A look at the right-wing conspiracy-nut thinking that informed this week’s blue-ribbon report on the infamous 2000 killing of a Palestinian boy in Gaza.
In the 13 years since Muhammad al-Dura was killed in an Israeli-Palestinian shootout in Gaza while cowering behind his father, masses of right-wing Jews have eagerly embraced a conspiracy theory of the 12-year-oid boy’s killing – that it was staged, a hoax perpetrated by Palestinians to blacken Israel’s name. This theory, promoted most avidly by Boston University Prof. Richard Landes and French media analyst Philippe Karsenty, depends on a view of Palestinians being superhumanly clever and fiendish, and a view of reality that comes from the movies. The mentality here is essentially the same one that drives the 9/11 “truthers,” the anti-Obama “birthers,” those who say the Shin Bet assassinated Rabin, or those who say ultra-rightists assassinated JFK – a fevered imagination activated by political antagonism that knows no bounds. In the right-wing conspiracy theories of the al-Dura shooting, the boundless antagonism goes out to the Palestinians and their supporters.
This week, the State of Israel officially joined the movement. Its report on the al-Dura affair adopts the conspiracy theory in full. (To be precise, it adopts the relatively “restrained” conspiracy theory – that the al-Duras were never shot. The other, wholly unrestrained conspiracy theory in circulation holds that the Palestinians killed the boy deliberately to create a martyr.) The report was commissioned last September by Netanyahu and current Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, the “investigative” committee was headed by Yossi Kuperwasser, the former director-general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and staffed by officials in the Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry, IDF Spokesman’s Office and Israel Police. The panel’s conclusions were pronounced by Netanyahu to be “the truth.” This is the State of Israel talking.
The most fitting adjective I can think of for the report, and for the thinking behind it, is “creepy.” The government suggests that such a line-up (whose members aren’t even named) is somehow going to be fair or objective; this is how the State of Israel now goes after the truth. There are several prominent American and French journalists who investigated the al-Dura shooting, and who are entirely unconvinced that it was staged – but they are not mentioned in this report. The possibility that what appears to have happened in September 2000 actually happened – that Muhammad al-Dura was shot to death and his father Jamal badly wounded, that the boy’s death was confirmed in detail by doctors at Gaza’s Shifa Hospital, that he was buried in Gaza, that his father was treated for severe gunshot wounds at Shifa and afterward at a Jordanian hospital – is not even considered. The report just spins this outlandish hoax narrative, with very little explanation of where all the “facts” came from, while citing only people who back up the story and never anyone who disputes it. The Kuperwasser Committee report is a product of the echo chamber in which Israel and its most zealous overseas supporters live.
I’m not going to recap the whole al-Dura controversy; here’s a long op-ed I wrote about it for The Jerusalem Post in 2008. (The only update I have is that one of the anti-hoax investigative journalists I cite, German documentary filmmaker Esther Schapira, evidently has since gone over to the conspiracy camp.) But I want to mention a few things that aren’t mentioned in the new Israeli report that I think illustrate its dishonesty and that of the movement it grew out of, and which show why the claim that the al-Dura shooting was staged is plain garbage.
Referring to the original, exclusive news report of the shooting broadcast by France 2 television, the Kuperwasser Committee states:
Contrary to the report’s claim that the boy was killed, the committee’s review of the raw footage showed that in the final scenes, which were not broadcast by France 2, the boy is seen to be alive.
This is one of the key claims of the conspiracy theorists: that in the unedited video of the “alleged” shooting, the last you see of Muhammad al-Dura is him lifting his arm, moving his head and looking into the distance, something he obviously couldn’t do if he was dead. The problem is that this is not true: the last you see of Muhammad al-Dura in the unedited video – after he lifts his arm, moves his head and looks into the distance – is him drooping little by little into his father’s lap, which he might well have done if he was dead, and which certainly is no evidence that he was alive. This segment of the video is all over YouTube: here’s one copy. Watch the last seconds, after the boy lifts his arm. Somehow the Kuperwasser Committee didn’t mention this.
