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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE Opinion FRIDAY/SATURDAY/SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 26 - 28, 2004

The Mythical Martyr

 

By Stéphane Juffa

The first thing that comes up when you google Mohammed al-Durras name is a poem written by Sheikh Mohammed of the United Arab Emirates called To the soul of the child martyr. It gives an idea of the mythical proportions that the young boy has assumed in the Middle East. The images of Mohammed al-Durra hiding from Israeli fire behind his fathers back in the early days of the second intifada, only to be struck down by enemy bullets, shocked the whole world. For many Arabs and Muslims, the boy became the symbol of Palestinian suffering under Israeli occupation.

On the Palestinian Authoritys TV channel, as well as in Palestinian school books, his example is used to encourage other children to emulate his spirit of sacrifice. Even in the West, the pictures that won so many journalism prizes have become the most recognizable symbol of Israeli aggression. When Ehud Barak, then Israels prime minister, visited Paris in the same year, French President Jacques Chirac wryly scolded him. Killing children is no policy. i i i And yet, it was nothing but a hoax. For those readers who recognize the famous image reproduced here, it might be difficult to believe that the scene was actually staged. I will elaborate later how it has been proven that Israeli soldiers could not have killed the boy. Some might ask why it still matters. Havent too many innocent people on both sides died since then, and is it not time to look ahead now?

Well, it matters for exactly those same reasons. Mohammed al-Durra became more than just the poster boy of the intifada. According to the Mitchell report, drafted in May 2001 by a joint U.S.-European committee, this story was one of the events that sparked the intifada. For peace we need reconciliation and for reconciliation we need the truth. But French stateowned TV channel France 2, which produced and distributed the damning footage, refuses to release the facts.

The story began on Sept. 30, 2000, two months after Yasser Arafat walked out of the Camp David peace talks. The place was Netzarim junction in Gaza, where Israeli soldiers were posted to protect a nearby settlement. Palestinian rioters were throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the Israelis while gunmen were shooting at them from amidst the crowd. It was during this fighting that the boy allegedly died.

Claiming they didnt want to make money on an innocent childs death, France 2 distributed the dramatic coverage free of charge to the global media. The Israeli army hastily issued a statement saying that the boy may have accidentally been killed in Israeli cross-fire. Only later, maybe too late, did the army authorize a full investigation. It entrusted this mission to civilian physicist Nahum Shahaf, who scientifically proved thatgiven the angle of the Israeli position vis-à-vis Mohammed al-Durrathe soldiers could not have possibly killed the boy. Mr. Shahaf then uncovered an incredible plot: He demonstrated that since the shots must have come from directly behind or next to the cameraman, the whole scene of the supposed infanticide must have been stagedand that the boy seen in the film was not killed at all. Going through the film in slow motion, he could even see the cameramans finger making a take two sign, used by professionals to signal the repeat of a scene. Three years ago I interviewed Mr. Shahaf, and after viewing all his evidence I realized that this might be one of the greatest media manipulations the world has ever seen. We started our own investigations and wrote over 150 articles on the issue, concluding that the French report is, beyond any reasonable doubt, pure fiction. We cant cite all the evidence that we were able to uncover on top of Mr. Shahafs findings. But to give just one example: We have the testimonies of Dr. Joumaa Saka and Dr. Muhamad El-Tawil, two Palestinian doctors of the Gaza Shifa hospital who said Mohammeds lifeless body was brought to them before 1 p.m. The problem is that Charles Enderlin, the France 2 correspondent in Jerusalem, claimed in the disputed report that the shooting started at 3 p.m. How can someone be killed by bullets that were fired hours after he was already dead? This is only one of the many questions that the French state TV channel needs to answer. In our battle with France 2, we have focused on the statements of the two journalists who filed the report. In order to fully appreciate them, it is important to realize that the pictures themselves do not actually provide any evidence for the charges raised against Israel. No Israeli soldier, no weapon (Israeli or otherwise), no strike, no wounds and no blood, not a drop, can be seen. Thats despite claims by official Palestinian sources that Mohammed was killed by three high velocity bullets, and Jamal al-Durrathe fatherwounded by nine.

