September 9, 2005.
A 55-SECOND video report, produced in 2000 by a French TV station and
distributed free of charge around the world, has caused untold injury and grief
to Israeli civilians.
This month, the French author Nidra Poller analyzes the evidence in
Commentary magazine and shows that the video is a fraud – “an almost perfect
media crime,” the retired French journalist Luc Rosenzweig calls it. That Poller’s
piece is conclusive is merely my own judgment, of course. But we are all
required to make such judgments, in the light of such reports.
There is a wider story here also. We are vulnerable to video lies. Against
purposeful lies, truth has never been so helpless, so weakly defended.
More than 500 Israeli civilians have been killed in the intifada, the Palestinian
uprising that began five years ago. They were ordinary people chatting on a
bus, eating ice cream in a restaurant; suddenly, a bright flash. The next
moment the walls are spattered with blood and the bomb’s hellish odor fills the
air. Some people are blinded, others are cut to pieces. Parents living the worst
seconds of their lives cast about wildly for their children in the screaming,
What explains such bestial crimes? The reported death of a Palestinian child,
Mohammed Dura, in Gaza did as much as anything else to ignite the current
uprising. In the short video segment produced on Sept. 30, 2000, and
distributed immediately, a state-owned French television station called France 2
accused the Israeli army of deliberately shooting and killing the 12-year-old.
You may remember the footage: A man and boy crouch in fear. Shots hit a wall
far from the pair; a final round of gunfire kicks up a dust cloud that hides father
and son, who are “targets of gunfire from Israeli positions,” says the
voice-over. When the dust clears, the boy is stretched at the man’s feet. The
voice says that he is dead.
This version of the story was retold around the world – and it has figured in
countless wall posters, an Al Qaeda recruiting video, an epic poem. Last June
an aspiring suicide bomber was arrested on her way to a hospital – to kill Israeli
children, she said, in memory of Mohammed Dura.
BUT, ACCORDING to the Commentary article, the video is a fraud. The footage
itself is ambiguous, the alleged main event hidden by dust. The voice-over is
what makes us understand what we are seeing. It comes from Charles Enderlin,
a correspondent at France 2 (and a French Jew who became an Israeli citizen
20 years ago). Enderlin has never claimed to have been anywhere near the
scene of the alleged shooting. His Palestinian cameraman told him the story.
Lots of supporting evidence was supposed to back up the cameraman’s story –
more footage of the supposed father and son pinned by Israeli fire, footage
showing the child’s death throes. France 2 has since admitted, according to
Poller, that no such footage exists.
The voice-over reports that the child is dead, yet the rest of the segment –
which wasn’t aired but survives – shows the child propping himself on an
elbow, shading his eyes with his hands. Poller saw the tape.
A boy named Mohammed Dura did die in a Gaza hospital that fateful Sept. 30.
His face doesn’t match the face in the video. Presented with these facts,
France 2 officials said that “they would look into the matter.”
In early 2005, Enderlin published an article in the French newspaper Le Figaro.
His report “may have been hasty,” he wrote, but was justified because “so
many children were being killed.” (But the intifada had barely started; “so many
children” were not being killed – not yet.)
What did happen? Chances are we will never know for sure. But Poller reports
that outtakes she saw show phony battle scenes staged by Palestinians.
Painstaking analysis done by students at the Israeli Military Academy found the
same actors playing multiple roles: “The injured and dead jump up, dust
themselves off, play at offensive combat.”
Poller’s article raises far more doubts about the report’s authenticity than I can
list here. But disproving a video report is much harder than getting people to
believe it. You must convince people that their own eyes and ears have
deceived them. They must follow the twists and turns of your logical argument,
do their own thinking, reach their own conclusions. Give people an opportunity
to switch off their brains and they will grab it.
How can cautious, painstaking truth compete with brazen video lies? If the
report turns out to be just what it looks like, a despicable fake, who will
produce another 55-second video telling the truth? Which TV stations will
broadcast it? Where does Israel go to get its reputation back? What will it all
matter to grief-stricken Israelis whose children, husbands, mothers and fathers
have died in acts sparked by the Dura story?
The rational response is to insist fiercely on the transcendent importance of
truth. Yet today we often hear that there is no truth. There are only competing
narratives, we are told, all equally true or false.
Yet the truth of what happened on Sept. 30, 2000, is critical to the way the
world works, the way people behave. The pictures we were shown and the
story we were told is true or false, not both. Enderlin, France 2 and the larger
media establishment have an obligation to tell us which it is.
Because lies can kill. Lies do kill.