Another familiar “proof” of the hoax cited by the Kuperwasser Committee is that “the injuries and scars presented by Jamal [al-Dura, Muhammad’s father] as having been inflicted during the incident were actually the result of his having been assaulted in 1992 by Palestinians wielding knives and axes …” This revelation was supplied by Dr. Yehuda David, a hand surgeon at Israel’s Tel Hashomer hospital who treated Jamal for those earlier injuries in 1994. His statement to the committee says the Jordanian hospital medical reports on Jamal “support my assertion that the paralysis of Mr. Al-Durrah’s right hand was not a result of an injury allegedly suffered at the Netzarim junction several days before, as he claimed, but had been caused by the earlier injuries which I had treated in 1994.” (Underlined in the original.)
When a French appeals court in 2012 overturned David’s conviction for libel in a suit brought against him by al-Dura, Netanyahu said he had “proved Israel’s righteousness to the world,” and assured him the state would foot his legal expenses. (The appeals court did not find that David’s account was accurate, only that he’d given it in “good faith”; meanwhile, a French journalist who used David’s account to denounce al-Dura, and who was included in the original libel suit, was ordered to pay al-Dura 6,000 euros.)
Shortly after David’s victory in court and blessing from Netanyahu, Dr. Rafi Walden, deputy director of Tel Hashomer Hospital and co-chairperson of Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, wrote an op-ed in Haaretz about Jamal al-Dura’s injuries and David’s claims.
My sole intention is to address testimony provided by Dr. David, who has been praised by the prime minister for having acted with integrity and persistence to defend the reputation of the state of Israel. The facts are completely different. After the incident in 2000, Jamal al-Dura was treated in Gaza, and transported the next day to Amman’s King Hussein Hospital. His entire medical file has been relayed to me; it is 50 pages in length, and features pictures of the wounds and x-rays.
Dr. David claimed it was indisputable that the wounds were identical to ones treated eight years previously. The fact is that the medical documentation compiled in Amman shows completely different wounds: there is a gunshot wound in the right wrist, a shattered forearm bone, multiple fragment wounds in a palm, gunshot wounds in the right thigh, a fractured pelvis, an exit wound in the buttocks, a tear in the main nerve of the right thigh, tears in the main groin arteries and veins, and two gunshot wounds in the left lower leg.
Diagnoses in this file also provide detailed documentation of the 1992 wounds, including a paralyzed nerve in the right hand which was, in fact, treated by Dr. David. Photographs, x-rays, surgery reports, expert consultation reports and the rest of the data compiled in this medical file corroborate the diagnoses. I regretfully state that the statements made by my colleague, formulated as though “there isn’t a shadow of doubt,” are not well founded.
But Walden, a very well-known figure in Israel (he’s also Shimon Peres’ son-in-law), was not consulted by the Kuperwasser Committee, which left David’s statement, like all the other “factual information” in its report, to stand unchallenged.
Probably the most vital contributor to the al-Dura conspiracy theory has been Nahum Shahaf, a prominent Israeli physicist, engineer and developer of defense technology. In an April profile of him in the Times of Israel, he is described taking a phone call from Kuperwasser to discuss the progress of the libel suit against Karsenty. Shahaf’s reconstructions of the shooting scene at Netzarim Junction and his examination of videos from the incident are bedrock material for the movement. His so-called findings are all over the Kuperwasser report, for instance his discovery that what appears in the France 2 video to be blood on Muhammad al-Dura’s stomach is actually a “red rag” the boy is holding there so it will look like blood (!!!). Shahaf has been interviewed in the media since the report came out; he’s the go-to guy in Israel on al-Dura hoax theory. Yet his name is not mentioned in the committee’s report; a look at the Hebrew Wikipedia, which cites some of his other “findings” with links to his blog, might explain that:
He also investigates the Rabin assassination, claiming that the photo of the “Shir Hashalom” lyric sheet stained with Rabin’s blood was faked, and he supports the conspiracy theory of the murder…
Here is what Shahaf had to say about the 2008 Na’alin shooting affair, in which an IDF battalion commander held a blindfolded, bound Palestinian while a soldier shot him in the toe from close range, and which was filmed by a Palestinian resident with a camera provided by B’Tselem:
In October 2010, prior to the verdict in the Na’alin shooting affair, Channel 10 aired a report that featured Shahaf’s alleged evidence that the film published by B’Tselem, and which served as key evidence in the trial of the soldier who did the shooting and of the battalion commander, had important scenes edited out, and that the Palestinian was not hit at all by the rubber bullet fired by the soldier.
