It was a defining image of the last conflagration in Gaza. Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh and Egyptian prime minister Hashim Kandil held up a Palestinian child's corpse to the cameras, his face bloodied, his lifeless eyes a compelling entreaty to the world: "Will you not stand against Israel for killing this child!?"
But it wasn't Israel that murdered 4-year-old Mohammed Sadallah, it appears to have been Hamas. In a grotesque irony, one of the thousands of rockets Hamas had aimed at Israeli children reportedly landed on the 4-year-old Gazan boy instead. The Islamist group thought nothing of turning the child into a PR weapon -- and the international press obliged. That same week, Palestinian activists repeatedly tried to pass off photos of dead Arab children as Israel's doing. The photos were in fact of Syrian children massacred weeks earlier by Bashar Assad. And this month, following unprecedented public criticism, the UN fired Kulhood Badawi, one of its senior public affairs officers in Jerusalem. Badawi had tried to peddle a photo of a girl killed in an accident in 2006 as a victim of Israel. These activists, Badawi and Hamas -- whose minister boasted in 2009 of its use of "human shields of the women, the children... to challenge the Zionist bombing machine" -- assumed that the international press would simply take them at their word, as it had always done.
Bloggers exposed their lies, but the damage had been done. And the damage when journalists help certain Palestinian activists abuse public compassion to demonize Israel is counted in lives lost -- on both sides.
In the war for hearts and minds, some propagandists for the Palestinian cause understood long ago that feelings trump facts. Images and accusations that molest the emotions and exploit the public's natural empathy are irreplaceable ammunition to coerce sympathy with the Palestinians and hostility to Israel. Yasser Arafat himself in January 2002 -- two days before his own Fatah organization murdered six guests at a Bat Mitzvah celebration in Israel -- cynically underlined the value of dead Palestinian children as propaganda tools: "the Palestinian child holding a stone, facing a tank - is that not the greatest message to the world, when that hero becomes a 'martyr'?"
When Arafat spoke those words, he was thinking of the heart-wrenching images of the death of Mohammed Al Durah. That 50-second clip, filmed and distributed globally by France 2 in September 2000, shows a boy and his father caught in crossfire, crouching fearfully behind a concrete cylinder in Gaza. Some arresting moments later, the picture jumps, final shots ring out, and a cloud of dust dissipates to reveal the boy strewn lifeless at his father's feet. France 2's reporter, Charles Enderlin, narrating the scene though he did not witness it, decrees to the world that the boy and his father were "the targets of Israeli fire."
Enderlin's report went viral and was instrumental in fueling the Second Intifada. Within days, an enraged mob in Ramallah shouted "revenge for the blood of Muhammad al Durah" as they dismembered two lost Israelis. A deluge of Palestinian suicide bombers often claimed the same motive before murdering hundreds of Israeli civilians in horrific attacks on restaurants, schools, buses and malls. Al Qaeda used al Durah as a major recruiting theme, and jihadists beheaded Daniel Pearl in 2002 with al Durah's picture behind them. In the West, Enderlin's report irreversibly indicted Israel and provided moral cover for Palestinian groups' terror attacks; many went so far as to equate Israel with Nazi Germany. Twelve years on, is it any wonder that Mohammed Merah gunned down Jewish school children in Toulouse to avenge the killing of "Palestinian children" by Israelis? Assisted by the mainstream news media, one child's death has become a global license to kill Jews, westerners, and their children.
But it wasn't Israel that shot Mohammed Al Durah.
Critics rapidly exposed the yawning gaps in Enderlin's report: Al Durah was said to have died of blood loss but the footage shows no blood; the picture of his body in a Gaza morgue was shown to be that of another boy; the wounds that his father said he sustained from Israeli fire were from a stabbing, years prior. Most damning, from their position, the Israelis simply could not have hit Al Durah that day.
Ironically, one of the activists working tirelessly to unearth the truth, Philippe Karsenty, was charged with defamation for publicly questioning the credibility of Enderlin's work. But when the French court ordered France 2 to produce the unedited reels used by Enderlin in his report, things rapidly unraveled for the accusers. In the footage, after Enderlin had declared Al Durah dead, the boy miraculously moves his body, lifts his arm and looks out. Instead of gun battles, the footage showed Palestinian participants faking injuries, staging and choreographing "battle" scenes in full view of dozens of reporters from leading news agencies -- all as children wander in front of the Israeli position, unperturbed. The Al Durah story -- the trigger for an explosion of violence and suffering -- was a lie. "You know, it's always like that" and "oh, they do that all the time," France 2 officials and Enderlin are reported to have said when confronted with the staged "news".
Badawi's firing last week should not cause false hope. France 2 and Enderlin are unrepentant, and the French media establishment is closing ranks behind them. The dearth of stories on this affair indicates that they may be successful in shielding Enderlin -- and their profession -- from accountability.
The international press should rather ask itself what the cost of its collusion in a propaganda campaign of calumny is. Is peace advanced by allowing for those Palestinian groups who target and use children to artificially focus world ire on Israel instead? Why is the media creating an incentive for Fatah, Hamas and others to put children in harm's way while cameras roll? And, no less important, how many innocents continue to die because of sloppy journalism on the Arab-Israeli conflict?
Talal Abu Rahmeh, the Palestinian cameraman who shot Al Durah's death, said to a Moroccan paper in 2001 that he went into journalism to fight for the Palestinian people. Those words -- a stinging rebuke of the international press' lack of diligence with respect to its Palestinian stringers -- are eerily reminiscent of Hamas' charter: "Jihad is not confined to the carrying of arms and the confrontation of the enemy. The effective word, the good article... are elements of the Jihad." How much longer will the international press serve as an accessory to mediatic jihad?