Thursday, February 03, 2005

The Fake, but Accurate Intifada: New Developments in the Mohammed Al-Dura Affair (with Update)

(Note: previously titled "The Mohammed Al-Dura Affair Revisited")

On September 30, 2000, the nightly news program of the French public television channel France2 shows images apparently depicting a Palestinian boy and his father caught in the crossfire of a clash between Palestinian militants and Israeli troops in the town of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip. The voice-over of the France2 reporter, Charles Enderlin, explains the situation as follows: "Here Jamal and his son Mohammed are the target of fire coming from the Israeli position. Mohammed is twelve years old. His father tries to protect him. He signals. But...there's a new burst of fire....Mohammed is dead and his father is badly wounded."

Subsequently – thanks in large measure to France2 taking the unusual step of releasing the footage to other news services free of charge – the boy Mohammed would come to be known around the world as Mohammed Al-Dura and the supposed images of his death would become some of the emblematic images of the 2nd Intifada and a rallying point for anti-Israeli rage. Soon, however, questions began to be raised about Charles Enderlin's version of what transpired in Netzarim on September 30, 2000. It should be noted that Enderlin was not at Netzarim when the episode is supposed to have occurred, but based his account on the testimony of the Palestinian cameraman who shot the footage, Talal Abou Rama.

In the first place, by reason of simple considerations of geometry - the two Palestinians were next to a large concrete barrier that shielded them from the Israeli Army post - the claim that the supposedly deadly gunfire came from the Israeli position seemed impossible to sustain. Analysis of the available footage and the apparent impact of bullets on the wall against which the two figures were crouched indicates that the gunfire came rather from a position directly in front of them and behind or beside that of the cameraman. More seriously still, investigators pointed to several disturbing inconsistencies connected to the episode that suggested that the alleged death of Mohammed Al-Dura may have been staged. This hypothesis gained credence from the fact that footage shot on the same day in Netzarim seemingly documents the staging and filming of episodes of just this sort. The evidence is discussed at length in the book Contre expertise d'une mise en scène by Gérard Huber of the Metula News Agency (MENA) [French-language site]. In English, it has been touched upon more briefly and more cautiously by James Fallows in an article titled “Who Shot Mohammed Al-Dura” [subscription required] that appeared in the June 2003 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

The MENA has long requested of France2 that it permit MENA investigators to view the complete rushes of the footage shot by Talal Abou Rama on September 30, 2000. To appreciate the full importance of this request, it should be noted that Talal Abou Rama claimed under oath to have shot some 27 minutes of footage while the episode was taking place, of which France2 released merely some 55 seconds. Furthermore, the moment of Mohamed Al-Dura’s alleged demise was not included in the footage shown by France2. Charles Enderlin has claimed that he consciously chose to edit out “the child’s death throes” : “it was unbearable.... It would not have added anything.”

Last October 22, France2 finally permitted three independent journalists to view the complete rushes: former Le Monde reporter Luc Rosenzweig, Denis Jeambar, the director of the newsweekly L'Express, and producer (and frequent Arte contributor) Daniel Leconte. They were accompanied by the director of France2’s news department, Arlette Chabot. It is not clear whether Chabot realized that Luc Rosenzweig was in the meanwhile a collaborator of the MENA. On Tuesday, January 25 – apparently prompted by the attention drawn to the meeting by an article (“The Mythical Martyr” [scroll down for article]) published by MENA director Stéphane Juffa in the Wall Street Journal Europe – Jeambar and Leconte for the first time expressed themselves publicly on the matter in an op-ed piece which they co-authored for Le Figaro. Here is what they have to say about the content of the rushes and, more specifically, Charles Enderlin’s claim that he edited out “the child’s death throes” from the France2 report:

...the viewing of the rushes teaches us nothing more definite about “the child’s death throes”. Or rather, it does! These famous “death throes”, which Enderlin
claims to have cut from the report, do not exist.

