February 29, 2024

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Annals Israeli Own-Goal Journalism: Cygelman on Al Durah


After the demonstration by Shahaf and Duriel, attempting to prove that the fire that allegedly killed Muhammad al Durah could not have come from the Israeli camp, Haaretz cub reporter, with the encouragement of her boss, Shmuel Rosner, took apart the claims of the investigation. Note that, like the CBS Bob Simon report to which she makes anonymous allusion, she never lets the reader know what the evidence is.

IDF keeps shooting itself in the foot

Army efforts to interest journalists in a dubious probe of the al Dura case backfires

Haaretz, November 7, 2000, Anat Cygelman

On Monday, October 23 the IDF staged a re-enactment of the October 1 [sic] gun battle at Netzarim junction in which 12-year-old Mohammed al Dura was killed. Blocks were piled up at one of the army’s firing ranges in the south, to simulate the wall where the boy and his father Jamal al Dura were pinned. A concrete barrel was brought in, to represent the one behind which the father and son crouched. Soldiers sent to the firing range by the IDF Southern Commander, Major General Yom Tov Samia, stood on top of a dirt embankment and fired shots at the wall and barrel, using a variety of different weapons.

Two Israeli citizens took part in the re-enactment – Nahum Shahaf, a physicist, and Yosef Duriel, an engineer. A film crew from the prestigious American news program “60 Minutes” was there, having been given exclusive rights to film the replay of the Dura shooting.

In the past two weeks a number of reports have circulated about new IDF findings in its investigation of the killing at Netzarim. These reports have stirred considerable interest in Israel and elsewhere, because for the Palestinians, the death of Mohammed al Dura – captured by a French television crew – has become the symbol of the Al-Aqsa Intifada. The dramatic footage of his death has been seen in every corner of the world. Palestinian television runs an edited version – pictures of an IDF soldier shooting have been spliced into the original footage. Poignant photographs of the father and son have been plastered along the sides of roads throughout the West Bank. The Cairo newspaper Akbar al Yom has reported that the city authorities have decided to name the street where the Israeli embassy is located after Mohammed al Dura.

Shortly after the boy’s death, the IDF acknowledged there was “a high probability” that IDF gunfire ended his young life and, speaking for the IDF, Deputy Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon expressed his sorrow over the tragedy. Assuming that the damage to Israel’s reputation was irreversible, and knowing it faced the realities of more children dying, the IDF was inclined to put the al Dura matter to rest. However, senior officers in the Southern Command were bitter about Israel’s hasty decision to accept responsibility for the death. As days passed, reports circulated that they were increasingly convinced IDF soldiers did not shoot and kill the boy.

Shahaf and Duriel also believed the matter had been settled too quickly. Two days after the incident, Duriel wrote in Ha’aretz: “The IDF spokesman deserves a prize for stupidity … Ten minutes after the incident a normal spokesman for a normal army would have released a categorically formulated statement saying that provocateurs opened fire against IDF soldiers, behind the back of a child, and made sure he would be killed in front of cameras; and after the boy, they killed the ambulance driver who tried to save him. All this was done to score propaganda points by depicting murderous behavior on the part of IDF soldiers.”  

After Ha’aretz published these remarks, Shahaf phoned Duriel and suggested they investigate whether it was necessarily true that IDF soldiers shot the boy. The two were acquainted – they met when they jointly reviewed Shahaf’s findings on an altogether different matter, the Rabin assassination. Shahaf claims to have in his possession “dramatic photographs which change the picture with respect to Yigal Amir’s involvement in the murder.” Shahaf and Duriel discussed ways of disseminating these Rabin assassination materials.

With regard to Mohammed al Dura, the pair studied the angle of the shots fired by IDF men and concluded that the claims of the boy being killed by Israeli army bullets are dubious. Shahaf, who says he is a reservist in an intelligence division that deals with visual material, left a number of messages for Southern Commander Samia, asking for a meeting. He made his initial call to the major general after learning from the media that the IDF planned to demolish structures around the Netzarim junction. He warned against “erasing” physical evidence at the site – such as the wall and concrete barrel, key pieces of evidence he wanted preserved.

He says that when Samia got back to him, it was too late to effect such evidence preservation measures. But anyway, the Southern Commander agreed to meet Shahaf and Duriel and this took place, Duriel says, on October 19. The two went over their calculations with the IDF major general and urged him to initiate a review. They offered their professional services, gratis. Shahaf emphasizes this was designed as an “impartial” inquiry. He says Samia accepted his terms – as he put it to Samia, “nobody in the army can intervene in my activity and analysis. Samia has administrative responsibility, “and I have responsibility for carrying out the project. I do the tests, I decide who should be involved in them. The army only helps me when I need assistance.”

Shahaf adds that he agreed to one caveat on his independent authority: “The IDF decides when to release the findings.” The pair did not get a formal assignment from the army to carry out the task, because of legal complications, Shahaf adds. Five days after the meeting with Samia, the first re-enactment was staged at the IDF firing range.

As the scene was re-enacted, Duriel gave an interview to the American television crew. He expounded his thesis in front of the “60 Minutes” camera. Al-Dura’s death was staged with the aim of producing an image which would become a symbol and besmirch Israel’s reputation around the world. Actors in the staged incident included Palestinian gunmen, a French television cameraman (who received “production instructions”), and the father Jamal al Dura (“who apparently didn’t understand that the act would end in the murder of his son”). Duriel mentioned that the father can be seen gesturing to the photographer in the film.

