Al Durah FAQ

Richard Landes
Last revision: May 2013

1. Who is Muhammad Al Durah?


Muhammad Al Durah was born and raised in the El Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. On September 30, 2000, he was present – together with his father – at Netzarim Junction, Gaza. A crowd of Palestinian youths had gathered there some time earlier to hurl rocks and Molotov cocktails at an Israeli police station situated on the northeast corner of the road junction. The two Al Durahs crouched behind a concrete cylinder on the southwest corner. A sequence of events captured on video by a Palestinian videographer working for France2 Television appears to show them come under a hail of bullets. The voice-over says Muhammad is shot dead. The narrative that accompanies the shooting suggests he was buried later that day without an autopsy being performed. Images taken from the France2 video immediately went viral around the world, as did the France2 Original Al Durah Broadcast itself. The video and those images have inspired years of brutal violence, terrorist bombings and civilian deaths.

2. Who filmed the events at Netzarim, including the purported death of Muhammad Al Durah?

Talal Abu Rahma, a Palestinian freelance cameraman, recorded the footage at Netzarim Junction that day for the French television network, France2. His material was then edited and presented as news by Charles Enderlin, France2’s Middle East correspondent based in Jerusalem. Despite the proven presence of at least two other Palestinian cameramen working for major news outlets (AP, Reuters) at the scene, just before the footage shot by Abu Rahma (the Reuters cameraman is literally immediately behind the father and you can hear the father and son speaking), neither of them have any footage for what Abu Rahma describes as a 45 minute ordeal in which the child bled to death for over 20 minutes, ambulances could not come because the Israelis were firing wildly (indeed killing one ambulance driver), and finally the dead boy was evacuated.

3. What actually happened?

What happened is at the heart of a controversy. We suggest there are five possible scenarios:
1. The Israelis deliberately killed the boy. This is the message of the France2 Original Al Durah Broadcast
2. The Israelis killed the boy by accident: This interpretation was widely adopted in the United States where the France2 Original Al Durah Broadcast was not as widely shown as in the Arab world and Europe.
3. The Palestinians killed the boy by accident
4. The Palestinians deliberately killed the boy
5. The event was staged

The irony of the entire affair is that public opinion on this runs in descending order (most believe 1, fewest believe 5) whereas a close look at the evidence, which very few have done, suggests that in terms of probability, it runs in ascending order (most likely [by far] 5, least likely [by far], 1).

4. Why has a serious reconsideration of Al Durah taken so many years?


Once the Al Durah story came out the way it did – that the Israelis killed him on purpose – and began spreading virally around the globe, the biggest adjustment that most journalists would accept was that perhaps the shooting death was not intentional. Any effort to exculpate the Israelis was immediately greeted with cries of “blaming the victims”. Enormous conceptual resistance surrounds this case – political, psychological, cognitive. The political atmosphere aside, however, the reluctance of the media to reconsider this case comes in no small part from a deep-seated aversion to self-examination and self-correction, starting with France2’s refusal to release the rest of the footage shot by Talal abu Rahmah that day. (The missing raw footage was eventually shown to a French court in 2008 pursuant to a formal order, which was the first occasion on which it was viewed by anyone other than a handful of insiders. It is viewable online.

5. Who are the Key Players Involved in the Muhammad al Durah Incident?

6. So does it follow that the footage was staged, and neither the boy nor the father were actually shot?


That, in the opinion of many people who know the dossier well, is the most likely conclusion. It explains almost all of the evidence, including all the inconsistencies between Talal Abu Rahma’s testimony and the evidence of the video clips. But it cannot be proven, and ultimately it is up to each person to come to his or her own decision. This website (as well as the veteran Second Draft site) were created to allow anyone to decide how well the media have served them in this case.

7. So are we being asked to buy into a conspiracy theory about the fate of Mohammad Al Durah?


No. Staging the story only required the cooperation of the crew at work that day and the silence of any observers. If it were a conspiracy, it would mean that Charles Enderlin, France2, Jacques Chirac and the PA were involved. One of the more interesting parts of this story is the credulity of those on the outside who accepted Talal Abu Rahma’s narrative along with his tapes. Accusations of conspiracy frequently greet the claim that the Al Durah footage was faked. This is both a reflexive response (“you know, there are so many conspiracies in this part of the world, I don’t believe any…”) and a way of comparing those who argue for staging the scene with those who claim that the Mossad blew up the Twin Towers on 9/11. Understanding the difference between conspiracy theories and the argument made here represents one of the most important distinctions one can make in trying to wade through the rhetorical minefield of Middle East information delivery.

