The Second Battle of Mohammed al-Dura Is a Lost Cause - Just Like the First

Instead of fighting over what happened 13 years ago, we should be addressing the future of Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Israel did not lose the First Battle of Mohammed al-Dura, on September 30, 2000, when millions of people around the world saw the footage filmed by Talal Abu Rahma and were convinced that Israeli soldiers had deliberately targeted and killed a 12-year-old boy. Yes, I know all the tired old tropes about various terrorists, murderers and suicide bombers citing Dura as a justification for their actions. As if anyone believes that had those pictures not been broadcast, all the killers who mentioned him in their jihad martyrdom videos would have stayed home.

The First Battle of Mohammed al-Dura was lost nearly five years later, on August 22, 2005, when 521 Israeli citizens were evicted from Netzarim, the last Israeli settlement in the Gaza Strip to be dismantled. There was no violence; the devoutly religious and Zionist community of farmers and teachers had agreed in advance not to confront the soldiers sent to remove them.

After a last prayer at the local synagogue they removed the Torah scrolls, took the menorah from the roof and walked in a silent procession to the bulletproof buses waiting for them at the gate. The buses took them through the 2-kilometer Netzarim Corridor, lined with tanks and armored personnel carriers, to the Netzarim Junction, the lifeline that had connected the small, isolated settlement to Israel. Securing the junction was the observation tower, the same one from which Mohammed al-Dura was allegedly shot.

At that moment it didn't matter whether the Palestinian boy had been gunned down in cold blood by an Israeli sniper or was still alive and well, selling ice cream in the Dir al-Balah market under an assumed name. Nobody was thinking of him at that moment, when the people of Netzarim were bused out for the last time, past the spot where he allegedly breathed his last, though some may have been thinking about the Israelis, both soldiers and civilians, killed there.

Part of the conflict's ongoing tragedy is that while Dura's name lives on, the subject of heated debate even 13 years later, we have forgotten Netzarim Junction, the little Jewish village it led to, entire Israel Defense Forces battalions tasked with defending them and the hundreds of Palestinians and a smaller number of Israelis who were killed over the 33 years of that particular settlement's existence.

The First Battle of Mohammed al-Dura was lost, not because the world was convinced that Israeli soldiers had murdered a 12-year-old boy, but because ultimately the very presence of all those soldiers and settlers on a narrow sliver of sand stuck between the teaming refugee camps of Gaza City and Dir al-Balah, was a lost cause. Even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who less than three years earlier had announced that "the fate of Netzarim will be the fate of Tel Aviv," eventually recognized this fact.

Israel lost the First Battle of Mohammed al-Dura simply because it was never about Dura himself, who, depending on one's perspective, was either a symbol or a sideshow. The real battle was for Netzarim Junction, which effectively cut the Gaza Strip in two and which, despite its far superior firepower, ran out of reasons to justify to itself the presence of all those soldiers there.

And now, unbelievably, Israel's government is fighting the Second Battle of Mohammed al-Dura.

I have read all the reports and analyses by engineers, ballistic experts, film directors and retired intelligence officers explaining why the observation tower did not have a clear line of fire to the place where Mohammed and his father Jamal al-Dura took shelter, how the bullets that hit the wall behind them were not IDF-issue, how Mohammed can be seen moving after he was already dead, according to the original report, and how Jamal's wounds were actually from a fight six years earlier.

I have read the conspiracy theories of how Mohammed, now 25, is alive in Gaza or in some other country, with children of his own. I have read the counterclaims by France 2's Charles Enderlin and Jamal al-Dura, standing by the content of the original report. Nothing that has been said or written has changed what I felt and thought upon watching the images on television 13 years ago, and what I think and feel when I watch them today.

The look of sheer terror on Mohammed's face as he tries to hide behind his father's back is real. Nothing like that could ever have been faked. And neither could the frantic attempts of Jamal to shield his child.

But while the father and son were undoubtedly trapped in cross fire and feared for their lives, the pictures do not prove to me that they were intentionally targeted. If the soldiers in the tower had been trying to kill the two, it would have been over much sooner, there would not have been so many bullets hitting the ground around them and kicking up dust, and Jamal would also have died. Not that I don't believe some Israeli soldiers are capable of murdering a boy. Just that in this case it doesn't seem they intended to.

Unless someone actually turns up and admits to killing the boy (or, as some Israelis yearn to happen, a living and breathing Mohammed is produced), no number of reports can change the near-certainty that he was just a kid unfortunate enough to be caught in a firing zone. Was he killed by Israeli or by Palestinian bullets? Where were they fired from? Since there were obviously more Israeli guns and ammunition being used that day at Netzarim Junction, it is presumably more likely that an Israeli gun fired the fatal bullets, but does it matter now, 13 years later?

It matters today only to the people who at the time chose to duck the real question, of what Israel was doing in Netzarim and in the Gaza Strip, and are now doing everything in their power to evade the same questions over the remaining settlements across the Green Line. That is the real meaning of the report published by the government on Sunday. It is not about what really happened on September 30, 2000, it is about avoiding the questions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commissioned the latest report "proving" that Mohammed al-Dura was not killed that day at the Netzarim Junction because he would rather fight the Second Battle of Mohammed al-Dura than confront the tough decisions he needs to make about the future of Israel's occupation of the West Bank. He is no different from the Palestinian leaders who prefer to talk of martyrs and jihad and their supporters in the West who talk of boycotting Israel and one-state solutions rather than to look for ways for the two nations to coexist.

Israel's supporters around the world, especially Jews in the Diaspora (much of the original "research" into the Dura case was carried out by French Jews) will be doing it a disservice if they pounce on the new report as further proof of Palestinian perfidy and Israeli righteousness. We have much more urgent matters to deal with than fighting another battle over a dead boy.

The infamous image of Mohammed al-Dura (left) taking cover with his father Jamal.Credit: AP

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