When Samia learned about Duriel’s interview, he ordered that the engineer be removed from the inquiry. Shahaf says “I supported Duriel, but I think he made a tactical error, because you have to prove whatever you allege.” Shahaf prodded ahead with the investigation, without his estranged partner. More tests were arranged – tests Shahaf stresses were done with exacting scientific rigor. “All results will meet the standards of scientific inquiry,” he says. He says that he already has final results in hand that are “very interesting.” Asked about the professional character of this al-Dura shooting investigation, and about the participants who have taken part in it, the IDF spokesman refused to comment.

Shahaf says he has promised not to divulge details, neither about the results of the investigation, nor the testing procedures followed. Despite the physicist’s reticence, the work methods seem puzzling. During the first re-enactment, the distance between the IDF “position” (the dirt embankment upon which the soldiers stood) and the replicated barrel was only half of that separating the real IDF position and the Duras at Netzarim. Duriel says additional re-enactments were staged to rectify this distance issue.

Did ballistics experts take part in the tests? Shahaf concedes he is no authority on ballistics – however, he says, “as a physicist I read scientific material, both theoretical and experimental, and try to consult with several experts in this area, and so I have basically finished all the stages necessary in learning this topic.” Yossi Almog, a retired senior police officer who specialized in evidence-gathering, says: “I don’t believe the IDF would release a conclusion revising a previous declaration without first conducting a thorough examination, using the best professionals in the security establishment.

I wouldn’t rely on an approach made by some anonymous person. I might welcome that person’s initiative, but I certainly wouldn’t accept his conclusions without conducting a systematic, orderly examination, under the best possible conditions. Anything less than that isn’t serious.”

In Shahaf’s view, “the fact that the [investigation] committee is impartial and the IDF doesn’t interfere in its work, is an advantage. When the need arises, I turn to all sorts of authorities to get feedback. Any decision about whom to consult is my own. Under the Manhattan Project – which developed the atom bomb – a scientist was used to lead the effort, and from the moment he was selected , he chose people to help as he saw fit. Choosing 20 people in advance to investigate the matter wouldn’t be prudent. Somebody who has sufficient knowledge and scientific experience should be chosen at the outset, and then that person should select consultants as he sees fit.”

Shahaf continues: “If you don’t want the committee to make any headway, then you should appoint a hundred people instead of three.” Among other consultants, Shahaf sought out Yitzhak Ramon, an engineer from Haifa who published a letter in Ha’aretz claiming that the films provide evidence the bullets which struck the father and son weren’t fired from the IDF post. Had the shots been fired by the IDF soldiers who were positioned to the side of the Duras, the bullet holes in the wall couldn’t have been so circular and “clean,” Ramon contended.

Charles Enderlin, director of France 2’s Israel bureau, raises additional questions concerning the methodology of the IDF inquiry. French television has original footage shot at Netzarim – the film has been shown to Ha’aretz, and it includes shots of what happened at the junction before and after al Dura’s death, as well as photographs of the wall and the bullet-ridden concrete barrel taken after the incident, and an interview with the father from a Gaza hospital. This is evidence which is crucial in any investigation of the al Dura death.

Shahaf asked Enderlin for permission to use the material, but he didn’t mention that his intention was to conduct a professional investigation of the event. Instead, Shahaf presented himself as a media professional. In a fax to Enderlin, Shahaf wrote that he wanted the full, unedited version of the footage since the film would “enhance the understanding of the background and atmosphere which preceded the killing of the Palestinian boy.” Shahaf added in the fax that “since the material is likely to be presented to professional media forums, including film schools, we need the full footage, including pictures that are hard to look at, including gunshot wounds and the like.”

Enderlin rejected Shahaf’s request. Subsequently he was stunned to discover that Shahaf is affiliated with an IDF investigation. He says when the IDF spokesman later phoned and asked to receive the film materials, France 2 said they would be released only under formal court order.

Duriel is angry with the IDF. He can’t fathom why the army isn’t “publishing the truth.” Each day that goes by, he says, increases the damage to Israel’s name. He hints that the IDF has an interest in holding back the disclosure of the investigation’s findings. He also suggests that the IDF has kept concealed from the public a crucial fact – next to the father and son, he claims, there was a second site from which Palestinians fired at the IDF.

On Duriel’s calculations, the bullets which killed Mohammed al Dura had to have been fired from this second Palestinian position. Asked why the IDF is keeping secret crucial facts which would apparently exonerate its soldiers, Duriel is evasive. “The answer is explosive,” he says, refusing to elaborate. The IDF has to decide when and how it will release the investigation’s results. The army tried to stir some interest among some American journalists in the findings, but the attempt backfired – the professionals were not impressed by what they heard and decided not to use it.

In choosing Shahaf and Duriel as partners in the al Dura inquiry, the IDF has again shot itself in the foot. Even if the investigation and its conclusions should pass muster on scientific and professional grounds, they simply won’t be accepted by the public. That might make little scientific sense – but it’s a hard public-relations fact. Duriel’s ill-conceived “60 Minutes” interview was a case in point. The police officer, Yossi Almog, put it best: “If you want to release some conclusion that carries weight, it is important that the investigation be carried out by the most professional staff the state can put together.” Why, then, did the IDF decide to involve Shahaf in its professional review? The IDF spokesman just refuses to relate to questions of this sort.

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