One of the most shocking and transformative experiences occurred to me in late October 2003, when I got to see the original raw footage that a Palestinian cameraman had shot three years earlier at Netzarim Junction on Sept. 30, 2000. It was a peek through the lens of Talal Abu Rahma, the Palestinian cameraman who had filmed what journalists later depicted as a day of riots that killed many in the Gaza Strip, including the 12-year-old boy, Muhammad al Durah.
Charles Enderlin, chief correspondent of France2, aired the footage as news with his cameraman’s narrative: an innocent Palestinian boy, targeted by the IDF, gunned down while his father pleaded with the Israelis to stop shooting. It became an instant global sensation, enraging the Muslim world and provoking angry protests where Western progressives and militant Muslims joined to equate Israel to the Nazis. Ironically, for the first time since the Holocaust, “Death to Jews” was heard in the capitals of Europe. From that point on, for many, Israel was to blame for all violence, a pariah state.
Even had the child died in a crossfire, blaming his death on deliberate Israeli action made it a classic blood libel: A gentile boy dies; the Jews are accused of plotting the murder; violent mobs, invoking the dead martyr, attack the Jews. In Europe, the attacks the al Durah libel incited were mostly on Jewish property. In the Middle East, a new round of suicide bombers, “revenging the blood of Muhammad al Durah” targeted Israeli children to the approval of 80% of the Palestinian public. It was, in fact, the first postmodern blood libel. The first blood libel announced by a Jew (Enderlin), spread by the modern mainstream news media (MSNM), and carried in cyberspace to a global audience. It was the first wildly successful piece of “fake news” of the 21st century, and, as an icon of hatred, it did untold damage.
But it gets worse. Not only did the evidence show that the Israelis could not have fired the shots that hit the boy and his father, but everything about the footage suggests the scene was staged. There was no blood on the wall or ground and footage never shown to the public appeared to show the boy moving after being declared dead. I set out to explore this staged hypothesis, first raised by Nahum Shahaf, and exposed to the Anglophone public by James Fallows in 2003.
And that had brought me to see these rushes, the raw, unedited footage shot that day in September 2000 at Netzarim Junction. The film was in the possession of senior French-Israeli journalist and France2 chief correspondent Charles Enderlin, who was the employer of Abu Rahma, the cameraman who had shot the footage. He was known to only show the rushes to investigators “on his side” but coming on the recommendation of a friend, Enderlin assumed I was sympathetic. For the viewing, I had Enderlin on my left, and on my right, an Israeli cameraman working for France2, who had been with Enderlin in Ramallah the day of the filming.
What I saw astonished me. In scene after scene, Palestinians staged scenes of battle, injury, ambulance evacuation, and panicked flight, which the cameraman deliberately filmed, all the while standing around in front of the Israeli position, completely unafraid. To judge by Abu Rahma’s 21 minutes of film, and a Reuters cameraman’s two hours, Netzarim Junction that day of September, the “third day of the intifada,” was the site of multiple makeshift stages upon which cameramen, most Palestinian, some foreign, filmed “action sequences,” performed by everyone from military men with guns to teenagers and kids standing by.
At one point in our viewing, a very large man grabbed his leg and began to limp badly. Perhaps he had not faked his injury convincingly enough, perhaps his size discouraged anyone from picking him up. In any case, only children gathered around, whom he shooed away, and, after looking to see no one was coming, he walked away without a limp.
The Israeli France2 cameraman snorted.
“Why do you laugh?” I asked.
“It’s so obviously fake,” he responded.
“I know,” I said, turning to Enderlin, “this all seems fake.”
“Oh, they do that all the time. It’s a cultural thing” The senior correspondent replied.
“So why couldn’t they have faked it with al Durah?”
“They’re not good enough,” said Enderlin. “They can’t fool me.”
The other shoe had dropped. In earlier sessions with Nahum Shahaf, the first (“semi-official”) Israeli investigator of the al Durah affair, hired by IDF southern commander, Yom Tov Samia, I had seen over two hours of video from that day. This footage, shot by a Palestinian cameraman working for Reuters, had familiarized me with the Palestinian practice of staging scenes, whose basic sequence ran: Fake a dramatic injury, have people gather around you, pick you up (often brutally, without stretchers) and rush you to an ambulance, helpers eagerly grabbing the injured on the run, in order to get on camera. Those carrying the wounded, then throw him in the back of the ambulance, slam shut the doors, and the driver takes off, sirens blaring. That evening, you all go home and see how many times you made the news.