8. Is Mohammad Al Durah alive?


He may be or may not be. Most believe he is dead. There are some who believe he is alive. Our position is agnostic. We only assert that the last time we see Muhammad Al Durah on Talal Abu Rahma’s tape that afternoon (Segment 6)i, he is still alive. What happened to him afterwards is a question we do not feel we know enough to decide. A comparison of the picture of Muhammad Al Durah from his home, and the face of the boy at the hospital who was later buried, do not match very closely. A good investigation – which should have occurred immediately after the claims were made – may well reveal the tale of his fate.

9. What do you think is the most decisive evidence?


There is no ‘smoking gun’, and people differ in what they find most decisive. Journalists, who know the value of such footage had the father and son really been shot, find the presence of two other cameramen there at the time, combined with such little footage of what, according to Talal Abu Rahma, was an hour-long ordeal, the clearest evidence of staging: no shots of the gunfire, no ambulance evacuation scene, no scenes of arrival at the hospital 40 minutes away. Others are impressed with the direction of the two bullets that we do see hit the wall around the Al Durahs in Abu Rahma’s footage coming from the Palestinian side. Viewers can see the movements of the boy in the last scene where he is supposed to be dead, but raises his arm and seems to look out. (Enderlin cut this scene from the version broadcast by France2.) Others see the pervasive contradictions between Abu Rahma’s testimony and the visual evidence, and Abu Rahma’s propensity to lie. When all the anomalies in the evidence are considered, the odds that it was staged seem extremely high.
By contrast, any explanation that real injuries were recorded bogs down in so many contradictions that one must resort repeatedly to elaborate and unlikely explanations (e.g., all three cameramen ran out of batteries at 3 pm in the afternoon of a day where, until that point, nothing had happened). The odds of such explanations are so low that only a true believer can, without hesitation, assert that things happened as they were reported.

10. Even if it were staged, is not the Al Durah incident symbolic of all the Palestinian children killed by Israeli troops occupying the territories?


This represents the most fundamental issue in this case, one that Charles Enderlin invoked several years after the event when he defended his use of the footage by arguing that it “corresponded to the situation on the West Bank and Gaza”. Many people, confronted with even the possibility of the scene being staged, retort, “Whether genuine or not, there are hundreds of other Palestinian children killed by the Israelis.” But such a reading reverses the historical sequence; the symbol precedes the “reality” it supposedly describes. Prior to Al Durah, there were no instances in the post-Oslo era of the IDF shooting defenseless boys. Within a month, Palestinian sources claimed over a hundred and the mainstream media accepted such claims unquestioningly. How much did this symbol create the “reality” it symbolizes, either by making the press naïve about any Palestinian claims, or by so igniting hostilities that children got caught in the crossfire?

Furthermore, the key claim is not that Israelis kill children — everyone at war in urban zones ends up killing children — but that they do it deliberately, “in cold blood.” Once this story passed, journalists believed (and in the case of Chris Hedges, claimed) that the Israelis killed Palestinian children on purpose. And yet, like the Al Durah story, the evidence for deliberation (which is a judgment call in any case) has never been substantiated. No case of an Israeli deliberately killing an innocent child has ever been documented. On the contrary, we can document numerous cases of Israelis foregoing military advantage and even endangering their own lives in order to avoid harming children and other civilians.

The scene is symbolic, no doubt. But symbolic of what? What “greater reality” does it reveal to us? Is this a symbol of the behavior of the Israeli army, whose code of ethics (Hebrew source) and record, up to that point, had stood high in any military comparison? Or does this footage symbolize the behavior of the Palestinian elite, who use propaganda to sell hatred and war to their honor-bound captive audience, and the problematic state of our mainstream media at the turn of the millennium, which could neither detect the flaws in this footage, nor find the will in the course of five long and violent years, to correct itself?

This has become a myth of great power for the Palestinians. Myths help orient people in the present, and this one has oriented them towards nothing but hatred and ruin since it first broke. Ironically the most liberal observers who realize the deception at work here, hold out no hope for any change in the way the Palestinian, Arab, or Muslim world views the narrative. At the Al Durah Project, we do not partake of the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” and believe that there are people in the Arab world eager to start building a real civil society based on self-criticism and a learning curve… and that our global future lies with them.

