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What They Are Saying: Uncovering the Truth Behind a Flurry of Fuzzy Photos

September 15, 2005
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David Gelernter

Author David Gelernter writes in the Los Angeles Times (www.latimes.com) on Sept. 9 that sometimes television pictures don't tell the truth:

"A 55-second video report, produced in 2000 by a French TV station and distributed free of charge around the world, has caused untold injury and grief to Israeli civilians. This month, the French author Nidra Poller analyzes the evidence in Commentary magazine (www.commentarymagazine.com) and shows that the video is a fraud - 'an almost perfect media crime,' the retired French journalist Luc Rosenzweig calls it.

"More than 1,000 Israeli civilians have been killed in the intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began five years ago. They were ordinary people chatting on a bus, eating ice-cream in a restaurant; suddenly, a bright flash. The next moment, the walls are spattered with blood and the bomb's hellish odor fills the air. Some people are blinded, others cut to pieces. Parents living the worst seconds of their lives cast about wildly for their children in the screaming, smoky chaos.

"What explains such bestial crimes? The reported death of a Palestinian child, Mohammed Dura, in Gaza did as much as anything else to ignite the current uprising. In the short video segment produced on Sept. 30, 2000, and distributed immediately, a state-owned French television station called France 2 accused the Israeli army of deliberately shooting and killing the 12-year-old.

"You may remember the footage: A man and boy crouch in fear. Shots hit a wall far from the pair; a final round of gunfire kicks up a dust cloud that hides father and son, who are 'targets of gunfire from Israeli positions,' says the voice-over. When the dust clears, the boy is stretched at the man's feet. The voice says that he is dead.

"But, according to the Commentary article, the video is a fraud. The footage itself is ambiguous, the alleged main event hidden by dust. The voice-over is what makes us understand what we are seeing. It comes from Charles Enderlin, a correspondent at France 2 (and a French Jew who became an Israeli citizen 20 years ago). Enderlin has never claimed to have been anywhere near the scene of the alleged shooting. His Palestinian cameraman told him the story.

"Lots of supporting evidence was supposed to back up the cameraman's story - more footage of the supposed father and son pinned by Israeli fire, footage showing the child's death throes. France 2 has since admitted, according to Poller, that no such footage exists.

"The voice-over reports that the child is dead, yet the rest of the segment - which wasn't aired but survives - shows the child propping himself on an elbow, shading his eyes with his hands.

"A boy named Mohammed Dura did die in a Gaza hospital that fateful Sept. 30. His face doesn't match the face in the video. Presented with these facts, France 2 officials said that 'they would look into the matter.'

"What did happen? Chances are we will never know for sure. But Poller reports that outtakes she saw show phony battle scenes staged by Palestinians. Painstaking analysis done by students at the Israeli Military Academy found the same actors playing multiple roles: 'The injured and dead jump up, dust themselves off, play at offensive combat.'

"The pictures we were shown and the story we were told is true or false, not both. Enderlin, France 2 and the larger media establishment have an obligation to tell us which it is. Because lies can kill. Lies do kill."

Confused, Worried and Fearful: Where Do Moderates Stand Today?

Think-tank scholar Robert Satloff writes in The New Republic (www.tnr.com) on Sept. 8 that the United States' pro-democracy policy is highly selective:

"Critics of the Bush administration's pro-democracy strategy in the Middle East have been pointing to this week's Egyptian election, which resulted in a landslide for Hosni Mubarak, as proof of a policy that's got little bark and even less bite. A policy with real teeth, they argue, would have demanded that Mubarak and other Middle East autocrats open up their political systems to all comers, even the most radical Islamists in society. Only a policy that offers a pathway to power for all Arabs - extremists and moderates alike - deserves American support, they contend.

"Though ranging across the political spectrum, these analysts all advocate a strategy based on an undifferentiated approach toward democracy in Arab countries. According to this view, as long as the Islamist party in question isn't caught in the act of actually blowing up its opponents, anything goes. Some of these critics even go further: For them, U.S. policy can only succeed if it extends to the most radical elements in society.

"This approach to promoting democracy in Arab countries is strategically, politically and morally wrong.

"On the strategic front, it is important to remember that the United States is at war and our enemies are, as the 9/11 Commission noted, adherents to the ideology of radical Islamism. While there are many ways to confront this threat, the idea that America's commitment to democratic reform should be judged by whether we provide opportunities for our enemies to achieve political power is peculiar, to say the least.

"Politically, focusing on the potential empowerment of Islamists plays directly into the hands of rulers, like Mubarak, who look for any excuse to maintain an iron grip on power by curtailing political liberty for all.

"Given the dark history of radical Islamists in Egypt, including their sometimes violent opposition to the state, Mubarak's refusal to allot them political space is, at least, defensible. Indeed, Egypt's position on Islamists is not too dissimilar from the widespread banning of fascist parties in Europe, and few contend that European democracies are bankrupt for failing to provide access to power for Nazis. Given their track record and proven ability to dissimulate, it will take many years for Egypt's Islamists to prove their commitment to democratic practice; in the meantime, the most likely result of making political access for them the benchmark for political reform is that no reform for anyone is likely to take place.

"The real failing of America's pro-democracy policy in the Middle East is not that we lock out the radical Islamists, but rather that we do not stand firmly enough on the side of local liberals and moderates. Indeed, we should not only be working toward more democracy in Egypt and other authoritarian-led Arab countries, we should also be investing in more democrats - people of wide political views and religious practice who share our fundamental commitment to freedom of worship, speech and assembly.

"Indeed, a concerted U.S. effort to support Arab moderates and liberals is sound policy on all three levels.

"Morally, Arab liberals and moderates have earned our support. Many may disagree with various U.S. policies - from Iraq to the Arab-Israeli arena - but my experience living in the Middle East for the two years after Sept. 11 convinced me that most share our core values.

"The most frequent critique of this democrat-focused democracy policy is that Arab liberals are few, wary, and cautious. This is a chicken-and-egg argument. After all, with powerful American voices speaking up for radical Islamists, it is no surprise that democrats, moderates and liberals are confused, worried and fearful."

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