I already knew that Palestinians faked footage, but what I now understood was that the mainstream news media, whose first imperative was to filter out such blatant propaganda, had accepted it as a normal practice, and used the fakes to tell the “real” story. Professional standards for journalists in the West can make even staging B-roll problematic. But apparently, in the Middle East, Western journalists have few problems with staged A-roll as long as they can cut it into believable site-bytes of Israeli aggression and Palestinian victimhood. Veteran 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon would later describe Netzarim Junction as the focal point of the new Arab-Israeli war, one in which “more than 30 were killed and hundreds injured.”
For anyone familiar with journalistic norms in the Middle East, the practice of staging news as a tactic in ideological and narrative warfare, should not come as a surprise. Indeed, the Islamic Mass Media Charter adopted at the First International Islamic Mass Media Conference in 1980 states clearly its mission: “To combat Zionism and its colonialist policy of creating settlements as well as its ruthless suppression of the Palestinian people.” Elsewhere, the charter declares, “Islamic media-men should censor all material that is either broadcast or published, in order to protect the Ummah from influences that are harmful to Islamic character and values, and in order to forestall all dangers.” Another document, the Arab Information Charter of Honour, developed in 1978 by the Council of Arab Information Ministers in Cairo affirms the following:
The Arab media should care about Arab solidarity in all material that is presented to the public opinion inside and outside—it should contribute with all its capacity in supporting understanding and cooperation between the Arab countries. It should avoid what might harm Arab solidarity and restrain from personal campaigns.
Indeed, as one Jordanian editor noted, Arab states have been innovators of fake news.
Only a Western chauvinist would imagine a Palestinian cameraman based in Gaza like Abu Rahma, would not consider staging scenes an acceptable form of journalism. Ramah, in fact, lied readily to the press, and smiled charmingly when caught. He made deadly accusations against the IDF under oath and then denied them in unannounced faxes. He proudly proclaims his participation in the struggle for Palestine and his determination to “continue to fight with my camera” as Rahma did in 2001 at an award ceremony in Dubai.
When Esther Schapira, in her documentary Three Bullets and a Dead Child, asked a TV official with the Palestinian Authority why he had spliced into the al Durah footage a shot of an Israeli aiming his gun (at crowds rioting because of the al Durah footage, making it look like he was ‘targeting’ al Durah, he responded:
These are forms of artistic expression, but all of this serves to convey the truth … We never forget our higher journalistic principles to which we are committed of relating the truth and nothing but the truth.
It’s harder to come by a more revealing expression of the vast gap that (in principle) separates Western modern professional journalistic attitudes towards “truth,” and prevailing Palestinian, premodern, attitudes in which manipulating evidence to make accusations of murder, is loyalty to a higher truth. It is the distinction between a premodern world in which propagandists retailed blood libels, and a modern one in which professional commitments are supposed to prohibit journalists from such behavior. The distinction has become even more fraught as a postmodern attitude has taken root in the West, which allies itself with the premodern in treating notions like ‘objectivity’ with suspicion and disdain.
This episode in 2003 with Enderlin was the first time that I got the response of a Western journalist to the rather obvious fakery and it amounted to: “But they do it all the time.”
A few months later, when the same footage was viewed in Paris with three “independent” journalists from the French MSNM, they too remarked on the extensive staging and they got a similar response: “Yes Monsieur, but, you know, it’s always like that,” said Didier Eppelbaum, Enderlin’s boss. To which one of the journalists, maintaining his commitment to integrity (but not for long), responded indignantly, “You may know that, but the public doesn’t.” Indeed, while both Enderlin and his boss will admit, behind what they think are closed doors, to this highly unprofessional behavior done “all the time,” on record, they state precisely the opposite. “Talal abu Rahma, Enderlin assured Esther Schapira in 2007, “is a journalist like me; he’s a prima facie witness. He told me what happened. I’ve no reason not to believe him.” Three years later, in his self-justifying book, he elaborated: “Never failing in his professionalism, Talal is a most credible source, and has been employed by France2 since 1988.”
This public secret about the widespread staging of news footage so pervaded French journalistic circles that one commentator, Clement Weill-Raynal invoked it to dismiss criticism of France2 from French media analyst, Philippe Karsenty. (Enderlin sued Karsenty for defamation of character, a case that took years.) According to Weill-Raynal:
Karsenty is so shocked that fake images were used and edited in Gaza, but this happens all the time everywhere on television and no TV journalist in the field or a film editor would be shocked
The implications of this remark undermine its very use in his argument: How can Karsenty defame Enderlin by accusing him of using staged footage when, as Clément Weill-Raynal here admits, everybody does it? Or, given that he too was critical of Enderlin, was this a deliberately sarcastic comment on a widespread and dishonest attitude that protected Enderlin from criticism?