On the other hand, viewing the rushes permits us to note...that in the minutes prior to the gunfire, the Palestinians seem to have organized a staging [mise en scène]. They “play” at fighting the Israelis and simulate, in most cases, imaginary incidents of being wounded. The viewing of the complete rushes also demonstrates that at the moment that Charles Enderlin says that the child is dead, supposedly killed by the Israelis – that is to say that very evening on the nightly news on France2 –there is nothing that would permit him to know that the child is dead, still less that he had been killed by the Israeli soldiers. Everything, on the contrary, starting with the relative positions of the principals on the terrain, would seem to incriminate rather one or more bullets fired by the Palestinians.

It should be noted that Jeambar and Leconte take pains to dissociate themselves from the MENA thesis of a staged shooting. The last sentence in the passage quoted is symptomatic of these efforts and indeed of their artificiality, since though the relative positions of the principals is known, they were never in question and hence the viewing of the rushes would not have contributed to clarifying them. It would seem that the addition of this sentence represents a shame-faced and rather schizophrenic attempt on the part of Jeambar and Leconte to divert attention from those elements of the rushes – which they have just related! – that in fact clearly lend support to the MENA thesis.


One thing, in any event, is now clear: France2's September 30, 2000 report of the Israeli shooting of the Palestinian boy Mohammed Al-Dura (or "Djamal", as he was called in that report) was unfounded. Or as Denis Jeambar and Daniel Leconte said in unison when interviewed on Tuesday on the Parisian radio station RCJ [Jewish Community Radio]: it is "false". (The full interview [in French] is available here [hat tip acmedias].) If Denis Jeambar and Daniel Leconte continue to take their distance from the MENA and to praise the cooperativeness and "transparency" of Arlette Chabot, this is perhaps in order not to burn their bridges with the French journalistic establishment or - just perhaps - because France 2 has filed suit [link in French] against as yet unspecified persons (a procedure known as filing suit "against X" in French law) for "public defamation" in connection with the charges that the reported events were staged. In any case, this attitude is not particularly honest, since there is virtually nothing in Jeambar's and Leconte's supposed "investigation" of the matter that one could not have already known from the published results of the investigations that the MENA has been conducting for over three years now.

The only exception to this last observation would concern the contents of the rushes, which, of course, the MENA had not been permitted to see. And on this point, Jeambar's and Leconte's interview with RCJ adds an important detail that was absent from their Figaro article. Whereas in the Figaro article, Jeambar and Leconte acknowledge that the rushes contain "stagings" [mise-en-scene], in the RCJ interview, Jeambar specifies that during fully 24 minutes of the rushes "one sees nothing but [my emphasis - JR] mise-en-scene":

...young Palestinians...faking being wounded. One sees them fall. When they have the impression that nothing is happening, they get up.... You see boys who look at the camera, they pretend to fall, they fall, and when they see nothing is happening, they get up and run off....They completely fake [simulent] being wounded. One sees ambulances coming and going, which evacuate people who have not been wounded at all.

In fact, those who have read Gérard Huber's book will not be surprised to find out that the rushes contained such scenes, since Huber's book contains virtually identical descriptions of footage shot on the same day in Netzarim. Perhaps it is indeed the same footage. But what is especially interesting about Jeambar's comment is that he says there was "nothing but" mise-en-scene for some 24 minutes. Jeambar suggests that the scene of Mohammed Al-Dura and his father was somehow "completely out of context". Now, the total length of the rushes is said to be 27 minutes and some 3 minutes of rushes specifically of the scene of Mohammed Al-Dura and his father had already been provided by France2 to the Israeli government. This is to say that Jeambar and Leconte are claiming, in effect, that virtually the entirety of the rushes - except the scenes of Mohammed Al-Dura - consist of faked events. Perhaps in order to make their isolation of the Mohammed Al-Dura footage from this context seem less far-fetched, they do say in the RCF interview that "one" of the other woundings also appeared to them authentic. They do not entertain the more plausible explanation that the "exceptions" might simply have been more convincing performances.

It should be noted that Charles Enderlin published a response to Jeambar and Leconte [link in French] in the January 27 edition of Le Figaro. He did not deny the facts cited by Jeambar and Leconte. But he noted that even if the claim that the Israeli soldiers shot and killed Mohammed Al-Dura should not be true, "for me, the image corresponded to the reality of the situation not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank." Americans will be familiar with this style of argument from some of their own supposed news organizations.