Par Doreen Carvajal
International Herald Tribune
Monday, February 7, 2005
Since the start of the second Palestinian uprising more than four years ago, many children have died in the gunfire. But it is the harrowing image of a single terrified 12-year-old boy, shielded in his father's futile embrace, that possesses the iconic power of a battle flag.
Tunisia and Egypt have issued postage stamps of the Palestinian child, Mohammed al-Duri, crouching in a fetal position against his father under attack from a fusillade of bullets in September 2000. Egypt also named a street in his honor, and suicide bombers invoked Mohammed as a martyr in videotaped farewells.
In France, far from Gaza's street battles, the indelible scene is a picture worth a thousand arguments. Here, a debate seethes about whether the ghastly televised footage of Mohammed al-Duri was genuine, misinterpreted or - as one American academic put it - artfully staged "Pallywood" theater.
Battle photographs have long been potent media weapons, and some of the most memorable war pictures have provoked questions about authenticity, like the evocative 1945 Associated Press image of U.S. Marines at Iwo Jima who raised a flag twice and switched Stars and Stripes for a grander banner.
At the center of the dispute is state-run France 2 and its Jerusalem correspondent, Charles Enderlin, a veteran reporter who says fierce criticism about the channel's exclusive footage of the boy has provoked death threats against him.
Images from the violent street confrontation in a remote junction in Gaza have been endlessly dissected in books and the sharply worded universe of blog commentary. The video also has been explored by a small French-language Israeli news agency, Metula, which rented a theater to examine the footage.
And a 2002 German documentary called "Three Bullets and a Child: Who Killed the Young Mohammed al-Duri?" tried to address lingering questions about whether the child was killed by Israelis or Palestinians.
Last week, the issue gained fresh momentum after a prominent French editor and an independent television producer broke ranks in the country's media circles and published a cautious article in the center-right national daily, Le Figaro, expressing some doubts about the original reporting.
"That image has had great influence," said Daniel Leconte, a former France 2 correspondent. "If this image does not mean what we were told, it is necessary to find the truth."
Leconte wrote the Le Figaro article with Dennis Jeambar, the editor in chief of L'Express, weeks after station executives at France 2 allowed both men in October to see the 27 minutes of raw rushes, or all of the footage shot.
But their commentary did not emerge publicly until after they offered it to another prominent national daily, Le Monde, which rejected it, according to its new opinion page editor, Sylvain Cypel. He called the entire debate "bizarre" and propelled by the tiny news agency. For France 2, whose glass offices tower over the Seine, the nagging questions about the whole episode are a constantly shifting debate that is motivated by different agendas - from the ideology of extreme rightist groups to efforts to push Enderlin out of his Jerusalem post, where he is an institution.
When the report first aired, France 2 offered its exclusive footage for free to the world's television networks, saying it did not want to profit from the images.
The scenes were filmed by its Palestinian cameraman, Talal Abu Rahma, who was the only one to capture images of what Enderlin characterized then as the killing of a child by gunfire from the Israeli position. Enderlin was not present during the shooting.
Esther Schapira, a German producer for ARD in Frankfurt, said she tried unsuccessfully in preparation for her 2002 documentary to see a master copy of the tape and was astonished when France 2 did not share it.
European stations commonly exchange material. "If there is nothing to hide, what are they afraid of?" she said of France 2's initial reluctance.
When critical articles started appearing in publications like The Atlantic Monthly in the United States, Enderlin wrote public letters insisting: "We do not transform reality. But in view of the fact that some parts of the scene are unbearable, France 2 was obliged to cut a few seconds from the scene."
In many ways, Enderlin argues, the al-Duri video has become a cultural prism, with viewers seeing what they want.
Richard Landes, a Boston University professor specializing in medieval cultures, studied rushes from other Western news outlets that day, including the al-Duri tape.
"We could argue about every frame," he conceded. But after watching the scenes three times, he concluded that it probably had been faked, along with footage on the same tape of separate street clashes and ambulance rescues.
"I came to the realization that Palestinian cameramen, especially when there are no Westerners around, engage in the systematic staging of action scenes," he said, calling the footage Pallywood cinema.
Some France 2 executives privately faulted the channel's communication as questions were raised. Last week, they showed the International Herald Tribune the original 27-minute tape of the incident, which also includes separate scenes of rock-throwing youths.
The footage of the father and son under attack lasts several minutes but does not clearly show the child's death. There is a cut in the scene that France 2's executives attribute to the cameraman's efforts to preserve a low battery.
When Leconte and Jeambar saw the rushes, they were struck by the fact that there was no definitive scene that showed that the child truly died. They wrote, however, that they were not convinced that the particular scene was staged, but only that "this famous 'agony' that Enderlin insisted was cut from the montage does not exist."
To counter its critics, France 2 called a news conference in November and prepared a frame-by-frame folder of photographs, including blow-ups to respond to skeptics like Landes who argued that blood was not visible.
The station also sent a journalist back in October to film the boy's father, Jamal al-Duri, rolling down part of his pants and shirtsleeves to show scars on his right arm and upper right leg. They compiled footage of the bandage-swathed father in an Amman hospital, where he was visited by Jordan's king. But critics like the former Le Monde reporter and radio host Luc Rosenzweig want an independent medical expert's opinion.
"It's a crazy story," said Arlette Chabot, the station's deputy general director. "Every time we address one question, then another question surfaces. It's very difficult to fight a rumor. The point is that four years later, no one can say for certain who killed him, Palestinians or Israelis."
Last autumn, France 2 filed a series of defamation complaints against some of its critics, but it did so without naming targets, simply labeling them as "X." The station's lawyer, Bénédicte Amblard, said that France 2 took this approach because of the difficulties of legally identifying the owners of Web sites, which were harsh in their attacks on the station and Enderlin.
But that tactic has emboldened critics like Philippe Karsenty, who is one of the station's intended legal targets along with the Metula news agency. Karsenty runs a small Paris-based media watchdog group called Media-Ratings that has called on both Chabot and Enderlin to resign.
"We will offer €10,000 to a charity chosen by France 2 if the channel can demonstrate to us and a panel of independent experts that the Sept. 30, 2000, report shows the death of the Palestinian child," Karsenty said.
The Ministry of Culture and Communications is one agency that has been approached. Privately, one government official said, "We can't take any initiative because it is not our mission or job. The press is independent, especially in the French tradition."
So settling the debate falls to others. By late this weekend, Enderlin's supporters were organizing to place an advertisement in Le Monde backing the Jerusalem correspondent.