Either way, the comment reveals a situation in which the TV news media were ‘in’ on a secret that they kept from the public. Palestinians faked scenes and journalists regularly edited that footage, taking small, believable soundbites and stringing them together to present the Palestinian narrative of victimization by the Israeli Goliath. Indeed, more than one Western commentator has adopted the same argument “from higher truth, used by the PATV propagandist. Here, for instance, is Adam Rose attempting to rebut James Fallows’s article about the events at Netzarim Junction:
In other words, above and beyond “historical” truths of what actually happens in particular “singular” events, there are “philosophical” truths of what “probably or necessarily” happens “universally” in certain types of events… it [the fake] is an authentic symbol of the Israeli occupation.”
Or, as the New York Times headline ran in defense of Dan Rather’s faked letters from George Bush’s commander in the National Guard, released just before the 2004 election, “Memos on Bush are Fake but Accurate, Typist Says.” When the “higher truth” is paramount, mundane facts and professional commitments give way.
And so it was with this footage produced by the Palestinian street and cooperative cameramen, whose higher truth was the Israeli-Goliath and Palestinian-victim. Thus, talented, respected journalists like Enderlin, perhaps unaware, perhaps unconcerned, perhaps just glad to have material, could offer stories of clashes between Palestinian children throwing rocks and Israelis soldiers armed to the teeth, and pepper them with high casualty figures for the Palestinian victims, all to this background footage of injury and evacuation. In other words, B-roll for Palestinian lethal narratives. And as far as Enderlin was concerned, the al Durah story was believable precisely because it “corresponded to the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip at the time.” In other words, the situation was not as Enderlin thought: that ‘PA journalist-warriors aren’t good enough to fool me’, but rather, he was so set on getting his headlines that their rubbish effortlessly fooled him.
As I left the building, still stunned by Enderlin’s response—he had been using the cameraman, apparently never rebuking him for his unprofessional behavior, for twelve years!—thinking about the deep symbiosis of Palestinian staging and Western news reports. “It’s an industry,” I thought, “a ‘national’ industry, like Hollywood, or Bollywood… it’s Pallywood.
Had Enderlin had the courage to respond to Abu Rahma’s al Durah, lethal propaganda by firing him, and running a sensational piece on how his own Palestinian cameraman had tried to trick him into airing a staged scene in support of a potentially lethal blood libel… had he warned his fellow journalists of the danger to their professional integrity in running Palestinian-filmed footage without checking carefully… the course of the Oslo Jihad, and with it, the future of civil society in the 21st century might have been very different.
What I soon discovered, however, was the immense resistance of everyone involved, even the Israelis, to any effort to change the narrative. Aside from a few dyed-in-the-wool Zionists, who would believe that the MSNM as a pack, could misreport so dramatically that it would be the willing or (worse?) unwitting arm of Palestinian information warfare, running their war propaganda, as news? How could I possibly hope to convince anyone who had to watch out for his or her credibility, that the 21st century started out with a massive (MSNM-wide) injection of fake news into the Western public sphere? Much less get them to think of the damage that (ongoing) catastrophe has caused… including the spread of fake news to the various parts of a MSNM increasingly split over domestic issues…
Now, almost two decades later, many who might otherwise agree with my analysis, consider the story ‘ancient history.’ Except that it’s not; not only does Pallywood—MSNM collusion persist, they have spread like a disease. As David Collier recently noted:
The demonization of Jewish people, via a colossal anti-Israel disinformation campaign, has infected every local authority and education establishment in Europe. A continent-wide anti-semitic trend just 70 years after the Europeans exterminated six million Jews. Truly sickening.
And it’s not just Israel and the Jews who suffer from this disinformation campaign; as history has long shown, the second victim of anti-Semitism, are the anti-Semites. If in the 20th century, Isaiah Berlin could quip: “Anti-Semitism is hating Jews more than absolutely necessary,” the 21st century version is “Anti-Zionism is hating Israel even when it hurts you.” Indeed, it just may be that the key to unraveling the dysfunctions and madness that seem to have overtaken the Western and Arab-Muslim public spheres in the 21st century, lies in reconsidering this first, sustained case of fake news in the 21st century. Just how much damage does this plague have to wreak before people who care about democracy catch on? Woke, anyone?
Not Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), who marked this 18th anniversary of this calamitous fake with a reverent tweet: Remembering the #Palestinian boy #MohamedAlDurrah who was murdered by Israeli soldiers 18 years ago today. #Palestine”
Richard Landes, a historian living in Jerusalem, is chair of SPME’s Council of Scholars. He is the author of Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience and now publishing Stupidity Matters: A Medievalist Guide to the 21st Century with Academic Studies Press. He blogs at the Augean Stables. His Twitter feed is @richard_landes.