By suggesting that Muhammad al-Durrah's death was staged, Israel's government may not be the victim of a ‘blood libel' but the originator of one.
Thursday 30 May 2013
The official report by an Israeli government-appointed panel into the death of Muhammad al-Durrah more than a dozen years ago in Gaza, at the start of the second intifada, took me right back to my school days. It reminded me of bullies who, when reproached for an act of violence, would claim flippantly: “I didn't hit him, sir, he walked into my fist.”
After analysing the raw footage of the incident, the panel concluded surreally that not only was the 12-year-old miraculously not hit by the flying bullets, like a character out of The Matrix, but also that “at the end of the video… the boy appears to be alive”.
This conforms to the long-established so-called “maximalist” Israeli narrative of the incident, which claims that the whole episode was staged and that Muhammad al-Durrah was not killed at all or was murdered in cold blood by the Palestinians to discredit and “de-legitimise” Israel.
Taking a leap of illogic perhaps more daring than the panel's far-fetched assertion that dead boy's can walk, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon claimed that the iconic incident was a “blood libel attributed to us”.
Though the old Christian European blood libel has gained some currency in the Middle East in recent decades, I don't recall anyone suggesting that the IDF had killed al-Durrah to siphon off his blood to bake matzah, or unleavened bread, for Pesach.
Even if al-Durrah's death has been used for propaganda purposes, Israel is not a defenceless victim here, though its status as the odd one out causes its crimes to be amplified in a neighbourhood where horrendous human rights abuses are, sadly, commonplace.
Unlike the Jews of yesteryear, who were largely defenceless victims, Israel possesses enormous power and a steely determination to unleash it, as reflected in the fact that al-Durrah was not an isolated incident, and around a thousand Palestinian minors were killed by Israel during the second intifada.
Despite allegations to the contrary, the Muhammad al-Durrah episode's potency lies not in its conformity to ancient anti-Jewish prejudices – on the contrary, the unflattering stereotype of the Israeli Jew as ruthless warrior bears little resemblance to traditional depictions of Jews as cowardly yet cunning, underhanded and deceitful.
Like the defining images of the terrified Jewish boy raising his hands in the Warsaw ghetto or the naked, screaming Vietnamese girl doused in napalm, the al-Durrah icon's true power lies in its ability to represent all those otherwise faceless children who needlessly have their lives cut short in conflict. It also appeals to our intrinsic human protectiveness towards the young, innocent and weak.
Little wonder then that Muhammad al-Durrah's crouched figure and frightened features have adorned posters and stamps, and streets and parks have been named after him. “Muhammad is not just my son, he's the son of the entire Palestinian nation,” Jamal al-Durrah describes.
Even if there was anti-Jewish prejudice in some of the propaganda purposes to which the dead boy's image has been used, is Israel's alternative version of events any better?
Sadly not. You could say that, in some ways, the “maximalist” Israeli version reads like an adapted blood libel in reverse. The idea that a father would be heartless enough to agree to his son's murder, or at the very least be parted from him for life, just to incite others to kill Jews is not only insulting, it is also troublingly dehumanising of a largely defenceless and hostage civilian population.
I wonder what kind of extra chains of grief and sadness this slander has twisted around Jamal al-Durrah's mourning heart, and what the reawakening of Muhammad's memory did to the emotional wound that may stop bleeding but will never heal.
As a father myself now, I can imagine the devastation the loss of a son in such circumstances is bound to result in. I can picture the recurring nightmares, the endless replaying of the scene, the unanswerable, nagging questions. What if we hadn't gone out that day? What if I'd taken a different route home? What if I'd never gone to that stupid auction? And the most gutting question of all: why him and not me?
There's even a part of Jamal al-Durrah, the fatherly part, that would be relieved if the panel were right, and that a 25-year-old version of Muhammad is alive and well somewhere in the world, even though he knows his son lies buried in Bureij camp and he's willing for DNA samples to be taken to prove it.
“I wish [the Israeli] story was true. I wish that Muhammad was with us now,” he said in an interview in which he gave his version of events.
If Israel is serious about getting to the truth, it should take up al-Durrah senior's suggestion to launch an independent international investigation, as well as to investigate the hundreds of other Palestinian children who were killed.
Arabs and pro-Palestinians have interpreted the report as little more than cynical political spin designed to cover up a damaging incident, described by some as Israel's “greatest PR failure”.
Although the propaganda and media war was undoubtedly a factor, as was the possibly irresistible temptation to besmirch the arch-enemy, I'm not convinced that this fully explains the psychology behind this fantastical document.
After all, the IDF did initially admit culpability for the incident, which was a far wiser course of action than the current farce, as would have been an independent investigation and possible trial of the wrongdoers.
The timing of the investigation is also telling. Why, a dozen years later, disturb the dead and remind the world of an incident it was in Israel's own self-interest to let fade in the mists of time?
Part of the reason is the very human, if unappealing, tendency, especially among the powerful, to believe their side is right, even when it is wrong. This can be seen in the Western practice of describing even attacks on its military personnel in countries it has invaded as “terrorism” or in Arab sympathy in conservative quarters for suicide bombers.
Beyond this, there is the ideological hardening of the settler-friendly Israeli government which, despite mounting global public opposition, remains unhindered in its project to make Greater Israel a fact on the ground. This is reflected in the increasingly surreal and absurd committees appointed by the government, such as the one which declared that the occupation does not exist. And if there is no occupation, then it follows that it can have no victims, even innocent children.
More fundamentally and more broadly, in Israel, there is the collective paranoia borne of historical trauma – especially the near extinction of European Jewry and the uprooting of Middle Eastern Jews in the 20th century – that can make even far-fetched conspiracy theories seem plausible to many.
But if Israel is to create a better future reality for itself, it must come to grips with current reality and start an honest conversation about a realistic way forward.
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This article first appeared in Haaretz on 26 May 2013.