, but France 2 and its correspondent Charles Enderlin were on trial. It was a matter of the station’s credibility. So Karsenty’s acquittal also is an accusation against Charles Enderlin and France 2. The verdict confirms that the Mohammed Al Durah case is by no means closed. And during the trial, the list of inconsistencies in the media version of the shooting of Mohammed Al Durah by Israeli soldiers became significantly longer.

For seven years, France 2 said there were 27 minutes on the videocassette. Then, to an astonished audience at the Paris court, the station said there had been an error. There were only 18 minutes. At first glance, these were so unspectacular that it was unclear why they were kept so long under lock and key. They showed youths throwing stones and incendiary devices at the Israeli military outpost without any discernable reaction from the Israeli soldiers. They showed “for camera only” scenes that, however, could be recognized as such only by a practiced observer. “For camera only” – this is what Israeli soldiers call it when demonstrators simulate injury and have themselves picked up by ambulances. Some inconsequential interviews followed.  Only then came the well-known sequence with father and son, now for the first time with the 10 seconds in which the allegedly dead boy suddenly raises his head and briefly looks into the camera.

What did Talal Abu Rahme really film on that day? What happened to Mohammed Al Durah?

The list of contradictions grows longer. Ballistic analysis shows that, from their position, the soldiers could hardly have been the shooters. Measurements of the bullet holes in the wall speak against this scenario. It’s also highly improbable that sharpshooters would need 45 minutes to hit a stationary target. But that’s how long father and son were under sustained fire, according to Talal Abu Rahme’s testimony. And why would soldiers fire at those two, of all people, while leaving those attacking the outpost with stones and incendiary devices completely alone?

Finally there are the contradictory statements as to the length of the filmed footage. Talal Abu Rahme said he shot 6 minutes of the dramatic scene. Charles Enderlin initially maintained that all the footage was released. According to him, it was only 31 seconds. He later added that the scene had been cut by just one take, which would have shown the child’s horrible death throes. Yet nothing of those death throes is visible in the now-released images. Why not? Either there is more raw footage than stated, or the pictures do not exist.

Is an image true to life or genuine, is it realistic or real? Such fine points have long played no role whatsoever on the media war front. The more an image is seen, the more it is assumed to be true. The media image becomes the reality, the basis of public opinion. Its verdict cannot be appealed.

In the cemetery near El Bureish in the Gaza Strip, one grave stands out. It is the grave of the martyr Mohammed Al Durah. Emblazoned on the white marble is the inscription: “Those who die in battle do not really die, but live on” – in paradise, as every devout Moslem is convinced. And in the memory of viewers, who see only the picture they know.

Esther Schapira is a producer at ARD, Hessischer Rundfunk and already had questioned the official Palestinian version of the Mohammed Al Durah case in her 2002 documentary film “Three Bullets and a Dead Child”.

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