August 21, 2003
State of Siege
Even if you've forgotten Mohammed al-Dura, hundreds of millions of Muslims haven't.
This week, as suicide bombers killed more than 20 in Jerusalem and 17 in Iraq, it's hard to remember al-Dura, the 12-year-old boy shot and killed on Sept. 30, 2000, during an exchange of fire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian policemen and demonstrators. The image of the boy and his father crouched behind a concrete pipe; the boy's terrorized face; his limp, lifeless body; the father's blood-soaked shirt -- this sequence of images defined the outbreak of the second intifada, even as on the other side, the empty shell of a blown-out bus defines it for the other side.
The Israeli army took responsibility for the killing after a preliminary investigation. The Arab world took the images and turned al-Dura, in the words of journalist James Fallows, into its very own "Pietà." "To a billion people in the Muslim world it is an infamous symbol of grievance against Israel and -- because of this country's support for Israel -- against the United States as well," writes Fallows in the June issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
But did Israeli bullets kill al-Dura? Fallow's long article explores independent research, carried out by Israelis on all sides of the political spectrum, which offer what he calls "persuasive evidence" that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers on the scene could not have fired the deadly shots. According to the logical conclusion of the available evidence -- videotapes, some physical evidence, eyewitness reports, ballistic analysis -- the son and his father (who survived his wounds) were shot by Palestinians.
The IDF has sought to downplay these new findings. It wouldn't respond to Fallows' request for an interview, loathe to draw further attention to the events of that tragic afternoon. But Fallows makes a strong case that attention must be paid. Mohammed al-Dura's death, he writes, has "left the realm of geometry and ballistics and entered the world of politics, paranoia, fantasy and hatred."
All across the Arab world, al-Dura is the lasting symbol of Jewish cruelty. An Egyptian stamp depicts the last moments of his life, crouched behind his father. Morocco has an al-Dura Park and one of Baghdad's main streets is renamed the Martyr Mohammed al-Dura Street. As Fallows points out, Osama bin Laden, in one of his perorations after Sept. 11, exhorted President George W. Bush, "not to forget the image of Mohammed al-Dura and his fellow Muslims in Palestine and Iraq."
Modern conflicts are fought through arsenals of images. Facts and logic often take second and third place to the power of a single picture. That is why Fallows reports speculation -- though absolutely no definitive proof -- that Palestinians themselves staged the killing of al-Dura in order to manufacture just such an image. And that is also why it is impossible to imagine a time in the near future when Muslims may look objectively at the evidence and start to question the "truth" of their al-Dura narrative.
Oh yes, truth. We may never know for certain who killed al-Dura, but it's clear that there is little understanding -- among true believers on both sides, among much of the media -- for complexity.
The Palestinians have understood this for some time now, and thus either put forward or create images that convey a very simple message: Israel oppresses us.
Our images may change, from one blown-up bus in June to another on Aug. 19, but theirs hasn't -- even if theirs, of al-Dura, is not based on fact.
The relatively calm summer ceasefire, which was beneficial to both the Israelis and the Palestinians, has been shattered, and the road to peace is littered with (or blocked by) casualties of war.
I thought of this as I read the new graphic book, "State of Siege: User's Manual" by graphic artist Doron Goldenberg (Gefen, $24.95), a former IDF company commander. He comes the closest of any media representation to depicting the complexities facing Israel. There is little prose here, but an ingenious compilation of images that reflect the good, the bad and the terrifying that have overlapped and overwhelmed Israeli life over the past two years.
Surprisingly, the book full of images of the second intifada doesn't have the image of Mohammed al-Dura. Then again, that is part of the problem: the two sides have never agreed on a common narrative. Goldenberg does display the infamous photo of a Palestinian man holding up his blood soaked hands after having killed an Israeli in Ramallah. "At times," his caption for the photo reads, "through the power of faith, one loses one's humanity."