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Welcome, Refugee from rekaB Street: Shmuel Rosner’s Mea Culpa

May 26, 2013 7:51 pm 0 comments

On Feb. 19, 2012, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulates Dr. Yehuda David upon his acquittal in France's highest court after he had been sued for libel by Jamal al-Dura for refuting claims that Jamal was injured in a 2000 shooting in the Gaza Strip. Israel was further vindicated in relation to the incident Sunday when a government report said the IDF was not responsible for the death of Jamal's son, Muhammad. Photo: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90.

In the flood of commentary and analysis of the Al Durah controversy, I’ve tried to fisk the most important typical responses. And of course, I have a backlog of articles to fisk. But this one by Shmuel Rosner jumped to the top of the pile because of its honest reappraisal. It helps to understand some of the factors that played at the time the story broke, and answer Vic Rosenthal’s question:

Why didn’t then Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and then Prime Minister Ehud Barak demand that all the footage shot by France 2 on that day be placed at Israel’s disposal to do a proper investigation?
Before adding my commentary to Rosner’s mea culpa, I’d like to acknowledge the courage involved in this piece, and the remarkable fact that the New York Times published it. As someone laboring in the wilderness for a decade, all I can say is, Wow!

The Skeptic’s Curse

By SHMUEL ROSNER

TEL AVIV — In late September 2000, at the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada, the French TV station France 2 aired some 60 seconds of footage allegedly showing the killing of a Palestinian boy in the Gaza Strip.

Muhammad al-Dura, who was 12 at the time, and his father are shown caught in an exchange of fire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters. The boy cowers behind his father, with what sounds like gunshots crackling in the background. Smoke then blocks our view. When it lifts the boy is flattened, listless, and his father is lying against the wall, apparently in serious physical distress. The footage soon became one of the most memorable and heart-wrenching of the bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

No one knows what happened exactly at the Netzarim Junction that day. The French broadcast claimed that gunfire from Israeli soldiers killed the boy. That version of the facts immediately became the official Palestinian account. Israel did not accept responsibility, nor did it deny being involved. And so the French-Palestinian narrative stuck.

But this Sunday, the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs released a report undermining that account. The document concludes there is “strong evidence” that Muhammad and his father “were not hit by bullets at all in the scenes filmed.” It also details many errors, omissions and open questions in the widely accepted narrative of the event.

I first heard that there might be a problem with the al-Dura story soon after the incident. I was the head of the news division at Haaretz at the time, and a young reporter approached me to say that a high-ranking official at the Israel Defense Force would be staging, in front of a crew from “60 Minutes,” a re-enactment of the shooting to prove the French and Palestinian chroniclers wrong.

I believed the initial story about al-Dura, and I was highly suspicious of the motivations of anyone attempting to disprove it.
Note a few things here. “I believed the initial story about al-Durah.” This readiness to believe the worst of the Israeli army – that they’d target a father and child and rain down bullets upon them, was pervasive, particularly among the journalists who were most proud of their self-critical attitude. As Bet Michael said to me in November of 2003 (after I had studied with Shahaf and seen the France2 raw footage with Enderlin),

BM: 100%. The israelis killed the boy.

RL: Really? Are you aware of the investigation and its findings?
BM: The investigator was a nut… some engineer with the army who argued a conspiracy theory that he kid committed suicide.
RL: Suicide?
MS: (to me while BM waxed eloquent to
NB) He’s being sarcastic.
RL: Were you being sarcastic?
BM: Not at all. I meant every word.
RL: Suicide?
BM: Oh, that was sarcastic, but since then the IDF has killed over 200 palestinian children, you can check with B’tselem.

Here’s a close-up view of the world of aggressive lethal journalism, backed by their “researchers” who systematically compile the lethal narratives. At the time I did not realize it, but I should have after Jenin in 2002, that the lethal journalists – in the case of many, probably not even knowingly – were now dominant in the journalistic scene in Israel.

The reporter and I both thought the military was crazy to do such a thing; it would look like an exercise in white-washing.