11. Concerning the France2 “Secret Video Clips”, why was France2 so reluctant to release them?


The 20+ minutes of video that France2 shows to the occasional pre-screened viewer represent (to all appearances) the footage Talal Abu Rahma shot just before he took the famous sequence. They end with the 3 minute long video clip that Enderlin made freely available on the day of the shooting to journalists from competing news networks. We know for certain that the Reuter’s cameraman recorded about two hours of video at the scene that day, and for Talal Abu Rahma to claim his batteries were dying would imply that he had shot a good deal that day. In the meantime, the earlier footage gives us no specific information on the Al Durahs (their presence behind the barrel well before any heavy shooting occurs is visible on the 3 minutes we already have, and on AP and Reuters’ footage. (Note that the Reuters’ cameraman is directly behind them, not protected by the barrel, and yet apparently not in danger of being shot.)

What the tapes do show is that aside from boring scenes of rock-throwing and tire burning, Talal Abu Rahma filmed one staged scene after another, similar to the work of the Reuters’ cameraman. Indeed, you can see Talal Abu Rahma shooting staged footage in the Reuters’ cameraman’s filming of Molotov kid. When I saw the rushes, I was stunned by both the pervasiveness of the staging, the participation of the cameramen, and the complacency of Enderlin. When I left, the term Pallywood occurred to me to describe the film industry I had just seen at work. All three of the French journalists who saw the film — the first independent group to publicly see the rushes — had the same reaction of shock at the staging, and the same response from the “higher-ups” in France2. “Oh, this kind of thing happens all the time.”

For several discussions of viewing the footage from me, Leconte and Jeambar, see here.

What the tapes reveal is a modus operandi that is widespread in the PA (all the cameraman filmed by the Reuters and France2 cameras are doing the same thing), an exceptionally low standard of realism (the evacuations are so brutal they would kill genuinely injured people), and an exceptional incompetence or complicity on the part of Western journalists like Enderlin and Bob Simon (which explains why Pallywood never developed any realistic techniques — didn’t have to).

12. Why hasn’t France2 released the rushes?


One might imagine that France2 would seek to hide such damning evidence. But it’s not at all clear that they — or Enderlin, which is more astonishing — understand how damaging they are. (They would have destroyed them long ago had they realized. Leconte told me that Arlette Chabot, then the head of France2 turned as pale as the wallpaper when she saw them.) Enderlin has said to everyone who asks that he would happily give the Israelis a copy if they formally request them, but he claims they have never formally asked for them. (Shahaf says he did, but he can’t find the copy of his letter.) Enderlin shows them to select people, who come to him via friends and trusted colleagues (my case).

But the Israelis requested them formerly in early September 2007, Enderlin speaks about the problem of journalists revealing their sources. And in interviews (to me, to Esther Schapira on film) Enderlin has commented that he will not give the film to the Israelis so they can “whitewash themselves.” Until the French court ordered them (September 2007), France2 has only shown them to pre-screened folks whom they expect to side with them, and several, including both Israeli journalists and French Jewish journalists have come away claiming that there’s nothing new in the footage about Al Durah (true).

The ability of people to see this footage and not be shocked just testifies to the degree that journalism’s Augean Stables have numbed the senses of people to the point where pervasive staging isn’t even worth a mention. On the other hand, when France2 showed the footage to three journalists – Denis Jeambar, Luc Rosenzweig and Daniel Leconte – they were astonished by the obvious staging, and they got the same answer from the France2 officials that I got from Enderlin: “Oh, you know, it’s always like that.”

In November of 2007, Enderlin showed to the court and those attending the “full” tapes. Even though he had cut a significant part (about three minutes), the judges found plenty of evidence to decide in favor of Karsenty, and, in their decision, they were harshly critical of Enderlin for his lack of professional integrity. Now, as a result of the Israeli investigation, another formal request has been made by the Israeli government, and it was declined. If there is an international investigation – which Enderlin favors – it will mean that these tapes are finally released for close analysis by people not intent on protecting France2.

