Who Killed Mohammed al-Dura?

A new report by German television tells us more about the media and the failures of the IDF spokesman than it does about the death of a young boy

Mohammed al-Dura, a Palestinian boy, was shot and killed at the Netzarim junction in the Gaza Strip on September 30, 2000. His death was captured by France 2 television and he immediately became the symbol of the nascent intifada. The footage created the impression that the boy was shot by Israeli army fire, and that may be so, but possibly not. The Israel Defense Forces, which initially expressed its regret over the incident and thus implicitly assumed responsibility for the boy's death, claimed afterward that he had been hit by Palestinian gunfire.

This week, the German channel ARD broadcast a report on the incident, and the Israeli media were quick to state ARD's "investigative report" had found that the boy was apparently shot by the Palestinian side and not by the IDF. These are trying times for Israeli Foreign Ministry staff, who have to "explain" what the IDF is doing to the residents of the territories, so there was great joy in the ministry at this windfall. At last the truth had come to light.

The German television report was entitled "Three bullets and a dead boy." It has nothing new to tell us about the boy's death; it does, though, have something to tell us about the media and propaganda, about the power of myths and the failures of the IDF Spokesman's Office.

The reporter, Esther Shapira, speaks in a dramatic alto voice, but she does not succeed in citing even one detail that rules out the possibility that the boy was killed by the Israeli army. All that she did - as many have done before her - was to assert that on the basis of the footage taken by the French television cameraman it is impossible to say for certain that the boy was hit by Israeli fire, nor can this be ruled out. He may have been shot by Palestinians who were on a high floor of a building that at the time still stood behind the IDF position. Or maybe not.

The difficulty in determining who killed the boy stems from the fact that no autopsy was performed on his body; a Palestinian physician showed the reporter photographs of the body and said the boy was shot from high up and from the front. A narrator-interpreter repeated these words with heavy emphasis, as though they could prove something. The photographs do not prove a thing. Both Israelis and Palestinians were shooting from high up and from the front. The reporter did not examine bullets that were removed from the boy's body or from his father's body, nor is it clear whether they were removed at all. What the father has said on this point contradicts what the doctors said.

The wall in front of which the tragedy occurred was knocked down at the order of the IDF, though photos of it remain, on which the bullet holes can be seen. There is an argument over whether they were caused by rifles that were in Israeli use or by rifles that were in Palestinian use. There is nothing new in this argument, and it's doubtful whether a court would accept either of the versions. The father and his son hid behind a barrel on which there was a block. The reporter discovered that someone had replaced the original block with one that was flatter - perhaps to conceal the fact that the father and son could not have been seen from the Israeli position, because the block hid them, whereas the flatter block would have made it possible to see them. There is no proof that the block actually hid the two from the soldiers in the position.

In the absence of concrete evidence, the reporter tries to guess: Why would the Israelis want to kill a boy? How is it possible that they fired for 45 minutes without hitting him? And what were they doing there in the first place, the boy and his father: For an instant, the victim becomes the criminal. What is the France 2 photographer - a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip named Talal Abu Rahma - hiding? (Are the media to blame?)

The reporter tries to make a case out of the suspicion that France 2 is hiding material that supposedly undermines the contention that the IDF is to blame for the boy's death. On this point there seems to be a contradiction between what the photographer says and what his superiors say; that, too, is not definitive proof. All the questions were asked in the past, and they do not prove that the IDF killed the boy, nor do they prove the opposite.

Major General (res.) Yom Tov Samia, who was the head of Southern Command, shows for the umpteenth time the measurements he made using his laptop computer, which are supposed to prove that the soldiers in the position could not have shot the boy. The measurements were made on a wall and using a Hollywood-style replica of the original site, so they are of no value as evidence. The IDF Spokesman's Office issued an aerial photograph and subsequently a quasi- "in-depth investigation." It was all done too late and too slowly and it didn't prove anything.