Another major theme. When I reported my research to a dear friend from the 1990s (who was on the board of B’tselem), his immediate response was, “You’re whitewashing the occupation.” Or to another friend who, finally giving into the evidence, responded, “It was still our fault. If there hadn’t been a settlement there this wouldn’t have happened.” Somehow it was our fault that they faked it and we’re getting demonized with it. More insight into masochistic omnipotence syndrome.

Her story ran on Nov.7, 2000, with a headline calling the probe “dubious.” To some, the piece seemed to portray one of the men behind the investigation, the physicist Nahum Shahaf, as eccentric, even weird. According to one critic, we “attacked him ferociously.”

If the history of “hit-jobs” in the media is done, the early 21st century will have a special place for the kind of aggressiveness with which the media themselves took the initiative (rather than taking direction from political interests) against people they didn’t like. The “conspiracy theory” that Charles derided became canonical at the hands of Anat Cygielman, who derided the whole affair.

If one thinks of this affair as a form of the emperor’s new clothes – except, here, the procession of an icon of hatred, rather than a silly naked emperor – then the court that falls in line is the journalists. Interesting to know the social framework in which this happened.

I plead guilty: I believed the initial story about al-Dura, and I was highly suspicious of the motivations of anyone attempting to disprove it.

This is pretty amazing courage in our day and age, and even more in this affair. As Anne-Elisabeth Moutet comments about the French scene (in the context of which one should understand a fair amount of Charles Enderlin’s behavior):

To understand the al-Dura affair, it helps to keep one thing in mind: In France, you can’t own up to a mistake. This is a country where the law of the Circus Maximus still applies: Vae victis, Woe to the vanquished. Slip, and it’s thumbs-down. Not for nothing was Brennus a Gaul. His modern French heirs don’t do apologies well, or at all if they can possibly help it. Why should they? That would be an admission of weakness. Blink, and you become the fall guy.

In my delineation of the characteristics of lethal journalism Middle-East style (Al Durah Journalism), I call this honor-shame journalism because the operative mechanism is, prefer public honor and private guilt to private integrity and public shame.

In this instance Israel’s supporters seemed excessively argumentative, politically motivated, even conspiratorial. (Shahaf had also investigated the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.)

Shahaf was an easy target. Even those who agree with him and learn from him find him difficult, and he’s definitely believes that what we are told is not what happened to Rabin.  But the “excessively argumentative” nature of the problem was in part because of the “et alors“ reflex that was so frustrating to those who made the arguments.

But the “politically motivated” is the more telling remark: this was pervasive after Al Durah, especially in France, but really everywhere. Any Jew/Israeli who defended Israel had to be doing it because they were partisan. In France, accusations of communautarisme where so common that a number of people who were not Jewish, when they defended Israel to their co-citoyens, got the response: “Oh I didn’t know you were Jewish.” This atmosphere, in which, in the words of Shmuel Trigano, “a Jew cannot bear witness,” explains in part why it took so long for the French to even see, much less admit the growing wave of anti-Semitism, and why the phenomenon of alter-juifs – Jews who had had great success while hiding their Jewish identity, suddenly saying, “as a Jew, I must denounce Israel’s terrible deeds.”

If one defends oneself it must be from self-interest (i.e., right-wing politics). Automatically suspect. If one admits to one’s fault, one is noble. Of course no one, surprisingly not the French who pride themselves on their méfiance (skepticism/mistrust), wondered about the politics and self-serving communautarisme of the Arab Muslim community who was insisting on the truth of their lethal narratives. Highway to the auto-stupefaction of rekaB Street, and the reason that roosters on Global Warming are owls on Global Jihad, and vice-versa. In one case (right-wingers on Jihad) it’s opposing others, in the other, (left-wingers on Warming), it’s about criticizing ourselves.

Yet from the start, there were many unanswered questions. The footage wasn’t continuous and key moments — such as when the boy ostensibly is struck — aren’t shown.

Don’t forget the lack of ambulance evacuation scenes of either the father or the boy. Given how many scenes of ambulance evacuation were staged that day, how could a dozen cameraman – and especially Talal Abu Rahma – have missed filming a real, heartbreaking one?

There was also the case of the Israeli doctor who was cleared of defamation charges by a French court last year: He had been sued by Muhammad’s father, Jamal, for claiming that scars on Jamal’s body, allegedly caused by Israeli bullets, were caused many years before the incident.

