News on the al-Dura front: Israeli finding that it was staged

Four and a half years ago -- during the first weeks of the Iraq war, in fact -- I was in Israel learning about the case of Mohammed al-Dura. He was the young Palestinian boy who, according to worldwide press acccounts, was shot dead by Israeli soldiers as his father desperately tried to shield him, near the Netzarim crossing in Gaza:

(Mohammed al-Dura instants before his death -- as conveyed in worldwide news reports and memorialized, like a Pieta, in stamps, posters, and even statues in many Arab countries.)

Thanks mainly to evidence I was shown by Nahum Shahaf of Tel Aviv, a scientist who has devoted years to investigating the case, I ended up arguing in my article that the "official" version of the event could not be true. Based on the known locations of the boy, his father, the Israeli Defense Force troops in the area, and various barriers, walls, and other impediments, the IDF soldiers simply could not have shot the child in the way most news accounts said they had done.

I soon heard from Palestinian and related organizations who said that obviously I had been duped by the Israelis. They didn't bother to argue their case at length, because the truth was so obvious: news reports everywhere had shown Israeli soldiers firing at the boy, and the boy being hit, slumping, bleeding, and dying.

But I also heard from people in Israel, Europe, and North America with the opposite complaint: that I'd shied from the real truth. Saying that the IDF was innocent was the easy part, they contended. I should go all the way to the harder, more terrible reality: that the boy had not been killed at all -- or if he had, that he had been murdered by his own side -- and that the whole "death" was a giant fraud, staged to incriminate Israeli in the eyes of the world.

Like the man who had first introduced me to the story, Prof Gabriel Weimann of Haifa University , I became fully convinced by the negative case (IDF was innocent). But I did not t think there was enough evidence for the even more damning positive indictment (person or persons unknown staged a fake death -- or perhaps even a real death, for "blood libel" purposes). I have kept in intermittent touch with people involved in al-Dura studies and followed a bitter case in French courts, involving the France Deux correspondent who produced the most influential coverage of the shooting.

Yesterday, news: a credible-seeming report that the Israeli Prime Minister's office has thrown its support behind the idea that the death was staged. You might say, So what? The fact is that until recently the Israeli government has studiously kept its distance from the case, apparently feeling that no good for the country could come from discussion of it in any form.

There are holes and loose ends in the available accounts of this statement. So there will be more to say later about what exactly this means, and what the government is contending, and what evidence new findings might be based on, and what other participants have to say . But for now, and at face value, it looks like a significant development in the case.

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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.

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