Ten Years Ago: The al-Dura Case

What happened to a 12-year-old Palestinian boy? The controversy continues to rage.

I've been running a series of "Ten Years After" items on the political, financial, strategic, and moral ramifications of the American invasion of Iraq, which was in its early stages in April, 2003.

As for me ten years ago, when the war began I was in Israel rather than Iraq. I was there to do interviews for a story that ran in our June, 2003, issue about the controversial and inflammatory Mohammed al-Dura case. He was the 12-year-old Palestinian boy who, according to widespread international news coverage, had been shot to death in 2000 by Israeli Defense Force soldiers, even as he huddled in terror behind the father who was trying to protect him. The picture of the doomed boy and his frantic father became a notorious symbol of Israeli cruelty; the image above is from a Tunisian postage stamp issued in commemoration of the killing.

My story ten years ago said that exactly what happened to Mohammed al-Dura might never be known -- but that the prevailing story, that IDF soldiers had shot him to death, was very likely not true, since it was so hard to square with known forensic and physical evidence. The details are too elaborate to go through now, but you can follow them in the original article. 

The controversy over the case has continued to rage, but I'll let you explore it on your own. If you search for the names Charles Enderlin, Philippe Karsenty, or Richard Landes, you'll be on your way; I'm not getting back into this. My 2003 article has come to occupy an awkward "false equivalence" middle ground in the dispute. Many people who believe the original story say that I've been duped by Israeli propaganda to exonerate the IDF. Many people who challenge the original story scoff at me for resisting their claim that the entire episode was faked for "Pallywood" propaganda purposes and that the boy was never shot. [Update To illustrate this point, and to give you a chance for full exposure to the argument and evidence in support of the "staged" hypothesis, you can read this response by Richard Landes.]

Often, as I've argued in the false-equivalence chronicles, taking the middle ground is a way to evade the hard work of finding the real truth. In this case, my agnosticism comes from the murkiness of the evidence and the asymmetrical burdens of proof and disproof. It is much easier to establish that one hypothesis is false -- for instance, that IDF soldiers were in the wrong place to do the reported shooting -- than to prove that some other one is true. Similarly: I find it hard to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted entirely on his own in killing John F. Kennedy, but I have no idea what the "real" story is.

I mention all this because there is an interesting new update in the Times of Israel on one of the people I spent time with ten years ago in Tel Aviv. He is Nahum Shahaf, and you will learn about him from the story. For the record, this new account refers to my own article in positive rather than the now-familiar derogatory terms, but I'm mentioning the story because Shahaf was one of the genuinely engrossing figures I have met along the way. (Another, whom I should regularly thank, was professor Gabriel Weimann of the University of Haifa, who helped me in many ways with this story -- but bears no responsibility for what I concluded or didn't.) See what you think.

Stamp image from here.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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