The shooter and the battalion commander were convicted in court and a police forensics expert testified that the film was authentic and undoctored. This, of course, hasn’t affected Shahaf’s status as the Sherlock Holmes of the al-Dura conspiracy movement, the fountainhead of so much of the State of Israel’s “proof” that it was all staged.
When individuals buy into this theory, it’s one thing; when official Israel buys into it too, it’s, well, creepy. These people are not stupid (neither, by any means, is Shahaf, nor many other people in the movement), but they’ve been stupefied by their radical antagonism toward the Palestinians and anybody else who goes against Israel, and so they’ve come to believe in demonstrable absurdities. Look at the original video of the shooting by France 2’s Charles Enderlin: at the beginning you see bullets hitting the wall a couple of feet from the al-Duras. Did father and son agree to sit still for such a “staging”?
Think about it: the France 2 cameraman who shot the footage in Gaza, Talal Abu Rahme, couldn’t have known beforehand the extraordinary effect his footage would have – yet according to the Kuperwasser Committee and Co., this was a pre-ordained plot between the cameraman and the al-Duras. In the middle of a crossfire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians, Abu Rahme and the al-Duras were faking it – there were no real bullets, no real fear, no real blood, no real wounds, no real death. As if a Palestinian cameraman in Gaza on the second day of the intifada had no hope of getting footage that would inspire hatred of Israel, and so he had to make it up.
Think about it: if Mohammed and Jamal al-Dura were never shot, that it was all a hoax, how many people would have to be covering it up all this time? Start with the al-Dura family, then the people near the scene of the shooting, at least some of the people at the funeral, plus doctors and nurses at the Gaza hospital and the Amman hospital, plus the Jordanian ambassador to Israel who brought Jamal al-Dura to Amman for treatment – and that’s just off the top of my head. Each and every one of them would have had to keep this incredible secret for 13 years. Yet with all the legions of Palestinian collaborators Israel has managed to conscript over the years despite the danger to their lives, not one Palestinian has ever been found to corroborate the al-Dura conspiracy theory.
These are just some of the inconvenient details that have to be ignored to believe that the al-Dura killing was a hoax – and official Israel, starting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, believes it.
The ironic thing, though, is that the Kuperwasser Committee’s minimal finding – that there’s no proof Israeli soldiers shot the al-Duras – is absolutely true. What’s more, the same prominent foreign journalists who were wholly unmoved by the hoax theory – American James Fallows and Frenchmen Denis Jeambar and Daniel Leconte, as well as Israeli communications expert Gabriel Weimann – were also thoroughly unconvinced by France 2’s claim that Israeli soldiers had fired the bullets that hit the father and son. Because of the angles and obstacles on the impromptu battlefield, they all concluded it was much more likely that the al-Duras had been shot accidentally by Palestinian gunmen in the crossfire.
That’s also the explanation I believe. On the basis of the known facts (as opposed to “facts”), that’s the most reasonable explanation, the easiest to accept – and it clears Israel of the terrible, almost certainly false accusation that its soldiers deliberately, demonically gunned down a frantic 12-year-old boy trying to hide behind his father, who was pleading vainly for the shooting to stop.
So why couldn’t Netanyahu and the Kuperwasser Committee defend Israel with a simple, plausible explanation, instead of this bizarre, through-the-looking-glass bullshit? Because as keepers of the consensus in 21st century Israel, they are naturally vulnerable to the al-Dura conspiracy theory. Finally, all you have to do to believe it is believe that Palestinians – doctors, patients, ambassadors, whoever – will tell any lie, no matter how gargantuan, to score a point against Israel, and that they are capable of performing uncanny feats to that end. And that’s what the defenders of Israel believe – about Palestinians and the rest of the neighbors, too. Which is why they so readily drank the Kool Aid on the al-Dura affair.