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The Truth of Mohammed al-Dura:
A Response to James Fallows

By Adam Rose

Whether or not a particular 12-year-old boy died at the hands of Israeli soldiers, the image of Mohammed al-Dura is an authentic symbol of the Israeli occupation.  Avoiding this harsh truth does a disservice to Israel and the Jewish people, as well as to the Palestinians, hinders the quest for peace, and endangers everyone if the wrong lessons are drawn from the al-Dura incident.

In the June 2003 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows reports on Israeli research suggesting that the most famous image of the Second Intifada may not be what it appears to be.  That image--which the lead-in to the article calls the "Pieta of the Arab world"--is of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy and his young father crouching against a wall beside a concrete "barrel" that shields them from the gunfire of Israeli soldiers. Ultimately, however, young Mohammed al-Dura was killed and his father Jamal severely wounded.


Actually, the image in question is not really a single image, but rather a video of the 30 September 2000 incident near the Netzarim settlement in Gaza made by a Palestinian cameraman working for the French TV network France 2.  Four still images from this video are particularly dramatic and have become famous.

In the first image, father and son are huddled together, backs against the wall "behind" the concrete barrel that shields them from Israeli gunfire. Mohammed is clearly terrified as he screams and clutches at his father.

In the second image, Jamal peers around the barrel in the direction of Israeli soldiers while firmly gripping his son's arm.  The terrified Mohammed continues to scream and, peering under his father's arm, looks directly into the camera--you can see the whites of his eyes.

In the third image, there are bullet holes on the wall and Jamal, still forcefully gripping the now-crying Mohammed, directs a primal scream towards the camera, his white teeth starkly contrasting with his dark face.

In the fourth image, Mohammed lies on the ground with his hand covering his face.  Jamal sits slumped against the wall, his head cocked at an unnatural angle, his eyes closed and his mouth open.  Amidst the bullet holes and debris, both appear to be dead--though, in fact, Jamal is not.

(The continuous video captures the moment when the two are actually struck by bullets.)

From this circumstantial evidence, which Fallows himself finds "persuasive", some have concluded that Israelis did not kill Mohammed al-Dura; Palestinians did.  Some have even concluded that entire event was staged and that al-Dura was not killed at all.  In either scenario, the Palestinian motive is the same: "To manufacture a child martyr, in correct anticipation of the damage this would do to Israel in the eyes of the world--especially the Islamic world."

In the words of Nahum Shahaf, the Israeli physicist and engineer who instigated and led the revisionist analysis and whom Fallows quotes:

I believe that one day there will be good things in common between us and the Palestinians. … But the case of Mohammed al-Dura brings the big flames between Israel and the Palestinians and Arabs.  It brings a big wall of hate. They can say this is the proof, the ultimate proof, that Israeli soldiers are boy-murderers.  And that hatred breaks any chance of having something good in the future.

The revisionist analysis is thus offered as proof of two things.  First, that Israeli soldiers did not kill Mohammed al-Dura.  Second, and in some ways more rhetorically and politically important, that Palestinians will do anything in their propaganda war against Israel--including perhaps killing one of their own children.

And the Palestinians are winning the propaganda war according to Fallows.  The Arab world--and perhaps the whole world, including much of the United States and even of Israel itself--has been eager to swallow the story of the Mohammed al-Dura's "martyrdom":

Through repetition [these images] have become as familiar and significant to Arab and Islamic viewers as photographs of bombed-out Hiroshima are to the people of Japan--or as footage of the crumbling World Trade Center is to Americans.  Several Arab countries have issued postage stamps carrying a picture of the terrified boy.  One of Baghdad's main streets was renamed The Martyr Mohammed Aldura Street.  Morocco has an al-Dura Park.

Thus, the al-Dura case has been "uniquely damaging" for Israel because, in the words of Israeli strategist Dan Schueftan, "[It was] the ultimate symbol of what the Arabs want to think: the father is trying to protect his son, and the satanic Jews--there is no other word for it--are trying to kill him.  These Jews are people who will come to kill our children, because they are not human."

