Confirming the Truth

Was the investigation on Channel 2's Fact program into the fatal shooting of young Iman Alhamas at the Girit outpost `mendacious and shocking' - or `credible and accurate'?

As is typical with many disputes, the stormy debate over the credibility of the investigation by Channel 2's Fact program into the Girit outpost affair has subsided, without any resolution. In terms of the public, two contradictory versions now exist. The program's moderator, Ilana Dayan, declares: "Everything was described accurately, in the order that it occurred, substantiated by the facts arising from the communications network and from testimony of the soldiers." The Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon calls the item "specious and scandalous," and says that Dayan fabricated the recordings and libeled the soldiers in the company. At first glance - an unbridgeable chasm. The truth is a bit more complex. In order to ascertain it, one has to understand which elements of the investigation are essential and which are not. Herein lies the crux of the dispute between the two.

However, let us first differentiate between two different issues that arose in the broadcast: the "confirmation of the kill" carried out by the company commander, and the behavior of the soldiers in the course of the incident. On the first matter, there is no dispute between the Israel Defense Forces and Fact. The findings of the Military Police inquiry are identical to the conclusions reached by Channel 2: The company commander carried out a confirmation of the kill. In this sense, the investigation is in line with the indictment, although it is basically much more balanced and skeptical than the indictment with respect to the company commander.

The prosecution takes an unequivocal stand: Captain R. emptied a clip into the body of the girl Iman Alhamas. Conversely, Dayan also presents the version given by Captain R. in his interrogation ("I neutralize the threat") and reflects his point of view ("As he sees it, he is charging a terrorist that gained access to the inner perimeter." And: "Verbally, he admits the confirmation of the kill, substantively, he does not understand what these people want from him. As he sees it, the investigators are disengaged from his reality in the field"). In other words, insofar as the first key issue - the company commander's behavior is concerned - there are no reasonable complaints against Fact. Dayan presented testimony from the two sides, and did her job properly.

The verbal content

What bothers the chief of staff is the second topic of concern: the way the televised investigative report represented the behavior of the soldiers. The big argument is being waged over this issue. Here, too, the investigation has to be divided into two - the verbal content and the visual content. Analysis of the verbal content shows that the investigation is not only faithful to the facts, but that it presents them in their broad context, while citing the subjective point of view of the soldiers, as developed from the information in their possession, from their psychological situation and the circumstances in the field. Essentially, for every condemnatory statement vis-a-vis the soldiers, Dayan offers another statement defending their actions. The ensuing rhetorical structure is that of statement pairings, each of which balances the other. Some examples:

l "It is clear that the situation there is quite jumpy from the outset. You can hear on the two-way radio that the soldiers are troubled by the possibility that the girl is carrying an explosive charge or was sent as a lure, to draw them out of the outpost" (positive statement).

l "But what is truly disturbing is what happens in the course of the incident itself. After the radio network reports that the individual is a little girl, the entire outpost continues to shoot at her" (negative statement).

l This is the critical piece of information at this moment: The figure that was identified approached to a distance of approximately 70 meters from the outpost. As the soldiers see it, the moment that it entered the unauthorized zone, they are permitted to shoot it with intention to harm" (positive statement).

l "Three minutes after the initial identification, the lookout post gives a first report on the radio that it is a little girl. This was Iman Alhamas, 13, from Tel Sultan, who was on her way to school" (negative statement).

l "Something in the auxiliary company of the Shaked battalion had begun to go awry long ago" (negative statement).

l This is a company subject to heavy strains, with an absurd workload, and R. is a demanding company commander who also tries to defy tradition" (positive statement).

The visual content

Chief of Staff Ya'alon has, then, no reason to quibble over the verbal content. Indeed, his grievances focus on two videotaped scenes that appeared in the Fact investigation, excerpts from the home-video footage filmed by the soldiers. The first scene shows massive firing of automatic weapons, which occurred on another occasion. It was inserted into the report as background to the verbal exchange on the two-way radio in which the lookout sentry identifies the intruder as a girl of 10 ("She's behind the trench, scared to death"). The impression that the viewer receives is that the display of gunfire in the broadcast is occurring in real time. This is the first fabrication of material referred to by the chief of staff.

Is Dayan really fabricating evidence? Technically yes, substantively no. There is no argument about whether the soldiers fired in the direction of the girl with all guns ablaze. The inserted footage functioned merely to illustrate the reality in the field (Dayan admits she should have added the caption "Illustration"). Yes, it is an illustration that greatly intensifies the impression, but it does not substantively contradict the facts. If Dayan has to be accused of anything here, it is only overdramatization. In her defense, it may be said that in the next program, she clarified the issue ("The soldier seen shooting in the outpost has no connection with the incident").

The second scene shows the soldiers kidding around and celebrating in front of the camera. It, too, was filmed at another time, but is edited into the Channel 2 report immediately after the story of the confirmation of the kill (while one of the soldiers is saying: "He sprayed her [with bullets] from point-blank range." The viewer gains the impression that the celebrating came in the wake of the liquidation. Dayan tries to explain: "These images appear immediately after the shooting incident on the tape filmed by the soldiers of the outpost." But the clarification is vague, poorly worded and ineffective.

This is the only place in which the "fabrication" (in other words, the editing) creates a picture that substantively conflicts with the facts. But is it a case of tendentious and intentional fabrication? One strongly doubts it. Based on the subsequent parts of the report, it is apparent that the celebration scene was shown in the context of the general atmosphere in the company. If one takes into account both the clarification and this context, it would seem that Dayan might be accused of a lack of caution, or even negligence, but certainly not malicious libel.

Essential and inessential

The real question is what is the essential (factual) part of the investigation, and whether the inept editing spoils or prejudices it. It seems to me that the critical issue is that the soldiers in the outpost continue to shoot at the girl even at a stage when it is entirely clear to them that she poses no danger to them. The investigative program succeeded in proving this point beyond any doubt (identification of the figure as a 10-year-old girl was made at 6:51 A.M.). The command "hold your fire" was given over later, at 07:02 A.M. In the next program, Dayan offered another tape, from 6:55 A.M., in which the commander of the lookout post could be heard over the radio: "It's a girl of 10. Get her away from here, interrogate her, there's no need to kill her. It's simply a test to see how we react, that's all." However, as we know, the gunfire continued for at least another seven minutes. Dayan even quoted an "authoritative source" that said the shooting actually continued even after the order to cease-fire.

This key factual point of information, on which there is no argument, puts the chief of staff's charges in the right proportion: Even if (as he argues) there was "fabrication" in the shooting and celebration scenes, it is marginal in comparison with the truly serious findings, in which there was neither "fabrication" nor "libel." And these findings show that IDF soldiers shot a girl even though they knew she was a girl who posed no danger to them. This is the essential truth, which Ya'alon should deal with. Everything else is an attempt to divert the discussion to its nonessential elements.