Al-Dura Verdict: What Prognosis for Civil Society in France?

At 3:00 p.m. on September 30, 2000, everything turned upside down at Netzarim Junction in the Gaza Strip. France2 cameraman Talal abu Rahma -- after a day of filming spontaneously staged scenes of Palestinian injury and ambulance evacuation -- deliberately participated in staging footage of a boy being murdered by Israeli troops while his defenseless father tried vainly to protect him.

Curiously, despite the claim that the boy’s ordeal continued for an hour, Talal only managed to film a (very unfocused) minute -- itself chopped up into six “takes” of about ten seconds each.

Several hours later, France2 Middle East correspondent Charles Enderlin went live with five of the “takes,” presenting them as a live capture of the Israelis “targeting” the two and killing the son in a hail of bullets.

The footage, packaged as an accusation of deliberately killing the boy “in cold blood” and "in his father's lap," circumnavigated the globe instantaneously, deeply touching those who saw it and raising outraged voices everywhere against supposed Israeli cruelty. For both Islamist jihadis and the “radical left,” the Israelis became the new Nazis: ruthless, genocidal villains. Even normally sober political analysts like French news anchor Catherine Nay somehow judged: “This image replaces, erases that of the boy in the Warsaw Ghetto.”

Within months, Hamas began a campaign of suicide terror attacks on civilian Israelis “to avenge the boy’s blood”; Osama bin Laden made a recruiting video starring al-Dura; and by the end of the year, the UN Durban Conference against Racism, with al-Dura borne in effigy, orchestrated a massive assault on Israel. Al-Dura was the icon, the patron saint of hatred in the 21st century.

Concurrently, a school of lethal journalism took over among Middle East correspondents. In a sense, this image proved all those earlier accusations of Israeli baby-killing. From  al-Dura onwards, the journalistic default mode accepted Palestinian claims as true, dismissed Israeli denials, and when events proved they had been wrong, fell silent. Rather than offer even a feeble “mistakes were made,” journalists continued to serve as a major pipeline for Palestinian war propaganda.

From the Oslo Intifada onwards, “lethal narratives” about Israel entered the Western public sphere as news, as real events that accurately conveyed the conflict. Starting with Jenin in 2002, every Israeli maneuver to stop Palestinian attacks has produced media coverage that systematically pumped Palestinian accusations -- most of which proved subsequently false or wildly exaggerated -- into the Western public sphere.

This journalistic behavior, much as it may claim to want to help, does the Palestinians no favors.

It militarizes their society and cuts the ground beneath any constructive contact with Israelis. Once the image of al-Dura hit, the lights went out from all the “confidence-building” dialogues set in motion by Camp David. When the campaign of suicide bombers who blew themselves up among Israeli women and children broke out three months later, 80% of Palestinians said they supported it.

The other poorly served party: the journalistic malfeasance does untold damage to the democratic societies among which these journalists ply their lethal trade.

It apparently occurred to few that Israel’s enemies also considered both Americans and Europeans, Christians and post-Christians, as enemies.

As a result, this lethal European journalism -- far more strident than the American kind -- poisoned the public sphere, provoking violent anti-Semitism among its Muslim populations (See Taguieff’s Rising from the Muck) and justifications among the rest: “Look what you do to their cousins in Palestine, what can you expect?”

European crowds cheered on suicide terror, without a clue that they were also to be targets.

Last year, a French-born Muslim – one radicalized by jihadis using lethal narratives -- murdered two five-year-old students and a father at a Jewish school in Toulouse, claiming he was avenging how "the Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine."

But Muhammad Merah never saw an Israeli deliberately kill a Palestinian child.

He had only seen videos claiming to document the outrage. The false accusation against Israel had justified his real, abominable crime of child-murder.

The press in France sought to emphasize the individual pathology of Merah. This, too, was false reporting. Vocal members of Merah’s own community hailed him as a hero of the “resistance.”

In the case of al-Dura, the media’s behavior is particularly distressing. Rather than investigate or even examine the evidence as any responsible news media should, journalists closed ranks around their beleaguered colleague, complaining that this criticism constituted an attack on the freedom of the press.

Instead of correcting himself, Enderlin -- with the help of state-owned France2 -- sued for defamation of character against private French citizens who had the temerity to publish against him on the internet.

The longest-lasting case, one taken to appeals court twice (once by Karsenty, once by Enderlin), was supposed to be decided this week.

On January 16, 2013, the two faced off in court for the fifth time. Karsenty decorticated several key France2 news programs, showing with raw footage how often Enderlin used visibly staged material to report the news, and demonstrated the dozen major ways the video evidence flatly contradicted the narrative.

Enderlin did not defend himself, but rather … showed the court the very news reports just revealed as based on fakes by Karsenty.

It was a stunning display of contempt for the intelligence of all present, in which he basically repeated his response to a challenge from journalist Esther Schapira: “This is the way I do a story … what’s your problem with that?”

The judges in the French Court of Appeals have the opportunity to make an important contribution to the health of their society. If they take issue with Enderlin’s unprofessional and damaging journalism and with his effort to exploit the courts to bully critics, then they can show both judicial and intellectual integrity.

In that case, expect the French media to either say as little as possible, or complain about the chill wind threatening their freedom.

But since the courts are deeply politicized -- both in the “old-boy networks” that sustained the anti-Dreyfus crowd in the face of the evidence a century ago, and in the political correctness that has paralyzed the ability of the French (and the West) to speak, even to think constructively about the challenges they face -- then they may well side with Enderlin on a technicality.

If the judges go this path, expect the media to trumpet the court’s confirmation that Israel did, indeed, kill the boy.

It’s hard to imagine something more culturally self-destructive. But there you have it -- an important tale from the still-young but deeply troubled 21st century.

Today the court, without explanation, announced that they were delaying the decision almost two more months, to May 22.

For those arguing that a politicized court would naturally side with state-owned and politically correct France2, this is unexpected, and -- I think -- good news, as a kangaroo court does not hesitate.

If the judges have hesitated, it’s because the evidence is so “badly” in Karsenty’s favor that the judges hesitate to defy it. Whether due to fear of contradiction, or due to some (significant but not decisive) remaining elements of intellectual integrity, this is good news for those who hope the court shows judicial sanity rather then political savvy.

But the fact that they remain uncommitted, rather than deciding for Karsenty’s obvious right to criticize a journalist (especially given the powerful evidence against Enderlin), means the weight of public honor (Enderlin’s, France2′s, the Palestinians’) still weighs heavily in their calculations.


For further information:

Evidence and analysis of the original incident: Second Draft

Ongoing discussion of the controversy: The Augean Stables

Extensive analysis of the Karsenty Trials: Veronique Chemla (mostly French)

Archive of all relevant articles:

Philippe Karsenty's website (English)

Charles Enderlin's blog (French)

New website under construction: The  al-Dura Project

Wikipedia article: Al Durrah Incident