And as Fallow relates it, the Arab world (unlike ours?) is not about to let a small thing like "facts" produced by Israeli researchers change its opinion.

So here we have all the main elements of the perspective that Fallows finds "persuasive".  Despite the actual facts of Israeli behavior on that fateful day in Gaza, the Palestinians deliberately manufactured the martyrdom of Mohammed al-Dura in order to "prove" the "satanic" nature of the Israelis, or perhaps "the Jews".  And despite the actual facts of Israeli behavior on that fateful day in Gaza, the Arab world has adopted this false symbol with gusto.  Why?  Because that's what they want to think.  And "they" will choose to think that regardless of the actual facts.  Indeed, "facts" will be manufactured to support it.

Fallows's argument and article, therefore, are ultimately not about the forensic investigation, but rather about the dynamics of "martyrdom" in the Arab world.  For the Mohammed al-Dura episode "offers an object lesson in the incendiary power of an icon" and thus "illustrates the way the battles of wartime imagery may play themselves out" in the future--especially in a U.S.-occupied Iraq in which Arab civilians are dying at the (apparent?) hands of alien soldiers.  As Fallows ominously notes, "More of this lies ahead".

Fallows's article needs to be assessed, then, first and foremost for what it says about the image of Mohammed al-Dura's death and the relationship between that image and "truth", especially in the Arab world.  I believe there are at least two significant problems with Fallows's analysis.

First, there is an obvious contradiction between claiming that a group of people will believe a particular thing regardless of the "truth" and then suggesting that someone has found it necessary to manufacture "proof" to convince these people of that very thing.  After all, strictly speaking, "proof" is only useful for those who remain to be convinced.  If the Arab world already believes that the Israelis or "the Jews" are "satanic", no additional "proof" is needed.  (One wonders, therefore, if what is really so troubling about the al-Dura image for Fallows and his sources is not that it has influenced those who believe that Israelis can do no good, but rather that it has influenced those otherwise disposed to think that Israelis or "the Jews" can do no serious wrong.)

This points to the second and larger problem with Fallows's argument: his narrow and incomplete understanding of "truth".  From Fallows's perspective, the truth that matters is who shot Mohammed al-Dura and the truth is either that he was shot by Israelis or that he was not and the Israelis were framed.  And, of course, in one sense this is right and important.  But there is another, even more important truth of the matter connected to its symbolic nature.  And it is this symbolic truth that Fallows completely misconstrues.

In his Poetics, Aristotle writes:

The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse--you might put the work of Herodotus into verse, and it would still be a species of history; it consists really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be.  Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.  By a universal statement I mean one as to what such or such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do--which is the aim of poetry, though it affixes proper names to the characters; by a singular statement, one as to what, say, Alcibiades did or had done to him. (1451b1-12)

It is evident from the above that the poet must be more the poet of his stories or Plots than of his verses, inasmuch as he is a poet by virtue of the imitative element in his work, and it is actions that he imitates.  And if he should come to take a subject from actual history, he is none the less a poet for that; since some historic occurrences may very well be in that probable or possible order of things; and it is in that aspect of them that he is their poet. (1451b27-32)

In other words, above and beyond "historical" truths of what actually happens in particular "singular" events, there are "philosophical" truths of what "probably or necessarily" happens "universally" in certain types of events.  And it is such universal, philosophical truths, according to Aristotle, that are manifested in "poetry"--and by extension other "arts" as well.

Sometimes the portrayal of an actual event is "artistic" as well as "historic" because it represents a universal as well as a singular truth.  In these cases, the portrayal reveals, in addition to the actual, the "necessary or probable" type of event of which that actual is an instance.  And sometimes the portrayal of an event that never actually happened (or even never could happen) reveals a real, "necessary or probable" type of event.  In these cases, the portrayal is true as a universal statement even though it is false as a singular statement.