What turned these images into a modern blood-libel against Israel was only Mr. Enderlins voice-over. Even though Mr. Enderlin was not in Gaza when the alleged killing happened, he tells the viewers with great confidence that the shooting comes from the Israeli position. One more volley and the kid will be dead. Possibly in order to compensate for the lack of real evidence in their film, the two authors of the report, Palestinian cameraman Talal Abu Rahma (who works for France 2 and CNN) and Mr. Enderlin, a French-Israeli journalist, provided supporting statements. Mr. Abu Rahma did so in October 2000 in a written testimonyunder oathin the office and presence of attorney Raji Surani in Gaza. (The statement can be found on the Web site of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights: www.pchrgaza.org/special/ tv2.htm.) Mr. Abu Rahma describes in great detail the alleged killing of the boy by Israeli soldiers. The words that particularly caught our attention were the following: I spent about 27 minutes photographing the incident which took place for 45 minutes.

The importance of this sentence is twofold:

First, Mr. Abu Rahma said he has 27 minutes of footage while France 2 had previously only shown about 55 seconds of film and later released about three minutes and 26 seconds of material to the Israeli army. This is of enormous significance as the additional material could help shed more light on this story. One of the most bizarre aspects of this affair is that among the hundreds of people present at the scene, including dozens of other cameramen, only Talal Abu Rahma claimed to have actually witnessed the alleged killing of the boy and managed to catch it on film.

Second, Mr. Abu Rahma gravely raised the charges when he said the incident lasted for three-quarters of an hour. Before his statement, it could have been argued that the boy might have been unfortunately caught in cross-fire. But for 15 Israeli servicemen to single out a harmless small boy and fire at him for 45 long minutesthats a war crime.

Mr. Enderlin added his own colorful detail, saying the 27 minutes of rushes contain pictures of the childs agony that are too graphic to be shown to the world. I cut the childs death throes. It was too unbearable. The story was told, the news delivered. It would not have added anything more, he told the French monthly Telerama in October 2000.

For years we have pleaded with France 2 to let us view the additional pictures. We are senior pressmen living in a troubled area, certain we could endure the unbearable pictures. We sent numerous registered letters, made phone calls and repeatedly suggested to compare our findings with the France 2 report. But to no avail. France 2 would not let us see its footage. The French TV channels obstructionism and our own investigation led us to the conclusion that the additional footage did not exist. We were so certain that we even published several articles to this effect. However, it took until Oct. 22 of this year before France 2 finally caved in. Following massive political pressure, the stateowned channel was forced to invite Luc Rosenzweig, a former chief editor of Le Monde and one of our contributors, to view the ominous rushes. On that Friday, Mr. Rosenzweig, together with Denis Jeambar, editor-in-chief of LExpress, and Daniel Leconte, a former France 2 reporter, was admitted into the office of Arlette Chabot, the head of France 2s news department. Our friend delivered the sentence we had rehearsed so many times: I came to watch the 27 minutes of the incident mentioned in Mr. Abu Rahmas statement under oath.

A legal clerk for France 2 told Mr. Rosenzweig and his colleagues that they will be disappointed. Didnt you know ? added Didier Epelbaum, an adviser to the president of France Télévision (the department presiding over all French state-operated TV networks)

that Talal has retracted his testimony?

No, they did not know. How could they since neither the French channel nor the Palestinian cameraman ever made that public? It is incredible how France 2 so nonchalantly admitted that their star witness, well, their only witness to the alleged killing, retracted his accusations. Without this testimony there is no story, and yet the channel refuses to make any of this public.

The 27 minutes of footage that the three journalists were finally allowed to see didnt contain a single new relevant scene, except for one that showed the child in a different death position from the one shown before. So the child moved after he was presumably dead? The unbearable images of the childs death that Mr. Enderlin rhapsodized about? A mirage, a total invention, worthy of Scheherazade, the storyteller of The Arabian Nights. i i i So I keep asking France 2 three questions:

How is it possible that, after having been caught giving false testimonies, Messrs. Abu Rahma and Enderlin are not only still working for the public TV channel but are still covering, often together, the Israeli-Arab conflict? How is it possible that France 2 has not yet informed the public of the significant new developments in the Mohammed al-Durra case? This would be standard behavior for any responsible media organization. By refusing to do so, France 2 is violating even its own ethical code. And most importantly, how is it possible that France 2 still stands by this story even though it knows it was filmed by someone who gave a false testimony and who, by retracting this testimony, effectively eliminated the whole basis of the report? For four years, France 2 has been holding the 27-minute footage, pretending it contained crucial evidence, knowing full well though that both of their journalists simply lied. France 2 must be held responsible for this manipulation, first for issuing this fabrication and then for not coming clean.

Mr. Juffa is editor in chief of the Israeli-based

Metula News Agency.