The Al-Dura Affair and Its Implications for Morality and Ethics in France

, May 30, 2013

Vol. 13, No. 15     31 May 2013 

  • The report of Israel’s governmental inquiry committee on the al-Dura affair, written after a thorough examination of all the materials related to this unfortunate affair, should serve as a lesson for all foreign reporters working in Israel and be taught in journalism schools throughout the world.
  • The authors of the report have successfully demonstrated how a Palestinian photographer violated the basic tenets of journalistic work, and how a foreign reporter accepted his version of events and his photos wholesale without questioning their reliability for a moment. Verifying sources, cross-checking, meticulously ensuring objectivity – these are the foundations on which the whole enterprise of journalistic coverage rests.
  • Yet most of the foreign reporters prefer to remain in their offices and work from the raw materials conveniently provided by reporters and photographers of the international networks and news agencies – which, for the most part, employ local Palestinians.
  • It is, of course, regrettable that the report only appeared thirteen years after the affair, which caused grave damage to Israel’s image, but there is no early or late when it comes to the truth. We owe profound gratitude and esteem to all those who tirelessly pursued justice in this affair, with the whole French establishment supporting the Palestinian version. These activists contributed time, energy, and professional experience to the struggle for the supreme value of bringing the truth to light.
  • The initiative of a government ministry to publish the report on the al-Dura affair is very praiseworthy and appropriate. A democratic state that fights for its existence is required to defend itself and its image with all the tools at its disposal.

Never Too Late for the Truth

The report of Israel’s governmental inquiry committee on the al-Dura affair, written after a thorough examination of all the materials related to this unfortunate affair and published by the director-general of the Ministry of International Relations and Strategy, Yossi Kuperwasser, should set off red lights and serve as a lesson for all foreign reporters working in Israel. It should also be taught in journalism schools in Israel and throughout the world.

It is, of course, regrettable that the report only appeared thirteen years after the outbreak of the Second Intifada and the al-Dura affair, which caused grave damage to Israel’s image, but there is no early or late when it comes to the truth.

We also owe profound gratitude and esteem to all those who tirelessly pursued justice in this affair despite the many difficulties that confronted them. With the whole French establishment supporting the Palestinian version, the road to uncovering the truth was long and beset with journalistic, political, and legal hurdles. Only a small number of people contributed time, energy, and professional experience to the struggle for the supreme value of bringing the truth to light. The inquiry committee’s report, then, points the way to a clear objective: to work with all the resources at our disposal so that justice will be heard and seen, and especially to refute once and for all the versions and contradictions of the reporter and photographer of the France2 television network.

The report also glaringly reveals one among many examples of the sort of media coverage that is typical in an arena that is undoubtedly one of the most complicated, volatile, and sensitive in the world. The authors of the report have successfully demonstrated how a Palestinian photographer violated the basic tenets of journalistic work, and how a foreign reporter accepted his version of events and his photos wholesale without questioning their reliability for a moment. Clearly, this does not reflect on those reporters who do their work honestly in Israel. Such phenomena, however, exist and must be denounced and uprooted.

Asymmetrical Media Coverage

Media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is asymmetrical in every regard. It is generally accepted that Israeli is a democratic country with high normative standards, granting freedom of expression to anyone who wants it including the right to engage in harsh criticism of Israel itself. The IDF is unquestionably a unique army, operating in extremely difficult conditions not only against threats from standing armies but also against terrorism, violence, and disturbances while having to face women and children who serve as human shields. The instructions of the General Staff are clear, and after every clash or operation a painstaking inquiry is conducted, the lessons are learned, and, if necessary, those responsible for infractions are disciplined. Such standards do not exist among any other armies in the world including the NATO armies.

Yet, as far as media coverage is concerned, since the outbreak of the First Intifada the rules of the game have changed. Most of the foreign reporters prefer to remain in their air-conditioned offices and work from the raw materials conveniently provided by reporters and photographers of the international networks and news agencies – which, for the most part, employ local Palestinians.

Moreover, in the centers of the enlightened world the ignorance about Israel is complete. In Europe, and particularly France with its large Muslim-immigrant community, the effect on media coverage is especially striking. We must dislodge biases and replace them with basic historical understandings. To that end, our messages must focus on Jewish and national values and explain first of all the root of the conflict with the Arabs. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is deployed with its representatives in world capitals, serves as an organizational and operational arm. Yet, lamentably, in the al-Dura affair the delegation in Paris failed completely to confront France2 and turned back requests by Jewish organizations and private individuals who wanted to present evidence and closely examine what had happened.