It is in this sense that one experiences the "truth" of "art", "symbols", "myths" and the like--quite independently of whether the things they portray "actually happened".  There is a truth in Macbeth quite independent of the facts of Macbeth.  There is a truth in the story of George Washington and the cherry tree quite independent of the historical George's childhood.  There is a truth in the image of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima that makes the issue of whether the event was staged simply beside the point.

And it is in this larger "artistic", symbolic sense of truth that the image of Mohammed al-Dura has swept the Arab world and beyond.  Not because it "proved" something that people didn't already know, but because it perfectly represented something that they already "knew" too well.  The critical question, therefore, is not whether the particular boy Mohammed al-Dura was or was not killed by Israeli soldiers on 30 September 2000 near the Netzarim settlement in Gaza.  Rather, the critical question is whether or not Mohammed al-Dura being killed by Israeli soldiers represented a certain type of event that "probably or necessarily" happens quite regularly--a type of event that in its starkest form boils down to older adolescent males armed with the most advanced weaponry on one side killing younger adolescent males armed with the most primitive weaponry on the other.

In other words, the critical question in an examination of the dynamics of Mohammed al-Dura's "martyrdom" is not whether the singular "Story of Mohammed al-Dura" is true, but whether the universal "Mohammed al-Dura Story" is true.

And the sad, incontrovertible fact is that the universal "Mohammed al-Dura Story" is true.  According to multiple, credible international, American and Israeli sources, Israeli soldiers do kill little Palestinian boys on a regular basis.  Sometimes for throwing rocks.  Sometimes because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And sometimes (apparently) for sport.  (See, for example: "Killing the Future: Children in the Line of Fire", Amnesty International, 30 September 2002; "A Gaza Diary: Scenes from the Palestinian Uprising" by New York Times reporter Chris Hedges, Harper's Magazine, October 2001; and "Don't Shoot Till You Can See They're Over the Age of 12" by Amira Hass, Ha'aretz, 20 November 2000.)

According to B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Israeli security forces killed 2,038 Palestinians between 29 September 2000 and 11 May 2003.  Of these, 366 (18%) were minors under the age of 18.  Indeed, by the end of the second day of the al-Aqsa Intifada, the day on which Mohammed al-Dura died, 15 Palestinians had already been killed.  Of these, four (27%) were minors.  Besides Mohammad al-Dura, whose death was so graphically captured on video, B'Tselem reports these otherwise-invisible child casualties:

·   Khaled 'Adli al-Baziyan, age 15, from Nablus, killed by Israeli security forces live gunfire to the head in Nablus/The West Bank

·   Nizar Mahmud 'Abd al-'Ayedeh, age 16, from Deir 'Ammar/Ramallah, killed by Israeli security forces gunfire to the chest in Ramallah/The West Bank

·   'Iyyad Ahmad al-Khashashi, age 16, from Nablus, killed by Israeli security forces live gunfire in Nablus/The West Bank

The day after Mohammad al-Dura died, four more minors--including another 12-year-old, Samer Samir Sudki Tabanjeh--were killed by Israeli security forces.

(By comparison, B'Tselem reports that between 29 September 2000 and 11 May 2003 Palestinians killed 483 Israeli civilians and 216 Israeli security personnel, or 699 total.  Of these, 92 or 13% were minors.  By the end of the second day of the intifada one Israeli soldier but no Israeli civilians, and therefore no Israeli minors, had been killed.  Further information is available at www.btselem.org.)

Of course, the standard Israeli explanation is that Palestinian casualties consist of "terrorists" and unavoidable "collateral damage".  And no doubt many are.  But there is equally no doubt that many Palestinians, including children, are victims of Israeli predation consciously intended to "break them" physically, mentally and economically so that they will, one by one, despair and drift away to other places where life will be better and easier for them and where their children will have a future.

