Too Little, Too Late

The Palestinians have a not-so-secret weapon that has succeeded brilliantly in overcoming Israel’s military advantage. It’s cheap, easy to use and more mobile than the lightest shoulder-launched rocket. It’s the video camera, and even its suspected presence at a clash paralyzes the IDF into inaction.

The power of the video is in its vividness and its presumption of accuracy. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video, posted to the entire world, is worth at least a million.

That’s why IDF Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner didn’t stand a chance last year in trying to explain why he struck a Danish anarchist in the Jordan Valley with his rifle. No one was interested in the context — the fact that the anarchist was one of 250 protesters belonging to the notorious International Solidarity Movement (of Mavi Marmara fame) who were trying to seize control of a key road, and that these “peace lovers” had broken two of his fingers. Or that the confrontation had gone on for two hours, with no signs of letting up, requiring Eisner to do something drastic before things spun out of control (and what he did, as nasty as it looked on camera, caused no permanent harm).

Soldiers who confront violent Palestinians have learned a lesson from the way Eisner was abandoned by the government that sent him to keep the peace in the Jordan Valley. They hesitate to respond forcefully to provocations. Though they’re well-trained and armed, they are forced to fight in not one but two straitjackets: one imposed by the IDF’s open-fire rules, which severely limit use of live weapons, and the other by the omnipresent video camera that is ready to catch — and distort — their every move.

Israel appears to understand that it must develop a strategy for combating the carefully edited or even staged videos that undermine the justice of its cause in the international arena. It is in this context that it launched an investigation into one of the most famous video blood libels: the “cold-blooded killing” of a 12-year-old Gazan boy, Muhammad el-Dura.

The film, shot in late September 2000, shows Muhammad’s father, Jamal, waving desperately to alert the troops and trying to shield his son, to no avail. Aired by France2, it set off a firestorm of criticism of Israel, turned the boy into a martyr and unleashed an unprecedented wave of violence against Israel — claiming hundreds of lives — that became known as the Second Intifada.

The Israeli committee that was set up to probe the incident released its report last week. It showed conclusively that the footage, filmed by a local Arab freelancer, Talal abu Rahmah, had been staged.

Nachum Shahaf, a member of the committee, said he doubted the veracity of the film from the first time he saw it 13 years ago. A physicist by training, who helped develop the second generation of Israel’s unmanned aircraft and was at the forefront of a military intelligence unit dealing with optic intelligence, he concluded that the shooting “made no sense … it seemed unfeasible, geometrically speaking.”

Shahaf, a former ballistics instructor at Bar Ilan University, noted that the IDF couldn’t possibly have shot the boy. Its position, at roughly 45 degrees to the concrete barrel separating it from the father and son, had no line of fire except through the barrel; and the barrel itself was hit several times during the course of the day but never penetrated.

In addition, the bullet marks on the wall behind the father and son aren’t consistent with shots fired from an angle. “That’s just pure science,” Shahaf says, incredulous that anyone could have been taken in by such a video.

While Israel is to be congratulated for bringing the truth to light, we have to wonder why it took 13 years to do so. During that time, the alleged shooting was garnering support for the Palestinians and spurring anti-Semitic attacks the world over. No less a figure than President Clinton wrote in his memoir that he was moved by the footage.

What is even more puzzling is why the government failed to come to the assistance of Dr. David Yehuda, an orthopedic surgeon who revealed that the scars on Jamal Dura’s wrist were not caused by IDF fire as he claimed. Instead, they were the result of an assault by Hamas terrorists who had accused Dura of collaborating with Israel, as well as subsequent surgery performed by Yehuda himself in 1994.

Dr. Yehuda was sued for libel in France, losing in the first trial and winning on appeal. Why did he have to fight the legal battle, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, on his own? Why didn’t the government, understanding the importance of the issue to Israel’s name, lend its support on both the legal and PR fronts?

The episode isn’t over with the report released last week. Another French legal ruling is expected in the case this week; Shahaf is being sued for “defamation” over his findings.

But the message is clear: Israel must understand the impact of slanderous, doctored videos and respond much more quickly and effectively.