The reporter lets us listen to the voices of three people whose faces we don't see. She says they are soldiers who were at the position and identifies them by their first names only, "for reasons of security," as she says in a mysterious tone: "Ariel," "Alexei" and "Idan" say that they did not kill the boy. According to earlier reports, the soldiers who manned the position were Druze. This new information also proves nothing. The IDF Spokesman's Office was represented in the report by an officer with the rank of major named Olivier Rapovitz. He had no concrete information to offer.

The interesting sections of the report document the propaganda use that the Palestinians make of the boy's death on television and in schools. The father is taken on visits to other countries, where he tells his story and gives autographs. The good guy in the report is an Israeli contractor named Moshe Tamam. He employed the boy's father and still keeps in touch with him. He is the only one who had a scoop for the reporter: a video film made at his son's bar mitzvah party showing Mohammed's father among the guests.

Richard Burton would make a good subject for a quiz show. A scholar, adventurer and explorer, a diplomat who studied the sex life of remote peoples, he got involved in a brawl in a holy city and was dismissed from his post because of a quarrel with a foreign ruler; he never got over the insult and he blamed the Jews for his downfall. To this day, his evil spirit haunts them; recently they took out of a vault the manuscript of an anti-Semitic book that he wrote a hundred years ago and offered it for sale. They wanted to use the proceeds they hoped for to help build a new community center, but instead there was a fiasco. The scandal is of vast proportions: Lord Greville Janner told Ha'aretz this week that the leaders of his community are "betraying the Jewish people."

At the top of one of the many Web sites devoted to Burton is a warning: This is not the "homonymous Welsh actor." Sir Richard Francis Burton was born in 1821 and died in 1890. An officer in the army at Bombay and a great fencer, he acquired his greatest fame as one of the two discoverers of the sources of the Nile. He was fluent in a variety of languages and translated the "Arabian Nights" into English in 16 volumes, as well as the "Kama Sutra."

Burton served as British consul on the island of Fernando Po, which lies opposite Equatorial Guinea, as well as in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Brazil and Damascus. His obsession with the sex life of other peoples led him, among other visits, to tour homosexual brothels in Karachi. His behavior frequently embarrassed the Foreign Office in London, which was also called upon to defend him on the many occasions when he became embroiled in tiffs with the Ottoman sultan. Once he was involved in a mass brawl in Nazareth and on another occasion he immersed himself in a tangle of intrigues with the leaders of the Druze.

The Internet site of the Holocaust denier David Irving praises Burton for his correct attitude toward blacks, among other virtues: Burton was also an ardent racist. But before his posting to Damascus he was no more anti-Semitic than others, and he once wrote that if he had the choice of another race for himself he would choose to be a Jew.

In 1840, shortly before Passover, several Jews in Damascus were accused of murdering a friar named Padre Tomaso and his Christian servant. They were tortured during their interrogation and confessed that the friar and his servant were murdered because their blood was needed to bake matzos, in the Jewish custom. The Damascus Blood Libel caused a furor in world public opinion; the consuls in Damascus subsequently placed the Jews under their protection, though Burton, who served as consul in Damascus 30 years later, tried to evade this. When he was suddenly recalled to London, he believed that he had been removed from his post because Jews had intrigued against him. He proceeded to write a book about them consisting of an introduction, six chapters and two appendices, about 300 pages all told.

The first four chapters recount the affair of the Jews who were accused of murdering the friar and his servant. Burton creates the impression that the Jews in fact committed the murder, though his main intention is to justify his position and his behavior as consul. In the two last chapters, Burton explicates his views about the Jews, including the Jews in Palestine and in Romania. He distinguishes between Ashkenazim - to whom he attributed greater "manliness" - and Sephardim, whom he described as wimpish intellectuals lacking in "manliness," which was the character trait he most admired.

The book on the Damascus Affair is called "Human Sacrifice Among the Sephardine [sic] or Eastern Jews." It was not published in Burton's lifetime. His wife, Lady Isabel, kept it and in her will ordered it to be burned; it is not clear why she did not burn it herself. Be that as it may, her literary editor wanted to publish the manuscript in full, but was dissuaded by the threat of the Jewish community to sue for libel if he went ahead. In 1898 he published a book entitled "The Jew, the Gypsy and El Islam," which included only a small portion of the original manuscript.

