The photograph of the Palestinian father cradling his terrified son moments before the boy was killed in Gaza this fall was viewed live on television and reproduced on the front pages of newspapers around the globe. Like the photograph of the boy with hands raised standing in the Warsaw Ghetto, nobody who saw desperate Jamal Al-Durrah vainly trying to shield 12-year-old Mohammed can ever forget the terror in their eyes.
From the day that the French television photographer snapped the pictures, the image has mesmerized the world. For Arabs, Mohammed became an icon for all victims of the intifada; his image plastered on countess posters. In Egypt, even tissue boxes were manufactured bearing his likeness.
His father, himself wounded, was interviewed by the world's leading journalists, appearing on prime-time television in the United States. There was a media pilgrimage to Amman to conduct interviews by Al-Durrah's hospital bedside. Israeli journalists joined in; Al-Durrah appeared in the Israeli press, on radio and on television.
Israel was well aware of the extremely negative propaganda effect of this incident. Although shortly afterwards the Israel Defense Forces accepted responsibility for Mohammed's death, some insiders felt this admission was rash and premature. Among them was Maj. Gen. Yom Tov Samia, the army's southern commander. Samia conducted an investigation and an abortive campaign to reenact the shooting in an effort to prove that it was Palestinian shooters who had felled the boy. But the Israeli army had already demolished the wall against which the pair had leaned. Samia's efforts came to naught. The picture had done its damage, or its work, depending on one's point of view. Even if it could be scientifically proven that Israelis hadn't fired the lethal shots, it didn't really matter to the world any more.
Now, more than four months later, the photo is once again in the spotlight.
MSNBC is currently conducting a public poll on its Web site to choose the photograph of the year 2000. To date, 480,000 votes have been cast for 49 entries. The shot of Al-Durrah and his son, titled "A Death in Gaza," has garnered more than 39,000 votes and is currently in sixth place. The five ahead of it are all sentimental images of animals.
A callous propaganda war is raging to exploit this personal tragedy. In recent days, Jews have received e-mails informing them of the poll and urging them to vote for other photos, trying to calculate which has the best chance of overtaking "A Death in Gaza." "Obviously," they write, "we have to try to stop it from winning." Forward the message on to "everyone you know as well!" instructs the e-mail. Instead of taking the lesson of the picture to heart, people who ought most to be disturbed by its implications are implored to try to minimize it.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians are busy disseminating e-mails, too, instructing exactly where to click in order to vote for "A Death in Gaza." They stress the importance of casting a ballot, since winning may get it renewed exposure, and caution that "once the opposition sees this they will also begin to vote heavily." Apparently this tactic is not a new one, for the Palestinian e-mail continues: "In the past, we have generally managed to outvote them!"
As bloody as our days have become, it has been said that the real war is the war of the media. Unlike claims that horrific scenes are often staged by cameramen anxious for a scoop, no one dreams of impugning the integrity of the photograph of Al-Durrah and his late son. Yet there seems no limit to the lengths taken to hit home one's point of view.
The wrong conclusion to reach after reading about the MSNBC poll is to race to one's computer and to vote either for or against "A Death in Gaza." An ideological vote either way compromises the voter's integrity and demeans the dignity of the subjects.
If one picture is worth a thousand words, this one may well be worth a million. Its real lesson is to put all parents in the Middle East on notice. If the perverted hatred which fuels some on both sides overtakes us all, every parent -- Arab or Jew -- is in jeopardy. Even the parent who tries to keep his children safely inside, out of harm's way, may some day find himself crouching in front of a stone wall trying to shield a son or daughter, both of them caught in the crossfire. And chances are, no one will be around to take their picture.