13. Why if it’s so obvious, haven’t the media covered this massive fraud?


There is no simple answer. Partly it’s the pack mentality. No one wants to break ranks, fearing ostracism by colleagues for contradicting the overwhelming consensus; and those who do break ranks, largely because they have re-examined the data, do get ostracized, even lose their access the public sphere (articles not published, exclusion from talk shows). Partly it’s related to the media’s intimidation by Palestinian and Arab political groups. Partly it’s the power of suggestion so that even when people read articles claiming that it’s staged, they still think in terms of the boy being shot. But at another level, as one of my students put it, “I’m afraid that if I admit that this is a fake, I’ll be taking sides with the Israelis…”, a sentiment that can move both someone committed to ”leveling the playing field” and a partisan for the other side. In the end, this case will remain one of the great mysteries – and hopefully one of the great shames — of modern journalism. That it has taken thirteen years, and recourse to the web to finally bring it to the attention of the public, that public which is committed to civil societies around world and who have and continue to suffer from the story’s poison, represents one of the great failures of our time.

14. Why do you think this is like the emperor’s new clothes?


Of all the comparisons with parables and allegories, perhaps the best image for understanding the dynamics of this tale comes from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. In this case, the tailor is Talal Abu Rahma, who spun both the cloth and its description. Enderlin corresponds to the chamberlain, the first to inspect the robe, and although seeing nothing, came out with a glowing report of the magical clothing. The courtiers who agree with the tailor and the chamberlain, are the media – reporters like the New York Times’ William Orme, the Guardian’s Suzanne Goldberg, Le Monde’s Gilles Paris — who hastened to confirm and amplify the story in circulation. The emperor in this tale is the main stream media, parading naked before the public, orchestrating a great public event with elaborate narrative, inspired by the power of the fabricated image. And the crowd watching corresponds to all “consumers” of media coverage, unable, unwilling, uninterested (?) in challenging mainstream media which, for better or for worse, constitutes our eyes and ears on the world beyond our living rooms. The “child” in the tale corresponds to those people who refused to deny what they saw for what they were told to see, starting with Shahaf. The biggest difference between the two tales concerns the reaction to the public to the comments of the dissenters. Where a bystander said, “listen to the child…” in Andersen’s fairy tale, we have, so far, heard mostly an echo of what the child’s embarrassed father said: “Hush child,” how dare you question the authority of the Chamberlain. Of course Andersen’s tale is a comedy we tell to our children to encourage “speaking truth to power.” So far the Al Durah affair is a tragic myth. How will the tale end? That depends on how our crowd responds.

15. Why is it important to know the facts of the case, what really went on in the Al Durah affair?


If this tale tells us more about Palestinian propaganda and media incompetence rather than Israeli war crimes, then understanding how it came to be and how it has played out, sheds a bright and harsh light on some major components of our present painful and violent situation. In a sense, this event has set the tone for the new century, not only in its role in inspiring Jihadi hatreds, but also in shaping how we have interpreted almost all violence emanating from the Muslim world. It tells us volumes about the role of propaganda in contributing to the “cycle of violence” as well as the lapses and blind-spots that mark our current thinking and reporting on the conflict. If the problems with the mainstream media are as serious as this affair suggests, then it will take a generation of change to flush them out of the system, and this story is as good a place to start the process as any. If you understand the details of this case, you can unravel some of the forces that contribute to the disturbing direction of global culture since 2000.

16. Why did it take the Israeli government so long to address this issue formally?


This is a very difficult question, since their silence has undermined anyone who wanted to question the evidence. Indeed, the French court’s first decision cited Israel’s silence as evidence against Karsenty. The answers are complex and the motivations range from of fear of arousing still greater hostility (“don’t show the picture, if you do you’ll just remind people of all the children Israel has killed!”), to fear of offending journalists (“we can’t do that it would be going to war with the press!”), to fear of being dismissed as conspiracy theorists (“If you think it was staged, we have nothing more to say”), to bureaucratic inertia in the face of so much psychological resistance, to an inability for many to look at the footage and not see what they had been told they were seeing, that is, a boy dying on camera.

17. What happened to change the government's mind?


Slowly, over the years, a growing cadre of figures within the government, sitting down with the evidence, were convinced that this was not only a fake, but a still damaging one. Perhaps the tipping point came with the Mohamed Merah killed three children to avenge the murder of Palestinian children by the Israelis. Karsenty and others had long argued that the Israelis, who openly admit they feel a responsibility for the wellbeing of Jews around the world, were encouraging anti-semitic attacks like Merah’s by not challenging these lethal narratives, starting with the granddaddy of them all.

18. Hasn't all the damage already been done? Can you put toothpaste back in the tube?


19. Who will benefit from this extremely late government report.