In the history of the conflict with the Palestinians, an affair whose repercussions continued for more than a dozen years, and that involved the spilling of so much ink and a great deal of blood, is not remembered. In France, however, the “death of the Palestinian boy” became a symbol for struggle against the occupation and against the French Jewish community through acts of incitement and violence, which reached their peak with the murder of the Sandler family at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse. It should be noted that most of the Jewish leaders, and at their helm the outgoing head of the roof organization, Richard Prasquier, fought the French television network in every way, while also requesting the intervention of the president of France and the creation of a governmental investigatory committee that would finally uncover the truth. The debate is still not over, and the affair has been brought to the courts. Yet France2 keeps refusing to provide the raw footage of the event, a fact that speaks volumes.

The controversy was extensively publicized in all the media. Ballistics experts, retired military people, jurists, politicians and diplomats, doctors and intellectuals took part in the heated debate, and almost everything about the affair has already been said. Yet the thirty-seven pages of the Israeli inquiry committee’s report and its annexes demonstrate beyond a doubt that there is no evidence that Jamal al-Dura and his son Muhammad were harmed as the cameras of France2 indicated; and, even more important, that the IDF was not responsible for the supposed harm. In a clear segment that was not broadcast, the boy is seen to be alive.

Nevertheless, since France2’s report was broadcast, there has been no letup in the defamation campaign of pro-Palestinian organizations and individuals against Israel and the IDF. Our soldiers became “bloodthirsty murderers of innocent children” and it was regularly asserted that “the Jewish soldiers behaved like Nazis”; meanwhile, the Palestinian boy became a martyr. Journalists also made comparisons with the famous picture from the Warsaw Ghetto where a Jewish boy raises his hands near a German soldier.

In France, just as in Arab countries, the death of “little Muhammad” became the political cause célèbre overnight, the stuff of earnest discussions on radio and television. All over the country there were ceremonies and exhibitions sponsored by communist mayors. Immigrants gave the name Muhammad al-Dura to newborn babies. And even graver, the pro-Palestinian weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, which likens the conflict to the French occupation of Algeria, published a petition signed by about a hundred French journalists, intellectuals, diplomats, and politicians, including former foreign minister Hubert Védrine, which stated unequivocally that “the little boy Muhammad al-Dura was killed by fire whose source was an Israeli position.”

On what did they base this? Were they there on the ground? Even the reporter Charles Enderlin, who won a Legion of Honor award for his coverage, was not at the “scene of the crime.”

That, to one’s sorrow, is how supposedly professional journalism conducts itself, and along with it the French leadership and most of the intellectuals. The anti-Zionist ideology, which reigns supreme, flails about in total blindness and acts in accordance with preconceived notions that have been in place since the Six-Day War. Still smarting from their own experience with colonialism, the French stance is to view any occupation as illegitimate, unenlightened, and deserving of every form of vilification.

Actually, the event that occurred thirteen years ago at the Netzarim Junction was in no way connected to a sensitive security violation or to military censorship. There was no need to intervene and forbid the report to be broadcast. The case has more to do with the journalism profession, ethics, and morality, and with the very high standards that every reporter needs to internalize and carry out in practice. This is all the more so given the asymmetrical coverage of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. Nevertheless, a number of foreign journalists in Israel violate elementary rules while knowing full well that they enjoy total freedom in their work, even as the region as a whole is in a state of bloody turmoil and ruled by totalitarian regimes.

The Foundations of Journalism

Verifying sources, cross-checking, meticulously ensuring objectivity – these are the foundations on which the whole enterprise of journalistic coverage rests. The inquiry committee did well to note this fact, quoting the relevant international organizations and societies. The supreme obligation of any reporter is to pursue the truth. Regrettably, however, Charles Enderlin, who is a resident of Israel and a journalist esteemed in the profession, did not exercise judgment and stubbornly continued to believe in the Palestinian photographer with a strange naiveté.

