2011: Pallywood, Muhammad al Durah and Cognitive Warfare in the 21st Century



2011: Pallywood, Muhammad al Durah and Cognitive Warfare in the 21st Century
 This paper was originally published on November 9, 2011, and was delivered by the author as a presentation to the ASMEA Conference, Washington DC, November 4, 2011.

Richard Landes, Boston University

I’d like to make two arguments. First, that the image of the IDF as child-killers is the product of a constant campaign of Arab/Palestinian cognitive warfare in which the Western mainstream news media has played a critical role in conveying this disinformation as news; second, that such a state of affairs has had a devastating impact on our ability to understand the conflict and leading to serious errors in judgment.

Let’s take what I would argue is at once a paradigmatic case, and, at the same time, the most terrible case, that of Muhammad al Durah, the 12-year old Palestinian boy who became the icon of the second intifadah, even as he should be an icon of the destructive incompetence of the MSNM.

On September 30, 2000, Charles Enderlin of France2 received the following footage from his long-time cameraman in Gaza, Talal abu Rahmah.

It was accompanied by the following narrative from Talal:

  • The boy and the father took cover during an exchange of fire.

  • The Israelis fired for 40 minutes at the boy who was hit and lay bleeding for 20 minutes while the Israelis fired – bullets like rain – at any ambulance that tried to take him away.

  • They targeted and killed the boy deliberately.

Let me present what I think Charles Enderlin should have done were he a serious journalist merely on the basis of what he had before him. There are at least three issues that should have aroused his doubts.

1)    The wandering red spot and the lack of blood[2]

2) The behavior of the boy, from when he was “shot” in the stomach to take five – stretched out, raising elbow to look out[1]

Still from “take 4.” This is the first take in which the boy has been allegedly shot. There is red visible on his right leg (which was one of the wounds reported by the hospital). Enderlin’s voice-over declares the boy dead.

Still from “take 5″ after Enderlin has declared the boy dead. Why would someone allegedly hit in the stomach be holding his hands over his eyes and stretched out rather than balled up and clutching his stomach? Note that there is no longer any red on his injured leg (by now the blood from a bullet wound should have spread, and the red is around his stomach, does not spill onto the ground in front of him.

Still from “take 6.” This take was cut by Enderlin in his broadcast and drew audible gasps from those in court when it was shown. Again, why would a boy who has been bleeding out from his stomach according to Talal be holding his hand over his eyes, again stretched out, and apparently looking out from under his arm?

3)  the angle of the bullets[3]

From “take 1.” This is one of the two bullets that one can identify hitting the wall during the footage shot by Talal (hardly bullets like rain). The round dust cloud kicked up indicates that it came from head-on, not from the -30 degree angle from which a shot from the Israeli position would have come. Later ballistic tests confirmed that both bullets came from the Palestinian side.

4) No shot of the ambulance evacuation

Given how high a premium cameramen place on shots of ambulance evacuations, and how important the evacuation of the “dead” boy and his “wounded” father would have been, it seems most bizarre that Talal did not have any footage of the dramatic event. The driver late claimed to Esther Schapira that he had to scoop up the guts of the dead boy from the pavement. Talal’s claim that his camera was running out of batteries does not explain why he has footage of a distant, later ambulance evacuation, far less dramatic than one of bleeding father and dead boy.

Given the potential violence and hatred such footage might – and did – arouse, Enderlin (known to his colleagues as “Scoop” had to choose between breaking the sensational “news” or showing some professional restraint. According to his own testimony, he didn’t hesitate.

In doing so, Enderlin cut the final footage of al Durah.

He remarked in his 2010 book: “j’ai coupé quelques secondes de la séquence du petit Mohammed afin d’éviter toute dramatisation inutile.” Earlier he had referred to it as “the unbearable ‘death throes’ of the child” which he wanted to spare the viewer.

However uncertain he might have been the first day, had he waited until he got “all” of Abu Rahmah’s footage the next day, his doubts would have been confirmed: from the pervasive “staging” evident in abu Rahmah’s other footage, to the lack of blood behind the barrel, to the lack of bullets (and bullet holes in the wall) from the alleged “rain of fire from the Israeli position.” If I were a professor of film, critiquing a student’s work, I’d give this an F for realism. At least give the kid a bag of blood to burst when he’s allegedly hit.

This was a photo taken the next day. Note that the blood that we see is bright red, even though, had it been exposed to oxygen and sunlight for 15-20 hours would no longer be bright red. Furthermore, the blood is where the father was, but where the boy allegedly bled out from his stomach for 20 minutes (circled area), there is no blood.

