Opinion |

Between Mohammed al-Dura and Shireen Abu Akleh

When it comes to reporting on events concerning the Israeli army and Palestinian fatalities, an alternative reality exists in Israel

Charles Enderlin
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A screenshot from FRANCE2 video, showing Jamal Al dura and his 12-year-old son Mohammed Jamal, as they shelter from crossfire on Sept. 30, 2000, near Netzarim.
A screenshot from FRANCE2 video, showing Jamal Al dura and his 12-year-old son Mohammed Jamal, as they shelter from crossfire on Sept. 30, 2000, near Netzarim. Credit: AP
Charles Enderlin

I learned the hard way the difference between “bias journalism,” and real and professional journalism over the decades I served as foreign correspondent and bureau chief of an overseas broadcasting network in Israel. It began with the Western Wall tunnel incident in September 1996, which was when I discovered that a parallel world, an alternative reality, exists in Israel.

In spite of the defense establishment’s position and without any coordination with Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to open the underground passageway connecting the Western Wall and Via Dolorosa in the Old City. Palestinian protests began the next day and I, as bureau chief of the France 2 television channel, filmed a report at the entrance to the West Bank city of El Bireh, where young Palestinians threw rocks at the Israel Defense Forces troops deployed there.

The soldiers first fired rubber bullets and at a later stage also began to use live fire. In response, Palestinian policemen – who were on the side of the protesters – returned live fire at the Israeli forces. The incident set the whole area ablaze.

Two women visit an art exhibit honouring Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jenin in the occupied West Bank, this month.Credit: RONALDO SCHEMIDT - AFP

The next day, I received a reprimanding phone call from the IDF’s then-spokesperson, Brig. Gen. Oded Ben-Ami. He argued that the Palestinians were the ones who first used live fire. I replied that this was not how it happened – after all, I was on the scene and saw what was happening with my own eyes. Until the cease-fire came, 17 Israeli soldiers and 100 Palestinians were killed. It was not the journalistic coverage at the site that determined the Israeli narrative, but the official spokesman: as far as they were concerned, Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians were solely responsible for the bloody events.

Four years later, on September 30, 2000, I broadcast a report that became the “Mohammed al-Dura affair.” The pictures showing the death of the 12-year-old boy in his father’s arms, in front of an IDF position in Gaza, were taken by Talal Abu Rahma, a trustworthy and veteran employee of France 2. I knew the site where the shooting took place very well and, according to Talal’s testimony, I realized that the fatal gunfire could only have come from the Israeli side. The harsh images were broadcast all over the world and caused great embarrassment to the IDF commanders and Israeli public relations.

A month after the incident, it became known that the then-head of the IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yom-Tov Samia, was researching the events along with physicist Nahum Shahaf, who won a Science Ministry prize for his work – but occasionally also serves as an “expert” for reinforcing conspiracy theories.

We, who filmed and broadcast from the scene, received no request to testify on the matter. That is why we informed the IDF and Defense Ministry that France 2 would participate only in an independent investigation under legal supervision. In retrospect, it was a wise precaution: the results were preordained. Samia told U.S. correspondent Bob Simon from CBS News that he intended to prove that Dura was not killed by “our troops.” A few days later, he presented his “findings,” and determined that the probability the boy died from Palestinian fire was greater than the possibility of it coming from the Israeli side.

Over the years, the narrative adversely changed from what the camera had captured. A few people began to claim resolutely that the shooting came from the Palestinian side. According to even more far-fetched versions, the images were staged in the first place and they falsely accused us of broadcasting a lie. Nothing could be further from reality and the truth than this ridiculous accusation.

As the years passed, the Shurat Hadin NGO petitioned the High Court of Justice and asked to revoke the Government Press Office credentials of all France 2 employees, including myself. In a hearing before then-Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, and justices Esther Hayut and Yoram Danziger, we repeated and stressed that our report was filmed and edited strictly according to professional journalistic standards.

We added that we broadcast all the relevant responses, including the IDF responses, and that since the incident, we had committed officially to cooperate in an independent investigation of the affair and to provide any such investigation, if established, with the complete materials we had.

We also argued that the legal standing of the “review committee” headed by Samia was unclear, because it was the result of the initiative of civilians and never had any official mandate. The petition against us was dismissed.

