The death of Mohammed al-Dura, the 12-year-old Palestinian boy whose iconic last moments have been captured on postage stamps all over the Middle East, happened almost a year before the September 11 attacks, on September 30, 2000. Thirteen years have passed since a cameraman for France 2 captured the horrifying scene of a father and his child caught in Israeli-Palestinian crossfire at the Netzarim border crossing into Gaza at the start of the second intifada.
In the time that has elapsed, thousands upon thousands of innocent young children have died — in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Congo, to name just a few conflicts that leap immediately to mind. And yet, it is the story of Mohammed al-Dura, a boy who died before the dawning of our decade of extreme violence, who remains the potent symbol, the subject of accusations and recriminations, and intense emotion.
We know the impact that image of a cowering, scared boy had on the Arab world. He was, all in one, the little Warsaw Ghetto boy with his hands in the air, the Vietnamese girl with her body covered in napalm, the Sudanese child about to be devoured by a vulture — and, the pieta, an image of the suffering Christ. Osama bin Laden cited Mohammed’s death as an inspiration. A copy of the famous image was in the background of the video in which Daniel Pearl was beheaded.
But it’s not just the Arab world that became obsessed with this symbol. Israel did, too. The latest marker of that obsession is a report issued in May by the Israeli government, commissioned directly by Benjamin Netanyahu, proclaiming Israel’s total innocence in the incident.
For some time now, respectable disinterested sources (including the journalist James Fallows, in a fascinating 2003 piece in The Atlantic) have doubted whether it was Israeli bullets that really killed al-Dura. After extensive forensic tests, it seems plausible that it was Palestinian gunmen who fired the shots that killed him and injured his father. But this new report goes even further, positing that, contrary to the initial French broadcast’s “claim that the boy is killed, the committee’s review of the raw footage showed that in the final scenes, which were not broadcast by France 2, the boy is seen to be alive.”
The conclusion, after pages and pages of examination of milliseconds of film, is that the whole thing was either a completely staged event or that it really happened but the boy wasn’t shot and didn’t die.
The arguments and counter-arguments will go on forever, each side seeing what it wants to see. Did Mohammed’s hand move at the end of the film because he was in his death throes, or was he signaling to the camera? You can watch the footage 1,000 times — and some have — and never know what to think.