Jun 24 2013

The right to claim innocence

Jamal and Muhammed al-Dura

What is a man supposed to do, if he is accused of a crime that he believes he did not commit? Judging by some of the reactions to Israel’s recent claim that the IDF soldiers didn’t kill a Palestinian boy – well then, he should simply shut up. Never mind how much evidence he has on his side, he should nevertheless remain silent.

The case in hand is the al-Dura case, the iconic 13 year old Palestinian who was allegedly killed by Israel in the Gaza Strip on September 30th 2000, the first day of the Second Intifada (uprising) against Israel. TV footage broadcasted on that evening by the French television station France-2 showed Jamal al-Dura and his son Muhammed, ducking behind a concrete cylinder, and trying to protect themselves from an endless barrage of automatic fire heard in the background. After a few seconds, in which the father frantically waved his finger at the seemingly source of fire and yelled words in Arabic, a strange silence prevailed: the boy lied in his father’s laps, while the latter’s head tumbled towards the ground.

From the beginning, questions were raised regarding the possibility that the boy died from Israeli bullets. Israeli soldiers could not have shot at Muhammed al-Dura from their outpost, it was claimed. An Israeli army investigative committee concluded two months later that in light of the exchanges of fire between Israeli soldiers and armed Palestinians, “the possibility that the boy and his father were shot by Palestinians is greater than the possibility that they were shot by IDF soldiers.” That was a very hesitant attempt to say: Israel didn’t do it.

But that was too little, too late. The media, both Israeli and international, reported on the Israeli attempt to deny the accusations with a mix of doubt and amazement. The growing violence of the second intifada overshadowed the story. In the meantime, Muhammed al-Dura and his father have become heroes in the Arab world and icons of Palestinian martyrdom. The scene was commemorated in innumerous stamps, posters, squares and sculptures. It even appeared in the video of the gruesome execution of the Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl—as one of the reasons for his kidnapping by the Taliban.

Most importantly, the image of a young boy, shot mercilessly by IDF soldiers, fixed—perhaps even created—Israel’s image in the last decade as a brutal and bloodthirsty country, opposite whom weak and unfortunate Palestinians are struggling just to survive. People unfortunately die in wars; everybody knows that. Surely enough, Palestinian children, as well as Israeli children, died in the decades old conflict. But the al-Dura case was different. According to the Palestinian narrative, an un-armed Palestinian father was begging Israeli soldiers to spare the life of his boy. And what did they do in return? Execute him. What could be more symbolic than that.

The al-Dura case was in fact one of the pillars of a narrative that Anti-Israeli propagandists have worked on tirelessly to create. According to that narrative, Israel isn’t simply a side in an armed conflict, but a demonic entity, doing everything it can to hurt helpless Palestinians, not hesitating to break the international law and to commit horrific war crimes. Other major pillars of that same narrative, such as an Israeli “massacre in Jenin”, were proven to be false.


The al-Dura case was removed from the agenda for many years, but a handful of people, convinced that Israeli soldiers couldn’t have shot the boy from the angle they were in, kept on insisting. One of them was a French Jew by the name of Philippe Karsenty. Another one was an Israeli physicist, Nahum Sahaf.

But they were considered “lunatics”, crazy far-rightists who simply can’t accept “the truth”. An Israeli forensic expert, who was since appointed to a very senior position, told me back then that he met Shahaf and thought Israel didn’t shoot the boy, but was advised by his professional colleagues not to say anything, because he would ruin his reputation.

Last month an Israeli governmental committee finally published its report about the case, concluding that “there is no evidence that the IDF was in any way responsible for causing any of the alleged injuries”. The report noted anomalies like the apparent lack of blood in appropriate places at the scene, and said that raw footage from the seconds after the boy’s apparent death seem to show him raising his arm.

Additionally, according to the report, while Jamal claims that he was struck by eight to twelve bullets, the footage does not show a single blood stain or bullet wound anywhere on him. Furthermore, an analysis of the angles between the IDF post and the barrel, the position of the IDF servicemen in the post, the shape and position of what appears to be bullet holes on the wall behind the father and the boy, all indicate that the shots did not come from the Israeli position.

The report mentions the German journalist Esther Schapira, whose documentary “The Child, the Death and the Truth” (2009) found that the boy who died later that day at a Gaza hospital and was proclaimed to be al-Dura, arrived at the hospital much before the incident with the IDF soldiers took place. The boy labeled Muhammed Al-Dura in photos from the hospital autopsy, has different physical characteristics than the boy seen crouching behind the barrel in the France 2 footage.

On the other side, the Palestinians and the French TV station could not provide along the years even a single piece of evidence that support the claim that Israeli soldiers killed the boy. On the contrary, in February 2005, France 2′s news editor, Arlette Chabot, told the International Herald Tribune that “no one can say for certain who killed him [Al-Dura]”. When I asked France 2’s correspondent in Jerusalem, Charles Enderlin, in an interview for Haaretz if he was too hasty that evening, he gave me a revealing answer: “If I didn’t say that the boy and father were victims of fire coming from the IDF position, they would have said in Gaza ‘How did Enderlin not say this was the IDF?'” This is not enough in order to broadcast such a dramatic accusation.

But somehow, in the case of Israel, due procedure is turned upside down. Instead of proving that the defendant is guilty, he has to prove that he is innocent. While the evidence against Israel is at best slim, it is still the Jewish state that has to prove beyond its harshest critics’ doubts that it is not guilty. And instead of focusing on the abundance of evidence shown in the report, the overall reaction of the international media was of disbelief and ridicule – for being so late, for digging up an old story or for preaching to the choir.

For some reason, the most natural instinct – to prove one’s innocence and to fight for one’s good name – is denied from the State of Israel. The Jewish state is expected to sit silently on the bench with its head lowered, and say nothing. Just utter the words: yes, we are guilty. How weird: Albert Dreifus fought for 12 years to prove his innocence. The ones who ridiculed his fight – as we know today – were on the wrong side of history.

The Israeli fight for its reputation is needed not only for the sake of truth, but also for correcting the distorted narrative that has penetrated so many circles – not only in the Arab world, but in the West as well.

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