About a decade later, the manuscript was put up for sale and again the Jewish community of Britain intervened and sued the would-be seller, arguing that Burton's heirs were not authorized to sell it. The trial, which was covered in The Times of London, ended with the ownership of the manuscript being transferred to the British Board of Deputies, the supreme institution of the Jewish community in Britain. The Board of Deputies placed the work in a vault and left it there. Only a few people were permitted to see it. One of them was Greville Janner, who was then the president of the Board of Deputies. That was 15 years ago; Janner was a Member of Parliament for the Labor Party and is now a member of the House of Lords. When he heard that the Board of Deputies wanted to sell the manuscript at public auction, he was utterly outraged.

British Jewry is going through a rough period. Its activists are not only fighting Holocaust deniers and demanding that the sale of Nazi memorabilia and emblems be banned. They are also engaged in a struggle against what many people view as a wave of anti-Semitism in the British media, as part of the criticism of Israeli policy in the territories. "To put the Burton manuscript up for public auction is simply a betrayal of the Jewish people," Lord Janner told me by telephone.

The view of the Board of Deputies was that the book could not cause concrete damage and would fetch a good price in the manuscript market. Christie's, the auction house, estimated the sale price of the manuscript at up to 280,000 pounds; the minimum price set in the catalogue was 150,000 pounds. According to Janner, an anonymous donor offered to buy the manuscript for the minimum price and shelve it for good. The Board of Deputies rejected the offer, hoping to get more than the minimum. The auction took place a few months ago, but the results were humiliating: the highest offer was $196,000, which was below the minimum, and the sale was not made.

Lord Janner says that the anonymous donor is now offering to take the manuscript for 75,000 pounds. Lengthy negotiations ensued, which for the time being have only added a new chapter to the tale: one of the leaders of the community stated this week in a press interview that Lord Janner is to blame for the whole fiasco: if he had not raised a scandal about the sale, it would have proceeded quietly. Janner retorts that the Board of Deputies missed an opportunity to receive 75,000 pounds without exposing the manuscript, while the Board of Deputies maintains that there are various legal difficulties involved. Passover is next week, and David Irving is having a field day on his Web site. I asked Janner why he hadn't burnt the manuscript during his tenure as president of the Board of Deputies. "You don't burn historic documents," the lord said, an icy tone of reprimand in his voice.

The Jerusalem architect David Kroyanker gained renown for his studies of Jerusalem's architectural history, which he published in a series of sumptuous volumes. This week he published a new book, which like its predecessors is filled with lovely line drawings and photographs. However, "Talbieh, Katamon and the German Colony" (Keter Books) is different from the earlier works: it is not a book about buildings only, but also about their occupants, most of whom are Christian Arabs. Talbieh was always a prestigious neighborhood; Kroyanker, drawing on the reminiscences of some of its longtime residents, has recreated a captivating Levantine existence of people who never felt better, safer or more hopeful than during the period of the British Mandate in Palestine. Among the names that are related to the neighborhood directly or indirectly are Peter Ustinov and George Bush the elder, Martin Buber and Orde Wingate, John Le Carre and Edward Said. In May 1948, everything suddenly changed.

This is an extraordinarily sensitive period in the history of the state. Kroyanker has written about it more than others, but he too is ultra-cautious, trying to tiptoe between the raindrops. That is almost impossible, though: those who do not tell the whole story also get wet. There are several stories to be told in this context: the expulsion of the Arabs (Kroyanker is careful to refer to the "abandonment" of the houses); the distribution of the houses in Talbieh to those who were close to the ruling authorities; the looting of the Arabs' private property, mainly in Katamon; and the attempt to erase the Arab character of these neighborhoods, such as by the addition of ugly buildings.