Such predation is an integral part of a de facto Israeli policy of "creeping annexation" of the occupied territories.  This policy--which also includes the relentless demolition of Palestinian homes, the continuous expansion of Jewish settlements and Jews-only "bypass roads" and the construction of a "separation wall" that on current plans will incorporate approximately an additional 10% of the occupied territories into Israel and make the nearby Palestinian villages that remain completely untenable--is designed to preclude the establishment of a genuinely independent, genuinely viable Palestine on the land Israel conquered in 1967.

And such predation has recently been extended to include clearly-marked, clearly-unarmed international peace activists who oppose Israel's occupation and who provide the outside world with timely, first-hand, front-line documentation of this creeping annexation.

No revisionist analysis has yet suggested, for example, that 23-year-old American Rachel Corrie was not in fact run over twice (forwards and backwards) by an Israeli army bulldozer on 16 March 2003 in Gaza.  Or that 22-year-old Briton Tom Hurndall was not shot in the head by an Israeli sniper on 10 April 2003 (and is now effectively brain-dead).

What is going on here?

One might be forgiven for thinking that Israelis (or perhaps even "the Jews") have lost their minds.  Or their morals.  Or both.  One might be forgiven for thinking that Israelis are perpetrating a great evil.  Not occasionally.  Not accidentally.  But intentionally and systematically.  And one might be forgiven for thinking that the only plausible explanation for an Israel running amok is that Israelis are "satanic" (although one might alternatively agree with Edmund Burke that, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing").

It is a recognition of the deep, intentional and systematic evil of the occupation--an evil that is destroying Israel from within even as it destroys Palestine from without--that has led many Israelis to oppose it.  Most dramatically perhaps, over 1,000 Israelis, represented by groups such as Yesh Gvul ("There is a Limit"), Ometz Lesarev ("Courage to Refuse") and others, have declared that they will refuse to serve as soldiers in the occupied territories.  In the words of the Courage to Refuse Combatants' Letter, "We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people".

And it is a recognition of the deep, intentional and systematic evil of the occupation that is driving a growing number of American Jews--represented by a range of diverse groups that includes Brit Tzedek v'Shalom ("Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace"), Americans for Peace Now, The Tikkun Community, the Refuser Solidarity Network, Jewish Voice for Peace and Not In My Name--to actively oppose it, just as they oppose the evil of Palestinian suicide bombings.  Likewise with a growing number of Jews around the world.

The image of Mohammed al-Dura is thus not so much about the particular little Palestinian boy named Mohammed al-Dura as it is about all the little Palestinian boys.  And the power of that image is not what it says about one, but what it says about all.  For in that "artistic", "symbolic", "mythical" image all the little boys--the Khaleds, the Nizars, the 'Iyyads, the Samers, the 12-year-old killed today (22 May 2003) as I complete this essay--are Mohammed al-Dura.  It is an image that serves as a kind of Tomb of the Unknown Little Palestinian Boy.

From this perspective, therefore, the actual facts about the killing of the particular boy named Mohammed al-Dura are rather beside the point.  For even if the image of Mohammad al-Dura is not true as "news" or "history" (and I and many others are by no means persuaded like Fallows), there can be no doubt that it is true as "art".

And it is as "art" that the al-Dura image resonates throughout the Arab world and beyond.  It is as "art" embodying a general truth that it has inspired the postage stamps and the renamed streets and parks that Fallows mentions.  And it is as "art" that it inspires other art, including a recent novel by 15-year-old Egyptian-Italian Randa Ghazy (already or soon to be published in over 16 countries, including the U.S. and Canada where George Braziller, Inc. is bringing it out as Dreaming of Palestine).

In other words, it is precisely as the "Palestinian Pietà" that the image of Mohammed al-Dura is most importantly and undeniably true.  (And it is precisely as the "Palestinian Pietà" that the image of Mohammed al-Dura has been embodied by artist Adam Pincus in a sculpture similar, if not comparable, to Michelangelo's.)

