For nearly a decade, Philippe Karsenty, a French stockbroker-turned-media critic, has waged a public campaign to get a state-run television channel to admit that footage it aired in 2000 of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy being killed by Israeli soldiers -- imagery that became iconic, was broadcast around the world, and then used as a rallying cry against Israel -- was, in fact, a hoax. Despite the fact that the 41-year-old French Jew won a major court battle earlier this year against the France 2 television station, Karsenty told a local audience that he would press on until French President Nicholas Sarkozy intervenes and orders the station to apologize.
"Whenever Sarkozy will decide to have the truth revealed, we will have the truth revealed," said Karsenty in an interview immediately following his Nov. 20 presentation at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley. More than 100 people attended the program. Karsenty, who made about a half-dozen speeches in the area, argued that France 2 is ultimately an instrument of the government. Sarkozy is generally considered to have far-warmer relations with Israel and the French Jewish community than his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, but so far hasn't gotten involved. A deputy mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, a Parisian suburb, Karsenty said Sarkozy's advisers have told him to steer clear of the case.
The story, which at its heart is about the power of images to shape and obscure perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, began on Sept. 30, 2000, the second day of what later became known as the second intifada, when sporadic fighting had erupted between Arabs and Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza. That night, France 2 aired footage -- captured by a Palestinian camera and narrated by well-known French journalist Charles Enderlin -- that showed 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura and his father, Jamal, seeking cover from an exchange of fire at the Netzarim Junction in Gaza.
The footage, which the station distributed to outlets around the world, later showed the boy slumped over, apparently dead. In the voice-over, Enderlin reported that the boy was killed and his father wounded by Israeli fire. Israel apologized for the incident the following day. Almost overnight, the boy became a symbol of Israeli brutality. Postage stamps of the image of the terrified boy were issued in Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan. A square was named after al-Dura in the capital of the Saharan nation of Mali. Osama Bin Laden invoked al-Dura's name in a message to the West, and the boy's image was used on the video clip of Daniel Pearl's murder. But a follow-up investigation by the Israel Defense Force raised serious doubts about whether al-Dura was killed by an Israeli bullet. A year later, Israeli physicist Nahum Shahaf, who led the investigation, went so far as to claim the whole event was staged. That led Karsenty, then largely unknown in France, to devote his life to clarifying the accusations against Israel that he's called "a blood libel" and the biggest historical lie of the new century.
"I was totally alone. My own wife -- my mother -- thought I was crazy," said Karsenty, adding that he is "fighting for the truth." "For me, having people in America telling me, 'you are right,' was a huge support," he said, referring to groups such as the Zionist Organization of America and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. He's also criticized the Israeli government for not doing enough to help him. (The local program was co-sponsored by the Israeli Consulate of Philadelphia; Karsenty said it was the first time any arm of the Israeli government had invited him to speak.) Philippe Karsenty During the Har Zion program, he showed what he said was raw footage shot by France 2, as well as other news organizations, including Reuters and the Associated Press. Taken together, the material appeared to demonstrate numerous glaring problems with the original France 2 report, including footage of the boy moving his arms and legs after the moment he was supposedly killed.
Karsenty said it is unclear what actually happened to al-Dura and whether or not he is still alive. He would not speculate as to whether France 2 was aware that the whole scene was staged, as he contends. He said that, in 2004, after unsuccessfully lobbying for a correction from the station, he published an article on his Web site that he actually hoped would provoke a defamation lawsuit from France 2 in order to publicize the issue. That's exactly what happened. In 2006, a lower court found Karsenty guilty of defamation. In 2008, an appellate court reversed that decision, finding that Karsenty has enough evidence to make his claim, even if it didn't endorse his findings. The case is being appealed to France's supreme court, which expected to review the legal issues, but not the facts themselves, sometime in 2009, he said. Also, in October, the Conseil Supérieur de l'Audiovisuel -- the equivalent to the French public-broadcasting authority -- announced it will convene a panel to examine the accuracy of the broadcast, something that a major French umbrella Jewish communal body had begun pushing for over the summer.
The media critic reiterated that his cause does not end with the panel or the court, but with an apology from the television station. But will such an apology have any impact in the Muslim world, where the incident helped fuel anti-Israel sentiment and continues to resonate? Karsenty said in the interview that those wider questions are not his concern. For him, this is all about his native country. He asserted, "When the state-owned media is lying, the people have to know about it."