Revisiting 'Al Durah' in Time of Iranian Media Control

The startling footage of Neda, the 27-year-old woman shot to death in the streets of Tehran recently, has reminded some of the image of 12-year-old Muhammad al Durah:

The footage of a Palestinian man [sic] being shot dead [sic] next to his 12-year-old son, Muhammad Jamal al-Durrah, by Israeli forces in Gaza in 2000 has been etched in the minds of many Iranians, as state television has continually replayed the images to highlight the “Zionist regime’s brutality.”

Now, the Islamic regime itself has become the subject of similar allegations at home and abroad after gruesome footage of a dying young woman during the suppression of an opposition protest on Saturday was released on the internet.

The image of Neda Salehi Agha-Soltan, a 27-year-old philosophy student, bleeding to death on the asphalt road of a Tehran street after she was shot in the chest, has become the rallying cry of the country’s opposition, which is disputing the June 12 election of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad.

Only al Durah wasn't killed -- not by Israeli soldiers, probably not by anyone, and certainly not "on TV." These days, while real footage of brutal repression makes it out of Iran, a country where the leaders make every effort to shut down the media, it may be useful to revisit the case of Muhammad al Durah.

With al Durah, we have a case of footage uncensored by authorities coming out of a conflict in which the allegedly repressive regime -- the Israelis -- provides the most welcoming atmosphere of freedom for journalists. These journalists repay the Israelis for their tolerance by running Pallywood footage staged by the Palestinians, specifically designed to provoke outrage.

And in the case of Muhammad al Durah, the boy behind the barrel at Netzarim Junction on September 30, 2000, the footage was not only staged, but, thanks to the efforts of France2's Middle East correspondent, Charles Enderlin, it made it around the world with the imprimatur of Western mainstream media. In short order, it became an icon of hatred, provoking outrage, hatred, and violence against both Jews and Israelis -- the first blood(less) libel of the 21st century.

On November 14, 2007, France2 presented to the court eighteen minutes of the raw footage that Talal abu Rahmah had shot on September 30, 2000, including the final segment of the alleged shooting of Muhammad al Durah and his father Jamal.

Different people were outraged for different reasons. I, having seen the rushes earlier, was incensed that France2 had cut the footage and removed some of the more ludicrous scenes of "Pallywood." Others, who knew about Nahum Shahaf's "red rag" theory, gasped when they saw the high-definition segment when the boy is initially hit in the leg -- and the rag is clearly visible. The judges were also outraged by what they saw, given the severe decision they passed down in favor of Karsenty, bluntly critical of France2 and Charles Enderlin.

But Esther Schapira -- the most consequential of the non-judicial viewers, as she authored Three Bullets and a Dead Child, the first major documentary on al Durah -- was outraged to find that there were only 65 seconds of footage of the al Durahs under fire. When she made her first film, Talal had told her he sent six minutes to his boss, and under oath he had claimed to shoot 27 minutes of the 45 minute ordeal under Israeli fire.

Charles Enderlin at France2 had made much of the footage he had not shown the world, supposedly intolerable footage of the boy's death throes.

"Charles, where's the rest of the footage?" she asked Enderlin as he walked brusquely by after his bruising exchange with Karsenty in front of the court. He didn't deign to look at her.

Dropping the caution that marked her first movie -- in which she only argued the minimalist position that the Israelis had not killed the boy -- she started to explore what she had always suspected:

A fake.

The results came out a few months ago with her German documentary, The Child, Death and the Truth. Here, she openly embraces the "staged" hypothesis, and even brings in a facial recognition expert who claims that the boy behind the barrel and the boy in the hospital who is subsequently buried are two distinctly different people. The movie recently appeared with English subtitles.

One of the most important revelations in the movie comes from the segments of an interview with Enderlin, in which he comes across as belligerently defensive and contemptuous of evidence. In his replies, in his body language, Enderlin reveals just how insubstantial his case is.

One of Enderlin's favorite arguments is the following: "look, if there were any substance to these allegations, the Israelis would be all over me and Talal. The fact that they've done nothing is proof that we're right, and Talal is 'as white as snow.'" He most recently repeated these arguments at his blog.

So let me suggest a counter-argument: If there were any substance to Charles Enderlin's defense, he would have informed himself of the details of the evidence.

Instead, he continues to remain supremely ignorant of all the telling problems with both Talal's account and his own.

His performance in the interview with Schapira shows us precisely the kind of know-nothing folly that first inspired the term Pallywood, which came not from evidence of Palestinian fakes -- I'd already seen many -- but from Enderlin's complacent response to having them pointed out:

"Oh yeah, they do that all the time. It's a cultural thing."