On Tuesday, France’s leading Jewish organization, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France (CRIF), held a press conference in Paris to publicize its call for the establishment of an “independent investigative commission” on the al-Dura affair. The event was held at Paris’s posh Hilton Arc de Triomphe and in the presence of numerous representatives of the mainstream, or “institutional,” French media, including the state-sponsored Agence France-Presse (AFP) wire service. A camera crew from French public television France 2 filmed the entire proceedings. France 2 is the very television network whose contested September 2000 report allegedly showing the killing of the Palestinian boy Mohammed al-Dura would form the object of the commission. Further reflecting the excellent coordination between the CRIF and France’s established “media of reference,” on the same day the daily Le Figaro featured a full-page article on the CRIF initiative and the al-Dura controversy more generally on page 2. A large blow-up of the iconic video frame showing Jamal al-Dura supposedly protecting his screaming child from Israeli fire covers nearly half the page.
The French media interest in the event stands in marked contrast to the “benign neglect” of the al-Dura controversy studiously practiced by the leading French news organizations up until now. Like the CRIF initiative itself, this sudden interest is undoubtedly a consequence of the unexpected turn taken in the affair in May, when a French appeals court overturned an earlier court’s condemnation of media critic Philippe Karsenty for having “defamed” France 2 and its longtime Middle East correspondent Charles Enderlin. As regular PJM readers will know, Karsenty is one of many critics who have called into question the authenticity of the al-Dura report. France 2 and Enderlin have in the meanwhile announced their intention to appeal the latest ruling in turn.
In opening the press conference, CRIF president Richard Prasquier alluded to the ongoing legal battle and summed up what he called the “position of the CRIF” as follows: “The position of the CRIF is very simple,” he said. “We are looking to establish the truth. … We are not for one party or the other.” In both substance and style, however, the rest of Prasquier’s remarks clearly belied this supposedly “simple” commitment to finding the truth and suggested rather a calculated initiative meant to serve essentially political ends: to achieve, so to say, a “negotiated settlement” of the al-Dura controversy. The most blatant giveaway of this political character of the CRIF initiative — blatant, at any rate, to anyone other than a member of the French establishment — was Prasquier’s proposal to have France 2 itself associated with the “independent” commission. Indeed, Prasquier proposed that France 2 should be the co-sponsor of the commission:
My wish is that this expert commission would be a joint decision of France 2 and us [i.e., apparently the CRIF] and that the decisions of this expert commission … the conclusions of this expert commission would be sufficiently contradictory and sufficiently valid to be accepted as what one can at this time most nearly identify with the truth of what happened.
The diplomatic tenor of Prasquier’s remarks is striking — to say nothing of the revealing slip from “conclusions” to “decisions.” The conclusions of the commission should be “sufficiently contradictory” — apparently meaning that they should take into account the viewpoints of all parties — that they can be “accepted” as approximating the reality: apparently meaning “accepted” as well by France 2. This last condition obviously rules out certain potential findings of the commission in advance: for example, that Enderlin and France 2 not only broadcast a fake report, but did so knowingly. Under duress, France 2 and Enderlin might be expected to “accept” the former conclusion, thus leaving the Palestinian cameraman Talal Abu Rahma as the fall guy in the entire affair. The latter conclusion, however, they could not “accept” under any circumstances without incurring not only an obvious knockout blow to their credibility, but indeed, as will be seen momentarily, potential criminal liability as well.
At times Prasquier sounded positively apologetic about even bringing up the issue. “A child was killed in Gaza,” he said, “probably by the Israelis, I have no idea.” The allusion was to the young boy whose body was turned over to a Palestinian hospital on the same day as the filming of the al-Dura episode.