Subsequently considerably more evidence has arisen, including the fact that the boy photographed in the hospital is not al Durah, and that the injuries the father allegedly suffered from Israeli bullets were scars from an operation an Israeli doctor carried out after Jamal had suffered a knife attack from fellow Palestinians.

And yet, this accusation of faking strikes most people as so implausible as to sound like a conspiracy theory. When I began working on this in late 2003, I’d tell people, there are five possibilities: Israelis on purpose, by accident, Palestinians by accident, on purpose, and… The vast majority couldn’t imagine staged – the father? The red cross? The assumption that the boy had been killed so dominated perceptions that there was no imaginative room for a fake.

But in examining the raw footage, both Talal’s (with Enderlin) and two hours from another cameraman there working for a major Western news agency, I was struck not merely by how many scenes were faked, but their pervasiveness: there were directors, sets, and bystanders for whom it was a public secret that this is how it’s done.

Here’s my favorite example, from another Palestinian photographer present at Netzarim Junction on September 30, 2000.


Enderlin describes this and other scenes as “For many minutes he filmed classic scenes of the Intifada: young people throw rocks and Molotov cocktails as the Israeli position, they shoot back from their bunker with rubber bullets and tear gas pellets. The wounded are evacuated by other youth towards ambulances ready to take off. These scenes are identical to those that I shot in Ramallah.

Everyone remembers the faked funeral scene from Jenin recorded by an Israeli drone.

Many of these fake scenes, in order to mimic the urgency they want to convey, brutalize the alleged injured.

The best example I saw from Talal, a comic scene of a fat man who fakes a leg injury and when only kids come around – who cdn’t possibly lift him up and carry him past the cameras to the ambulance – he shoos them and walks away without a limp, I can’t show you because Enderlin cut it from the edited version he presented to the court.

But I can tell you that when I first viewed it with Enderlin, I commented that a lot of this was staged, he responded, “oh yes, they do it all the time; it’s a cultural thing.”[5]

With this piece of unreconstructed Orientalism, the second shoe dropped: it was not only that the Palestinians produced these largely shoddy fakes, but that the Western media found no problem with such “journalism” – they just scanned through them and took out the most believable sight bytes. As several French journalists explained to me, “c’est les armes des faibles” weapons of the weak. This has translated into the following epistemological approach: Believe what the Palestinians say until proven wrong; doubt what the Israelis say until proven right; and when that happens, fall silent and move onto the next Palestinian lethal narrative.

Not only was this approach taken by news agencies openly hostile to Israel like the Guardian and Le Monde, but by Israeli journalists at outlets like Ha-Aretz, and even among professors of journalism who tried to be even handed. Here Gadi Wolfsfeld discusses the Al Durah footage and compares it with the footage of the “lynching” at Ramallah twelve days later:

Perhaps the most macabre is the ongoing contest for visual supremacy in the presentation and promotion of pain and suffering. The early stages of the Second Intifada produced two very powerful images in this realm. The first was the dramatic pictures of Mohammed el-Dura being shot and killed [sic] as he and his father attempted to shield themselves from the crossfire. The second were the scenes of Israeli reserve soldiers being lynched by an angry Palestinian mob in the city of Ramallah. Each of these scenes became powerful icons for the two societies; leaders from both sides attempted to exploit these images in an effort to demonstrate the enemy’s brutality.

How could an outsider expect to understand the fearful asymmetry of these to images from this Israeli professor dedicated above all to the meme “both sides” (with admitted variants). Indeed, when presented with the evidence of staging, Wolfsfeld responded:

So what? According to reliable statistics, the Israeli army has killed over 800 Palestinian children since the second Intifada. So what difference does it make if this case is staged or not?”

Well, for one thing, Al Durah was deliberately staged in order to arouse hatred and incite violence, while Israelis accepted guilt for the event. And for another, after al Durah, the media and the NGOs (including Btselem which he is citing here as reliable) believed virtually anything they were told by Palestinians. In addition to the figures being inflated, once one removes the large majority of “children” aged 16-19, and ask how many children like al Durah (12 and under, not combatants), the figure drops dramatically. The point of al Durah is to declare the IDF child-killers.

And Israeli journalists and academics are only too happy to accept the guilt. As one Israeli journalist remarked to me: “Meah huz hayisraelim hargu oto.” [100% the Israelis killed him]. Gideon Levy, when presented the evidence for a fake did Wolfsfeld one better with the same statistic: “We’ve killed 800 Muhammad al Durah’s.”