Over time, with every new investigative report — there have been too many for me to keep track — and every new detail disclosed, my uneasiness has grown. Although I very much wanted to believe that Israel wasn’t at fault, I couldn’t overcome my suspicion about the attempts to clear its name. On the other hand, the original narrative had too many holes to ignore.

Fascinating. Rosner says he wants to believe Israel is innocent, but the very fact that he might be motivated by that (apparently illegitimate) desire kept him from allowing himself to look at the powerful evidence that this terrible story about his own people was not true. Normally one is worried that partisan motives might make one ignore evidence, but in this case – and here we approach hyper-self-criticism – it that noble concern makes on ignore the evidence. Freud’s Moses and Monotheism has this quality to it, as Yosef Yerushalmi pointed out. It’s an one of the major “discontents” of assimilation according to Barry Rubin’s brilliant book.

And now the Israeli government’s new report claims the broadcast was “edited and narrated” in a misleading way. The voice-over says, for example, that “Jamal and his son Muhammad are the target of fire coming from the Israeli position” and then that “Muhammad is dead and his father badly hurt.” But according to the government report, “in the final scenes the boy is not dead.” In the last seconds of the footage, the “boy raises his arm” and “turns his head.”

And, according to the government report (and anyone else who’s examined the evidence), Enderlin had no, repeat no evidence to corroborate his cameraman’s claims about this coming from the Israeli position. (Indeed not once in any of the footage that Talal shot of the Israeli position before and during this sequence is there any sign of fire from there.)

Asked whether he might not have been hasty about this by Adi Schwartz for Haaretz, November 1, 2007, Enderlin responded: “what would they say in Gaza if I didn’t report that the Israelis killed him?“ (The quote is absent in the English version of the article.)

And of course, while “the child does not die on camera” is the more radical statement about the footage reconsidered, the most fundamental part of the story as a lethal narrative, is the huge opening that Enderlin gave the demonizers by saying “target of fire coming from the Israeli position.”

Not that this solves the puzzle exactly, especially since the report’s authors didn’t interview Jamal or French TV executives, and they didn’t exhume Muhammad’s body for examination.

I agree the committee should have tried to interview Enderlin, Jamal and Talal (and anyone else present at Netzarim that day). I don’t think they would have come, not even Enderlin. But it’s not too late for an honest international inquiry. My guess is Enderlin knows his goose is cooked and will do anything to hamstring that initiative. It wouldn’t be the first time.

And yet my thinking has changed. I started out believing the dominant version of events largely because I was made skeptical by Israel’s attempts to save its skin;

Now there’s a double-bind, schizophrenigenic approach – the very fact that you are defending yourself leads me to reject your arguments.

now, I accept the possibility that the Israeli government’s take might be correct after all.

An intellectual! Someone capable of being convinced by empirical evidence.

This evolution brings me relief: I want to be able to trust what my government says. But that carries its own problem: what about my own motivations? Have I really been swayed by the new evidence, or am I finally giving in to a deep desire of letting Israel off the hook?

The only way to know is to explore further. The Al Durah evidence is only the beginning. The impact of this Icon of Hatred played in the dynamics of globalization – both the energizing of an apocalyptic death cult in the Muslim world and the paralysis of an ability to defend ourselves on the part of progressive forces in the West – and the school of lethal journalism (and lethal NGOism) that it empowered, still hold hegemony today among the major players in the Western public sphere. When the whole picture is considered, just as with the campaign of Jihadi suicide bombing, it inspired, the Al Durah icon of hatred ultimately hurt Muslims far more than Israel, its ostensible target.

I tweeted the Al Durah forgery has hurt the Arab world more than any other society, by injecting them with a death cult, acknowledging that fake can awaken from arab nightmare to a visitor from Egypt. His response:

Indeed, I believe so too. I chatted with people from Gaza and the West Bank. They are sick of the status quo and want peace.

Emad el Dafrawi is just the kind of person we’d like to believe is among the “vast majority” of really moderate and humane Muslims and who is (accordingly?) in grave danger.

Al Durah’s the red pill. And tackling it is the road out of rekaB Street and on to recovery: Want to wake up and figure out what’s going on? Take it.

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