If the fatal shot was fired by an Israeli soldier, the image of Mohammed al-Dura is both historically true and artistically true.  If it was not, if Fallows and the revisionists are right, the image of Mohammed al-Dura is nonetheless--to borrow Picasso's characterization of all art--a lie that can make us realize the truth.

In either case, acknowledging the truth of Mohammed al-Dura is a necessary prerequisite to ending the conditions that precipitated it.

* * *

Why doesn't James Fallows see all this?  Despite the fact that he ostensibly wants to examine the dynamics of the premier case of Palestinian "martyrdom" and despite the fact that he recognizes the fundamental role that Israel's settlement policy plays in the conflict, why does Fallows ignore the symbolic truth of the al-Dura image?  Or perhaps more precisely: why does Fallows's analysis hide this universal, symbolic truth by transforming it into a relativistic, "cultural truth" different from ours?  A cultural truth that his article implies--and purportedly demonstrates--is willfully less true than our own.  A cultural truth that, unexplained, must necessarily appear symptomatic of an inexplicable cultural hatred that Arabs have for Israel or "the Jews", and by extension, America and the West.

Is it because, as Palestinian-American writer Ray Hanania suggested recently in a syndicated column entitled "Atlantic Monthly continues with its pro-Israel propaganda", Fallows is a shoddy journalist not really interested in the truth, or "doesn't want to lose his job at a biased publication with a historical bias toward Israel that never publishes any serious essays by Palestinians who challenge Israel's government policies"?

My suspicion is that a clue to the answer is revealed in Fallows's characterizations of the two sides' respective contributions to the problem.  From Fallows's pen, the Israeli contribution emerges as a bland "policy of promoting settlements in occupied territory" while the Palestinian contribution emerges as a bloody "policy of terror".  In this, I suspect Fallows is simply seeing what he (or is it his readers?) wants or needs to see.

After all, how very uncomfortable for those who support Israel to open the door to the possibility that Israelis may in fact also be guilty of horrible crimes.  Not just occasionally.  Not just accidentally.  But intentionally and systematically.  How very uncomfortable to consider that Arab hatred may have origins in fact--may, "in fact", be rational and justified.  How very uncomfortable it would be to live in a world in which "the Arabs" are not lunatics with a predisposition to hate the innocent, the Israelis (or "the Jews"), the West--and therefore in a world in which it is our cultural truth that is not quite right.

How much easier it is to simply avoid the issue altogether by delegitimizing the Arab perspective and then girding to defeat it.  And them.

By misconstruing the "artistic" truth of the al-Dura image, Fallows sidesteps--and invites his readers to sidestep--some of the fundamental realities of the Israeli occupation.  Despite perhaps the best of intentions, Fallows thus nevertheless does a great disservice to Israel and the Jewish people.  For today's true friends of Israel and the Jewish people are those who force them--and themselves--to look at the image of Mohammad al-Dura and see the truth there, however uncomfortable that may be.  How else can the great evil that gave rise to that image be corrected?  How else can Israel and the Jewish people restore themselves to what they say they aspire to be?

More importantly, however, by sidestepping some of the fundamental realities of the Israeli occupation Fallows inevitably missteps when he attempts to draw lessons from the al-Dura episode.  For the real lessons here do not include that the Arabs live in a culturally-constructed cocoon, immune to the truth.  (At least not any more than anyone else does.)  Or that the Arabs have a cultural predisposition to rush to judgment, or will not revisit their judgments in the light of new, even inconvenient, facts.  (Arab soul-searching in the wake of the swift U.S. victory in Iraq should be proof enough of this.)  Or that the U.S. should simply imitate Israel by girding for a difficult propaganda war.

Rather, the five most important lessons here are these.