The diplomatic pirouettes in Prasquier’s opening and closing remarks contrasted sharply with the nuts-and-bolts presentation of the al-Dura dossier by journalist Guy Mihaely that formed the centerpiece of the press conference. Mihaely is a contributor to the recently launched French website Causeur: one of the rare entries in the “new” French media that seems genuinely determined to break with the habits and complicities that have come to define the old. With the aid of video and slides, Mihaely methodically walked the assembled reporters through the many grounds for concluding that there is, as he put it, an “intolerable gap” between the “narrative” of the al-Dura scene — viz. as provided by Charles Enderlin on September 30, 2000, and Enderlin, Rahma, and other representatives of France 2 on numerous occasions since — and what one actually sees in the images.
These points will be well known to those who have followed the affair via the “new” American media or to French speakers who have followed it via media “outsiders” like Karsenty or the Israel-based Metula News Agency. But they have thus far received virtually no hearing in the established French media. (As evidence of this continuing obliviousness, consider that Le Figaro chose to accompany the enormous still of Jamal and Mohammed al-Dura in its Tuesday edition with the following caption: “The report broadcast by France 2 on September 30, 2000, showed the death of the 12-year-old Mohammed, cut down by a burst of fire from an automatic weapon while in the arms of his father.”)
There is, for instance, the matter of the missing “death throes” of the boy, which Enderlin claimed on no less than three occasions to have cut from the raw footage, but which was nowhere to be found in the footage France 2 was finally compelled to turn over to the French court. Or the constant diminution in the amount of time Rahma filmed the scene: first 27 minutes according to a sworn statement, then 6 minutes according to his statements to German journalist Esther Schapira, and finally just 40 seconds in the footage France 2 provided to the court. Or the lack of visual evidence of the hail of gunfire to which the man and boy were supposed to have been exposed for some 45 minutes. Or the lack of any trace in the video of the terrible wounds that the man and boy were supposed to have suffered. Or the famous red cloth, which a blown-up frame of the video clearly reveals the child clutching in his hand, apparently to simulate blood. Or the revelation by the Israeli doctor Yehuda David that scars that Jamal al-Dura would later display to journalists as “proof” of the shooting were in fact the result of a much earlier incident and the surgery he performed on the man.
The evidence presented by Mihaely is so overwhelming that after hearing his presentation, one could well wonder why there is any need for an ostensibly “independent” investigative commission — other than to furnish a pretext perhaps for plausibly denying the obvious. The evidence of a conscious will to deceive is, moreover, patent in many of the examples: not only on the part of Rahma and Jamal al-Dura, but also on that of Enderlin and France 2. As Mihaely pointed out, whereas Charles Enderlin repeatedly claimed to have edited the scene of the boy’s “death throes” from the raw footage, the only images of the boy and his father that he in fact cut are precisely those that show that the boy has not been killed at all: namely, those in which he calmly raises his arm from his face and then slowly roles over onto his stomach.
The role of France 2’s al-Dura report in the incitement of hatred against not only Israel and Israelis, but indeed against Jews around the world, has been well documented. Less than two weeks after the broadcast of the report, two Israeli soldiers would be lynched in Ramallah. Fall 2000 would see a massive spike in anti-Semitic violence in France: an “unsurprising” reaction to Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians according to then-French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine. And, of course, the same iconic image of Mohammed and Jamal al-Dura used in Tuesday’s edition of Le Figaro would repeatedly be shown in the Islamist propaganda video of the “confession” and then decapitation of Daniel Pearl.
If it should be established both that the al-Dura report was a fake and that Charles Enderlin and his colleagues knew or had strong reason to believe that it was fake, but broadcast it nonetheless, then this would clearly constitute a crime under Article 24 of France’s law on press freedoms. Article 24 expressly prohibits the use of the press to “provoke discrimination or hatred or violence with respect to a person or a group of persons by virtue of their origin or their belonging or not belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race, or a particular religion.” Those violating this provision of the law are susceptible to a punishment of one year in prison or a fine of 45,000 euros or both.
If France is a country respectful of its own laws, the clarification of this issue would appear to be more properly a matter for the courts than for an “independent” commission.