Rife With Speculation

Press Advocates: Israeli Report On Al-Dura Affair 'Absurd and Unacceptable'

Ali Gharib examines an Israeli government report aimed at discrediting the 13-year-old media story on the death of Muhammad al-Dura.

This week, the Israeli government released a report aimed at discrediting the story of a shooting death amid riots in the Gaza Strip in 2000 (yes: 13 years ago). In the incident, 12-year-old Muhammad Al-Dura was reportedly shot and killed by Israeli forces while cowering behind his father. The incident gained prominence after the French television channel France 2 ran a report showing footage of Al-Dura's apparent shooting. The young boy became a symbol of the Second Intifada. The new document from the Israeli government sought to undermine the original French report and the reporter who produced it, the French-Israeli journalist Charles Enderlin. The Israelis initially said its military's gunfire caused the death, but within weeks blamed Palestinian gunfire instead. By 2007, the Israeli government already declared the boy's death at Israel's hands a "myth." Now, a respected press advocacy organization is coming to Enderlin's defense in his battle with the Israel's Ministry of International Affairs and Strategy.

Yesterday, the press advocacy group Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders) took issue with the report and questioned the review's independence. “While the Israeli government has the right to respond publicly to a media report it regards as damaging, the nature and substance of this report are questionable and give the impression of a smear operation,” said Christophe Deloire, RSF's secretary-general. "Charles Enderlin has always said he would be ready to testify to a commission of enquiry in conditions that guaranteed impartiality and independence. These conditions were not respected, and Enderlin was not asked to testify." Enderlin said on Twitter that the Israeli committee did not attempt to question him, France 2, their cameraman in Gaza or Al-Dura's father. The Guardian reported that Enderlin and Al-Dura's father were willing to take polygraphs, and Al-Dura told Haaretz he would "do anything to reveal the truth, including opening my son’s grave."

Though it's only rekindled the controversy, the new Israeli report, by frequently relying on suggestion and innuendo, sought to put the issue to rest, even floating the notion that the affair was staged. Using the footage in the France 2 report and "rushes"—18 minutes of raw footage, though the report claims only 55 seconds of the recording were "ever released"—the Ministry claims variously that movements by the boy after he was reportedly shot, the size and location of blood stains and other factors show either that the al-Dura was either not injured as France 2 claims or not shot at all. Short on dispositive evidence, the report frequently uses the language of open speculation: parts of France 2's narrative are found to be "highly-doubtful" five times in the document; the movements of Al-Dura and his father were "inconsistent with what would be expected" after being wounded, the report said. In the case that Al-Dura his father were shot, "it appears significantly more likely that Palestinian gunmen were the source of the shots," added the report, concluding that Enderlin is responsible for "inspir(ing) terrorists and contribut(ing) significantly to the demonization of Israel and rise in anti-­Semitism in Muslim countries and the West."

The report got a credulous reading in the New York Times (curiously, the article was migrated from the news section onto a Times blog about "visual journalism"), but other outlets like the Guardian and Haaretz were far more skeptical. "This report on the Muhammad al-Durrah case is probably one of the least convincing documents produced by the Israeli government in recent years," wrote Barak Ravid in the latter paper. Ravid wrote that the al-Dura incident "became an obsession" for the instigator and later chairman of the committee to review the incident, Yossi Kuperwasser. Haaretz reported seperately that Kuperwasser had previously worked for a right-wing group on the incident—work cited in the Ministry report without Kuperwasser's role disclosed.

RSF highlighted the most troubling aspect of the report: the allegation that Enderlin was to blame for terrorists and anti-Jewish bigotry. "Above all, the committee’s published findings consist of just 11 pages on the ‘facts’ of the case and has another 30 pages condemning the way France 2’s report was used," said Deloire. "We think it is absurd and unacceptable to accuse Enderlin’s report of having ‘played a major role in inciting terrorism and violence, both in the Israeli-Palestinian arena and worldwide.’”

The report, RSF also noted, came just three days before an announcement by a French court that it will rule in June on a defamation case lodged by Enderlin against a critic who said the footage was staged. This timing seems potentially perilous for Israel's credibility. Because Israel's version of events in its report is so riddled with suggestions of a hoax, even a limited verdict in favor of Enderlin allowing that the boy actually died could serve to discredit the rank speculation of the Israeli government.