On the other hand, in the Ramallah lynching, the crowd that savagely dismembered the reservists yelled “revenge for the blood of Muhammad al Durah,” and the Palestinians, both police and crowd, used violence to destroy any footage of the actual violence. No Palestinian (or Arab) journalist reported on what happened at Ramallah. This is hardly a world of “both sides” don’t listen to the other’s narrative. On the contrary, it’s a perfect illustration of the marriage between pre-modern sadism and post-modern masochism.

Bob Simon, referring to al Durah, remarked, “In the Middle East, a picture can be worth a thousand weapons.” And a number of journalists agreed with me when I said I thought their attitude was, “the Israelis have all the weapons, we can level the playing field by giving Palestinians victories in the media war.” Gadi Wolfsfeld, professor of journalism at Hebrew U. presented this situation thusly:

One of the most powerful roles the news media can play in such conflicts is when they become “equalizers” by allowing the weaker party to enlist the support of third parties. This was certainly what happened in the first Intifada in which the Palestinians were extremely successful at placing their plight on the international agenda.

It’s probably worth noting that one of the first Western journalists to give Palestinians cameras to film footage during the first intifada was Charles Enderlin, and that his collaboration with abu Rahmah goes back to this time (1988). Indeed, I would date the first “heyday” of Pallywood to this period.

This Israeli effort to be even-handed at once masks and illustrates a radical difference between Israeli journalism and Palestinian. While Israelis like Wolfsfeld try, in some cases bend over backward, not to be too patriotic, to give the “other side” its due, Palestinians engage in cognitive warfare. Take, for example, the way the PA doctored the footage of Al Durah in the days after the event.

When asked to explain this obvious breach of journalistic ethics, one PATV official explained:

This is, by Western standards, not journalism but malevolent propaganda. (Hitler and many others used and use the same argument about a “higher truth” to validate the Protocols.) For Palestinian “journalists” news production is part of the “people’s struggle” and concern for “objectivity” or impartiality is at best an afterthought. As Talal said while accepting an award in Dubai: “I will continue to fight with my camera.”

Anyone, therefore, who treats the products of Palestinian journalism as “true until proven otherwise” (which is the standard operating procedure for most journalists in the area) out of some misguided political correctness, betrays their journalistic standards. They also end up, like Enderlin, admitting off record that “Talal and the rest always stage things,” while publicly exclaiming how Talal “is never unprofessional, one of the most credible sources.” Those who ignore the public secret end up accepting lethal narratives as true stories: As one Israeli journalist remarked to me: “Meah huz hayisraelim hargu oto.” [100% the Israelis killed him.]

The impact of the al Durah footage was spectacular. It went viral before people knew what that term meant. It triggered violent Arab riots inside Israel, it fueled a hatred among Palestinians that astonished sympathizers. Describing the Ramallah lynchings where the crowd shouted “Revenge for the blood of Muhammad al Durah,one very pro-Palestinian photographer wrote:

It was the most horrible thing that I have ever seen and I have reported from Congo, Kosovo, many bad places. In Kosovo, I saw Serbs beating an Albanian but it wasn’t like this. There was such hatred, such unbelievable hatred and anger distorting their faces. I thought that I’d got to know the Palestinians well. I’ve made six trips this year and had been going to Ramallah every day for the past 16 days. I thought they were kind, hospitable people. I know they are not all like this and I’m a very forgiving person but I’ll never forget this. It was murder of the most barbaric kind. When I think about it, I see that man’s head, all smashed. I know that I’ll have nightmares for the rest of my life. I love this country, I’d love nothing more than to see Israelis and Palestinians sharing an argalah or waterpipe but, after the hatred that I’ve seen in the past few days, I don’t think that will happen in my lifetime. Look how many years that they’ve been talking peace – since 1993. Then, within just a couple of weeks, they are at each other’s throats. It seems that it’s easier to hate than to forgive.

After he published the piece, he was told by “friends” that he should leave the Palestinian territories as it was no longer safe for him.

Al Durah became the icon of the intifada, both in Palestine and in the Arab world where Al Jazeera was first becoming a household name with its constant coverage of the intifada.