First, no incident is an island.  Patterns matter.  Both Palestinians and Israelis see the al-Dura episode as the (potential) tip of an iceberg in which--incorrectly, as it turns out--the "historical" truth of an event-type stands or falls with the "historical" truth of a particular, symbolic event.  If Israeli soldiers killed Mohammed al-Dura, Israeli soldiers regularly kill little Palestinian boys.  If they did not, they do not.  And it is the truth or falsity of the larger event-type that both sides really care about and that is really at issue in the struggle over the al-Dura image.

Second, Americans seem to have a hard time seeing and understanding the patterns of Arab life under occupation.  I suspect that this is partly due to distance and lack of information and partly due to certain prejudices about Arabs and Muslims.  And, when it comes to patterns of Arab life under the Israeli occupation, I know that it is partly due to an enormous and enormously successful campaign to color our vision.

Third, nothing could be worse than for the United States to simply assume that its situation today is the same as Israel's and that an "Israeli solution" is the answer to its problems.  Whatever similarities and cultural affinities there may be between the two countries, prior to the war in Iraq there was at least one enormous difference: bin Laden and al Qaeda notwithstanding, most Arabs did not see the U.S. as directly occupying Arab land.

Indeed fourth, the United States must do every thing in its power to prevent the American occupation of Iraq from becoming a reprise of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.  We must at all costs create palpably positive "facts on the ground".  We must at all costs create patterns of events in which our actions visibly contribute to the enrichment and ennoblement of Iraqi life rather than to its impoverishment and debasement.  And we must at all costs refrain from anything that remotely hints at a de facto policy of creeping colonization (which, given the experience with Israel, all Arab eyes are on the lookout for).

If we do not succeed at this, we risk drawing ourselves and the Arab world into a mutually destructive, escalating cycle of violence similar to the Israeli-Palestinian one, albeit on a much larger scale.  And we risk traveling down a slippery slope in which we ourselves, like the Israelis, destroy the things we hold most dear about ourselves and our way of life.

The somewhat perverse and counterintuitive upshot of the al-Dura incident, then, is that we should welcome the publication of tragic images because they enable "the state of an occupation" to be directly assessed.  Every time such an image has no symbolic, "artistic" truth to it--every time such an image is true only as "news" or "history", if it is true at all--we will know that we have earned a reputation for humanity.  But each time the image is another image of Mohammed al-Dura, we will know (if we want to) that something has been going horribly wrong, something that is making it possible for the image of a boy to be seen as a Pietà.

If great enmities are ever to be really settled, we think it will be, not by the system of revenge and military success, and by forcing an opponent to swear to a treaty to his disadvantage; but when the more fortunate combatant waives his privileges and, guided by gentler feelings, conquers his rival in generosity and accords peace on more moderate conditions than expected.

From that moment, instead of the debt of revenge which violence must entail, his adversary owes a debt of generosity to be paid in kind, and is inclined by honor to stand by his agreement.

And men more often act in this manner toward their greatest enemies than where the quarrel is of less importance; they are also by nature as glad to give way to those who first yield to them, as they are apt to be provoked by arrogance to risks condemned by their own judgment.

Thucydides
The Peloponnesian War
c. 425 BCE


"The Truth of Mohammed al-Dura"

     Support Sanity

The Truth of Mohammed al-Dura:
A Response to James Fallows

About the Author

Adam Rose is an instructor and past chairman for the University of Chicago Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults as well as the founder and director of Support Sanity.

About Support Sanity

Support Sanity is an independent public campaign:

·   Building massively-visible mass support for an evenhanded two-state solution for Israel and Palestine;

·   Affirming the common humanity of Palestinians and Israelis;

·   Promoting the mass display of a simple, "symmetrically-affirmative" symbol that concretely embodies this humane and practical perspective: the Israeli and Palestinian flags crossed in friendship over the motto "Justice · Peace · Life".

The centerpiece of the campaign is a lapel pin that we are encouraging supporters of a just peace to wear as part of their everyday attire.  More information is available at: www.SupportSanity.org.

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