On January 16, 2009, in the last days of Operation Cast Lead, tank shells were fired at the Gaza home of Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a fertility expert who worked at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer. His three daughters and a niece were killed immediately, a fourth daughter and another relative were seriously injured. The IDF spokesperson and the rest of the officials released numerous different versions, which included the claim that shooting was coming from Abuelaish’s house toward the IDF, or a Hamas missile had hit it. Baseless and outrageous claims.

Jamal al-Dura and his family, pray over the grave of their son Mohammed, at the Bureij cemetery in the central of Gaza Strip, in 2013.Credit: AFP

Military correspondent Ronen Bergman supplied a different explanation and wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth that “one of command officials mentioned the affair of the death of the child Mohammed al-Dura in September 2000, which turned into a symbol of Israel’s brutal actions against the Palestinians on the ground. A few years later, the investigative report of French television claimed that the person who shot Dura was actually a Palestinian.”

Lies on top of mistakes, and everything just to support a narrative to make Israel look better. In the end, the IDF did not have a choice and admitted that its forces had fired the shell that hit the Abuelaish family home, from where no shots were fired.

The Dura affair once again raised its head in May 2013. According to instructions from Netanyahu, the Strategic Affairs Ministry published a personal report against me, in which it was stated that there was no proof that Mohammed al-Dura was seriously wounded and that the story I broadcast was unprofessional – and in doing so, I seemingly damaged the good name of the State of Israel all over the world.

My lawyers asked to review the findings of the report and the names of all the experts who helped prepare it, but never received a copy. One of the experts who was interviewed even argued that Dura was apparently still alive and living in Gaza. At this point, France 2 promised, publicly and officially, that if it turned out that the boy was still alive, as claimed, it would put him on its evening news show at peak time. To this day, of course, Mohammed al-Dura has not been found.

A year later, in May 2014, the Dura affair reappeared once more in the Israeli media. This time it concerned two young Palestinians who were killed on Nakba Day, not far from Ofer Prison in the West Bank. The IDF spokesperson denied that the IDF had fired live ammunition at the two young men and said it had fired only rubber bullets.

Four days later, footage was broadcast from security cameras of nearby shops in which it was possible to see that the two young men were walking and suddenly fell. In contrast to the IDF’s claims, these videos proved that there were no riots at the scene, no throwing of rocks or firebombs, and that the young men were shot in the back.

A few officials, including on social media, launched trial balloons into the air with the claim that the images from the cameras were staged, “like in the Dura affair.” This time, though, the two sides agreed on a joint investigation. After the ballistic tests on the bullets, it was determined that one of the Border Police officers had fired the fatal shots – contrary to what the army had claimed.

The Dura affair once again made the news – how could it not? – after the death of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh on May 11. I wasn’t surprised to see on Israel’s Channel 12 News last week the very same Oded Ben-Ami, this time as the news anchor, analyzing the Israeli- Palestinian conflict as one of communication and propaganda. With whose help? You guessed it: the same physicist and expert in supporting conspiracy theories, Nahum Shahaf, for whom the Palestinians are always to blame. Here, too, Shahaf tried to prove the shot that struck Abu Akleh was fired by a Palestinian.

No less delusional discussions about Israel’s image in the world returned to the Israeli television studios and press after the shocking sight of the Israeli police attacking the mourners accompanying Abu Akleh’s coffin were broadcast. A few commentators called it a “public relations terror attack.” True, it doesn’t photograph well, but why is that important? This assault by the police on the mourners and pallbearers was met with moral insensitivity among a few of the reporters and commentators. A lack of empathy for their professional colleague – it doesn’t matter where she worked and what she broadcast – cried out to the heavens on many current events programs. Abu Akleh covered the parallel world that Israeli viewers almost never see: the suffering and bereavement of the Palestinians.

Being a French journalist and also an Israeli citizen, my job is to photograph and broadcast the two sides of the conflict in a manner that is faithful to reality, remaining professional and balanced. This is how I have always acted, without exception. The occupation films ugly. No propaganda can change this reality.

In Bayeux, a small town in northwestern France, stands a unique monument: a memorial to all the journalists worldwide who were killed while doing their jobs. Shireen Abu Akleh’s name will join over 3,000 other names that have already been inscribed in stone. I knew a few of them.

Charles Enderlin is a French-Israeli journalist and writer, and was chief of France 2 television’s Israeli bureau for several decades.

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