Al-Jazeera ran repeatedly the clip of the boy being shot, and for several days the picture of his dying became the network’s emblem of the Intifada. This had a deeply galvanizing effect on the wider Arab public. Arabs everywhere became desperate for bulletins from the Occupied Territories, but state-run Arab news providers were slow to give good coverage … from the very start Al-Jazeera’s live coverage from the front line far outstripped any other network’s coverage.[9]

The PA made al Durah into an icon of martyrdom and used the footage in every way possible: one of the most popular Palestinian singers made a video with Muhammad beckoning other youth to join him in martyrdom.

As one Israeli official noted ruefully, if you want to predict the levels of violence the next day, just calculate MDPH, Muhammad al Durah images per hour, on PA TV.  Within months of the event, Osama Bin Laden came out with a lengthy recruiting video for his global Jihad, in which Palestine, and Muhammad al Durah, played a central role in appealing to a desire for revenge, and – note the allusions in the text of the poetry he plays – the impotence of current, corrupt Arab regimes to do their duty.

Two years later, al Qaeda-linked Pakistani Islamists executed Daniel Pearl in front of a video camera with an image of al Durah behind him, right after he admitted that he was a Jew, and that Jews killed children for pleasure.

Perhaps even more disturbing, European Muslims broke out in a widespread low-level assault on Jews, literally the day after the footage showed. “The very next day, on his way to synagogue, our rabbi was attacked in the street by Muslim immigrants,” noted Joel Rubinfeld, a resident of Brussels, “The anger was palpable, and immediate.”[10] The resurgence of anti-semitism in Europe began in October 2000 – Black October – and most of the violence was done by European Muslims.  Indeed, Chirac publicly humiliated Barak on a visit to Paris four days later (in an effort to calm the violence) with the public statement, “ce n’est pas une politique de tuer les enfants.” Two days later, on October 6, 2000, exactly a week after the incident hit the news, a large rally in Paris filled the Place de la République. Crowds of angry Muslims shouted: “Death to the Jews! Kill the Jews!

Place de la République, Paris, October 6, 2000. The al Durahs are to the right with the legend “Ils tue les enfants aussi” [They also kill children].

This became a major trope of the “left” both radical and (allegedly) non-radical. It became so central to the image purveyed by the “human rights” NGOs that one could fairly describe Al Durah as the “patron saint of Durban”, a gathering which constituted the most grotesque hijacking of the laudible cause of anti-racism into paroxysm of anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism.

Durban, South Africa, August 2001; UN Conference against Racism. In the foreground, below the poster with Al Durah, the youth in the Keffiya holds the bier on which an effigy of Al Durah is paraded through the streets. Given what we now know, the sign should have read “PALESTINE’S IMAGES OF HATE.”

The wave of hostility surprised many observers. Every register of anti-Judaism shows a sharp rise in both verbal violence (e.g., calling Jews Nazis), and physical (attacks on property and people).[12]  Taguieff reported from France:

From October 1 2000 to the beginning of November 2001, about 2000 attacks on Jews were declared [cf. 9 in 1999].  From the autumn of 2000, the power of images plays against the Israelis once the unbearable footage of the death, filmed live, of the young Mohammad plays and replays on all the television stations.[13]

This hostility to Jews became a primary feature of both Islamic teaching from pulpit, street, café and school talk.[14] One can date the emergence of the New Anti-Semitism[15] from this specific moment – September 30/October 1.[16] Five years later, defending a speech in Paris that invoked the genocidal hadith about killing Jews, a local Muslim leader showed the picture of al Durah on his phone to a crowd of Muslims, drawing their instant approval.

Nor was this virulence limited to the Muslim world. Present at the rally in Place de la Republique were all the major leftist groups, allegedly committed to fighting racism. And the opprobrium went mainstream, especially the identification of Israel with the Nazis, which had, until then been a trope of extremists. In a remark that is staggering for its moral imbecility, and uncharacteristic of an otherwise highly respected journalist, news anchor Catherine Nay opined on Europe 1, “with the symbolic power of this image, the death of Muhammad annuls, erases that of the Jewish child, hands in the air in front of the SS in the Warsaw Ghetto.”

The image is taken from the website of Ramsey Clark’s International ANSWER, a major “anti-war, anti-racism” movement of the early 21st century. It symbolizes the close alliance between the “progressive” left and anti-Zionism. Apparently this image struck home on two fronts: it aroused a global Muslim furor at the same time as it offered Europeans a “get-out-of-holocaust-guilt-free” card. Why it would enthrall American progressives is still an open question.