The residents of Talbieh were expelled by means of a loudspeaker that personnel of the Haganah - the pre-state defense force that was the forerunner of the Israel Defense Forces - attached to a van of the Keshet Laundry. The van drove through the streets and broadcast instructions to the residents to leave. There was no real fighting in Talbieh; in Katamon the residents fled for fear of the hostilities and were expelled by the army. According to Kroyanker, the property of those who lived in Talbieh - the furniture, the carpets, the kitchen utensils, the books - was not looted but collected and placed in locked rooms. He does not say what was done with these items afterward. In Katamon there was wild mass looting, which was described and condemned by, among others, some of the heads of the Haganah.

Katamon, emptied of its former residents, was populated by residents of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and then by new immigrants, most of whom were from Arab countries. Talbieh was and remained a privileged neighborhood. Kroyanker takes his readers from house to house, but in most cases he does not explain exactly how the houses were transferred to their new occupants. David Ben-Gurion refused to take an Arab house that was offered him as the official residence of the prime minister, and Levi Eshkol left his Arab house immediately after succeeding Ben-Gurion as prime minister. He lived in the house while he was finance minister; many cabinet ministers lived in Arab houses, including some who later became prime minister.

Talbieh was, and to a certain degree remains, one of the finest residential neighborhoods in the country. Many of the houses resemble dream palaces and are worth millions of dollars. The majority of the houses were placed under the authority of the Custodian of Absentees Property, who distributed them to the privileged; Kroyanker quotes the saying that "the main thing was having the note," meaning the "protection." The result was that cabinet ministers and directors general moved into the neighborhood, along with respected professors from Hebrew University and all kinds of confidants.

Kroyanker cites many names, nearly all of them well-known, but only in rare instances does he relate exactly how they obtained the houses. Only a few of them purchased the homes from their Arab owners, and only a few lived in houses that belonged to Jews in the past. The philosopher Martin Buber initially objected to the idea of purchasing an Arab house from the custodian, "but agreed after being told that if he did not buy the house, it would be snapped up by a contractor who would add more stories." Among the institutions that have moved into Talbieh are the Israel Bar Association and the Israel Democracy Institute.

The name of the caliph Haran al-Rashid, in Armenian ceramics, was visible on one of the houses - and it's still possible to see how the tile was broken. It probably happened in the period when Golda Meir lived in the house. The caliph's name is still on the side entrance to the dwelling, but the Stars of David that were recently affixed to the building stand out more prominently. "This is another attempt to blur the Arab identity of the house," Kroyanker writes. Some of the houses were wonderfully renovated, but in many other cases architects and contractors ruined houses, and Kroyanker does not spare them his criticism. Over the years street names were changed and the neighborhood's name was also changed. But there is no one who calls it "Komemiyut," and now City Hall has also capitulated: next to the prime minister's residence, which is one of the few Jewish-built residences in the neighborhood, is a large sign that directs drivers to the Talbieh neighborhood.

MK Zehava Gal-On (Meretz) hasn't yet declared that she supports soldiers who refuse to serve in the territories, but she does say that they deserve sympathy. When she learned that the Education Ministry has prohibited the Ankori School from hosting one of the signatories to the refuseniks' newspaper announcement, she wrote to the education minister that it was undemocratic to bar discussion of the subject. "It is important and essential for the schools to discuss the issues that are on the public agenda, including issues that confront young people ahead of their conscription." She added that the military advocate-general ruled that it was not unlawful to sign the refuseniks' letter.

Education Minister Limor Livnat sent Gal-On a short lesson in democracy: "The lecture of the refuseniks, as was planned to take place in the school, constitutes a violation of every basic rule of democracy, as refusal is the use of an ultimatum, the use of force and avoidance of discussion itself and of an attempt to persuade others by legitimate political means." That is a sentence that bears rereading. Where, exactly, is the "use of force" in the refuseniks' position? The minister explained: "The education system teaches that the way to exert influence in a democracy is not by violating an order and by insurrection but by means of accepted democratic tools such as demonstrations, voting and the like. Therefore, the very fact that a discussion is prevented is an act that teaches that a democracy too must defend itself against those who exploit it for undemocratic use." This is the same minister who instructed schools to teach the "heritage" of Rehavam Ze'evi, the prophet of the "transfer" concept - but Ze'evi, after all, was an exemplary democrat.