Thirteen years ago, right at the beginning of the so-called second Palestinian Intifada, on Sept. 30, 2000, a reporter of a French TV station aired some 60 seconds of footage of the killing of a Palestinian boy. Muhammad al-Dura, 12 at the time, was caught with his father in an exchange of fire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian shooters. The footage of his killing became one of the most memorable and heart wrenching of the bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Alas, no one knows for sure what exactly happened at the Netzarim Junction in the Gaza Strip that day.
Two weeks ago, an official Israeli report argued that there is no evidence that the boy was hit by Israeli bullets. “There is strong evidence that [the boy and his father] were not hit by bullets at all in the scenes filmed,” the report says, as it details the many omissions, errors and unanswered questions related to the widely accepted chronicling of this event. “It is highly doubtful that what appears to be a small number of gunshots and bullet holes in the vicinity of Jamal and the boy could have come from bullets fired from the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] position,” the report says. And it explains why it needed to revisit the case so many years after the fact by claiming that the al-Dura narrative “has inspired terrorists and contributed significantly to the demonization of Israel and rise in anti-Semitism” — possibly an overstatement, but one that has some basis in reality. The al-Dura case is not just another story of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed. It is a story of great symbolic significance. To those battling to disprove it, it is a story that bears the marks of the old blood libels blaming Jews for the killing of young, non-Jewish boys.
I first heard that there might be a problem with the al-Dura narrative soon after the incident, when a young reporter approached me with an amazing telling. I was the head of the news division at Haaretz Daily at the time, and she told me that someone in the military was re-enacting the scene of the shooting by way of proving that the tale of Palestinian and French chroniclers was suspicious. We both thought that the military was crazy to do such a thing, as is reflected in the headline of her story — published on Nov. 7, 2000: “Dubious Probe of the al-Dura Case Backfires.” The perpetrator of this “dubious” investigation was cast as somewhat eccentric, even weird. It was a relatively easy target. One of the people working to disprove the Palestinian tale was also working on some conspiracy tales related to the Yitzhak Rabin assassination. We — at the paper — “attacked him ferociously in an editorial and an article,” as a later critic claimed.
I plead guilty: For a very long time, I believed the initial al-Dura narrative and was highly suspicious of the motivations of those attempting to disprove it. The power of the footage was gripping, and many of those casting doubt on the story seemed politically motivated, argumentative and conspiratorial. Why would they not let the miserable boy rest in peace?
It took me some time to no longer be able to ignore the evidence piling up. There were too many unanswered questions. The initial TV broadcast was highly problematic and, as Israel now claims, was “edited and narrated in such a way as to create the misleading impression that it substantiated the claims made therein.” In the broadcast, it was reported that “Jamal and his son Muhammad are the target of fire coming from the Israeli position. … Muhammad is dead and his father badly hurt.” The full film doesn’t quite support these claims. “The raw footage shows clearly that in the final scenes the boy is not dead. In the final seconds of the footage, the boy raises his arm and turns his head in the direction of [TV cameraman] Abu Rahma in what are clearly intentional and controlled movements.” In the France2 TV footage, the report documents, someone “is heard yelling ‘the boy is dead’ well before the boy makes any appearance of being wounded.”
I followed previous reports raising all sorts of other questions about the story. I followed the details of the case, in which an Israeli doctor has been cleared by French court from charges of defamation, after claiming that the scars presented by the father, also allegedly caused by Israeli bullets, were really old scars from eight years before the incident. Still, uneasiness lingered. Even though I very much wanted to believe that Israel wasn’t at fault, I had a very long process of overcoming my suspicions. Not even an official report could fully convince me. Hell, any journalist knows that one should never believe the official report of a government that is also politically motivated to clear Israel of wrongdoings.
Yet, reality finally dawned: Official Israel might not be able to tell me what really happened to al-Dura — the new report’s authors didn’t interview the father, or French TV officials, nor did they dig out the body for examination. But neither can the “other side” — be it French media or Palestinian propagandists — make a convincing case. My al-Dura journey, which began with total belief in the Palestinian version, and continued with my suspicion of the Israeli attempt to cast doubt, is probably ending with accepting the possibility that Israel might be in the right, after all.
Of course, I welcome such news with a sense of relief, but also with a continuing measure of self-doubt — concern about my own motivations: Am I truly swayed by the evidence presented, or is it my eagerness to let Israel off the hook?
A shorter and somewhat different version of this article appeared at the Latitude blog of the International Herald Tribune-New York Times.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, please visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/Rosnersdomain.