I think that historians, looking back at the first years of the 21st century will wonder, as did some contemporaries, at the deraison morale that characterized especially the European intellectual scene. This moral disorientation was on full display at Durban where the “human rights” NGOs allowed the greatest global haters to hijack a UN gathering allegedly convened to fight racism. Arafat brought Jamal al Durah, and one could fairly describe Muhammad his son as the “patron saint of Durban.

In conclusion let me quote from Taguieff’s extended study of the al Dura affair

The icon “Al Dura”, the image of the Palestinian child supposedly “killed by the Zionists” imposed itself as one of the principle vectors of the new anti-Jewish propaganda that developed in the course of the 21st century… It is not just a simple image. The icon al Dura only exercises its fascination because it incorporates an explanatory commentary which, giving it its polemical sense, incorporated it in a series of mythic events, linked to the theme of cruelty and bloody desires attributed to Jews, and especially to Zionists. Behind the media icon, there’s a recurrent anti-Jewish stereotype which inscribes itself in what must be called an archetype, a structural or organizing form that one should understand less as a “primordial image” or “theme” which repeats, than as a dynamic cognitive scheme containing a affective charge which one notably encounters in myths and legends. The archetype is that of the homicidal Jew, the image of diabolic evil… which draws its inspiration from Christian anti-Judaism and which, via this icon, spread globally, taking its place in the “global culture.

In the cognitive war, whose main theater is the public sphere, Al Durah was a Palestinian nuclear bomb; and the news media, with its unremitting if possibly unconscious collusion, was the detonator. We are all – Israelis, Palestinians, the Arab and Muslim world, and the global community – the poorer for this.


[1] ”Il a un dernier mouvement puis s’immobilise,” Enderlin, Un  enfant est mort.

[2] Enderlin comments: “Le gilet que porte l’enfant étendu est taché de sang.”

[3] Enderlin comments: “Des impacts de balles apparaissent sur le mur, derrière eux…. Aucun Palestinien n’était susceptible d’ouvrir le feu sous cet angle comme le montre le tournage. Pour que ce fût le cas, il eût fallu qu’un tireur se trouvât à découvert devant les militaires israéliens.” N’importe quoi.

[5] Enderlin’s boss, Apfelbaum made the same remark to the three journalists who saw the footage, “Oh oui, vous savez, c’est toujours comme ça.”

[9] Hugh Miles, Al-Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel That is Challenging The West, (Grove Press, 2006), pp. 73-4. Fouad Ajami, similarly noted “the images’ ceaseless repetition signaled the arrival of a new, sensational breed of Arab journalism.” (“What the Muslim World is Watching,” New York Times Magazine, November 18, 2001.

[10] Interview, Paris, December 2006.

[12]Wave of Anti-Jewish Activity in the World – October 2000- Summary and Analysis,” MFA; “Une atmosphere d’insécurité,” Observatoire du monde juif 1:1 (Nov. 2001), pp. 2-9 with graph p. 9 showing October spike; Pierre-André Taguieff’s La nouvelle judéophobie (Mille et une nuits, Paris, January 2002), p. 81-120.

[13] Taguieff, La nouvelle judéophobie, p. 81f.

[14] In schools, for example, it has become common to call anything bad (e.g., that doesn’t work) Jewish: “c’est un stylo feuj [feuj = juif];” Emmanuel Brenner et al., Les territories perdus de la République: antisémitisme, racisme et sexisme en milieu scolaire (Mille et une nuits, Paris, 2002).  See the psychological reflections on the phenomenon in Daniel Siboni, L’énigme antisémite (Seuil, Paris, 2004).

[15] Taguieff, La nouvelle judéophobie (op.cit.), English tr. Rising From the Muck: The New Anti-Semitism in Europe (Ivan R. Dee, NY, 2004). See also Phyllis Chesler, The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It (Jossey Bass, NY, July 2003); A New Anti-Semitism? Debating Judeophobia in 21st Century Britain, ed. Iganski and Kosmin (Profile Books, London, 2003); Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism, ed. Manfred Gerstenfeld (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Jerusalem, 2003); Gabriel Schonfeld, The Return of Antisemitism (Encounter Books, NY 2004); Paul Giniewski,Antisionisme: le nouvel antisémitisme (Cheminements, Angers, 2005); Fiamma Nierenstein, Terror: The New Anti-Semitism and the War against the West (Smith and Kraus, Hanover NH, 2005); Old Demons, New Debates: Anti-Semitism in the West, ed. David Kerzer (Holmes and Meier, Teaneck NJ, 2005).

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