A journalist in a democratic country does not require a permit or license to work in his profession. Unlike a government, which is committed to the well-being and security of its citizens, a journalist bears no responsibility for possible negative repercussions of an article or broadcast. But this means that when a reporter errs, he must immediately admit the error. Concerns about a scoop or about competition in no way justify failing to wait for the facts to be verified. This is a fundamental rule that is learned in every school of journalism. It was a standard in the past, and it is just as valid in the Internet era.

Often journalists in Israel fall into the trap of deliberate or non-deliberate manipulation by various sources, or by a malicious Palestinian actor in the field. From the time of the First Intifada, the French news agency has adopted methods that clearly do not meet the test of objectivity. The way in which terms such as “terrorism,” “occupation,” “activist,” “attack,” “operation,” “freedom,” “disproportionate response,” “underground,” or “freedom fighter” are defined is of great importance for setting the tone of coverage and for how reports are formulated. Without question, the terminology used to cover any conflict must be precise, veracious, and balanced. This news agency, however, always magnifies any IDF operation along with the casualties among the Palestinian population, while the Israeli victims of terror and rocket fire get much less traction. A terror attack on Israeli soldiers or settlers is presented as “legitimate” or, in many cases, not covered at all. The claims that are made are transparently ideological and political.

It is worth reemphasizing that the IDF is one of the armies that operate according to clear open-fire orders, and is unique in the world in thoroughly investigating every incident. Sometimes Israeli soldiers and officers have to stand trial for a very small infraction. The media in France, however, do not condemn the daily provocations of Palestinian teenagers and children who are sent to form human shields against armed IDF soldiers. Democratic countries ensure that children are protected and safe. They are forbidden to take part in demonstrations, and television reporting on crimes or armed conflicts does not show their faces. The Palestinians, however, and particularly Hamas, regularly and remorselessly make use of children. Teachers in classrooms define “Jew” or “Zionist” in terms of vilification; children are taught that Israel is a country that does not exist, and it does not appear on maps of the region.

We Must Continue the Struggle for Truth

We must, of course, tirelessly continue the informational struggle and denounce phenomena like the al-Dura affair. We must prove again and again to the journalists and intellectuals who presume to preach morality to us that they do not hold a monopoly on truth and justice in the world, and are not capable of solving our conflict with the Palestinians from safe distances.

We must loudly and publicly emphasize that Israel is not like other countries. It is the only one in the world subject to open calls for its destruction, and the only one without recognized and defensible borders. It is the only one whose capital, Jerusalem, is not officially recognized by a single country in the world.

At the same time, we must confront the problems facing us, the threats from Iran, Hizbullah, international terrorism, and anti-Semitism. We must fight the websites inciting against us, the Arab broadcast channels like Al-Manar from Beirut and Al Jazeera from Qatar. And yet, despite it all, Israel has not lost its values; it persists in the quest for a real and sustainable peace.

The problem is strategic and political. We have not dealt sufficiently and effectively with the malicious and ugly propaganda of the other side, and our response was sometimes weak and muddled in the al-Dura affair as well. While we continue to speak in the Western logic of common sense and legal aspects, the Palestinians use the vernacular of emotions and passions. We need to carry out a fundamental, systematic, carefully thought-out revision.

In sum, while criticism of the State of Israel or its government is undoubtedly legitimate, bias, distortions, and delegitimization must be condemned. The edicts of an unreliable group of people, who presume to objectively portray a bloody conflict that has been ongoing for a hundred years, must be rejected entirely.

Clearly, then, notwithstanding the criticism and reservations that have been voiced, the initiative of a government ministry to publish the report on the al-Dura affair is very praiseworthy and appropriate. A democratic state that fights for its existence is required to defend itself and its image with all the tools at its disposal.

About Amb. Freddy Eytan

Ambassador Freddy Eytan, a former Foreign Ministry senior advisor who served in Israel’s embassies in Paris and Brussels, was Israel’s first Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. He was also the spokesman of the Israeli delegation in the peace process with the Palestinians. Since 2007, he heads the Israel-Europe Project at the Jerusalem Center, which focuses on presenting Israel’s case in the countries of Europe and seeks to develop ties and avenues of bilateral cooperation. He is also the director of Le Cape, the Jerusalem Center website in French. Amb. Eytan has written 20 books about the Israeli-Arab conflict and the policy of France in the Middle East, including La Poudriere (The Powder Keg) and Le double jeu (the double game). He has also published biographies of Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu, and a book about The 18 Who Built Israel.