State of Siege

Even if you’ve forgotten Mohammed al-Dura, hundreds of millions of Muslims haven’t.

This week, as suicide bombers killed more than 20 in Jerusalem and 17 in Iraq, it’s hard to remember al-Dura, the 12-year-old boy shot and killed on Sept. 30, 2000, during an exchange of fire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian policemen and demonstrators. The image of the boy and his father crouched behind a concrete pipe; the boy’s terrorized face; his limp, lifeless body; the father’s blood-soaked shirt — this sequence of images defined the outbreak of the second intifada, even as on the other side, the empty shell of a blown-out bus defines it for the other side.

The Israeli army took responsibility for the killing after a preliminary investigation. The Arab world took the images and turned al-Dura, in the words of journalist James Fallows, into its very own "Pietà." "To a billion people in the Muslim world it is an infamous symbol of grievance against Israel and — because of this country’s support for Israel — against the United States as well," writes Fallows in the June issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

But did Israeli bullets kill al-Dura? Fallow’s long article explores independent research, carried out by Israelis on all sides of the political spectrum, which offer what he calls "persuasive evidence" that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers on the scene could not have fired the deadly shots. According to the logical conclusion of the available evidence — videotapes, some physical evidence, eyewitness reports, ballistic analysis — the son and his father (who survived his wounds) were shot by Palestinians.

The IDF has sought to downplay these new findings. It wouldn’t respond to Fallows’ request for an interview, loathe to draw further attention to the events of that tragic afternoon. But Fallows makes a strong case that attention must be paid. Mohammed al-Dura’s death, he writes, has "left the realm of geometry and ballistics and entered the world of politics, paranoia, fantasy and hatred."

All across the Arab world, al-Dura is the lasting symbol of Jewish cruelty. An Egyptian stamp depicts the last moments of his life, crouched behind his father. Morocco has an al-Dura Park and one of Baghdad’s main streets is renamed the Martyr Mohammed al-Dura Street. As Fallows points out, Osama bin Laden, in one of his perorations after Sept. 11, exhorted President George W. Bush, "not to forget the image of Mohammed al-Dura and his fellow Muslims in Palestine and Iraq."

Modern conflicts are fought through arsenals of images. Facts and logic often take second and third place to the power of a single picture. That is why Fallows reports speculation — though absolutely no definitive proof — that Palestinians themselves staged the killing of al-Dura in order to manufacture just such an image. And that is also why it is impossible to imagine a time in the near future when Muslims may look objectively at the evidence and start to question the "truth" of their al-Dura narrative.

Oh yes, truth. We may never know for certain who killed al-Dura, but it’s clear that there is little understanding — among true believers on both sides, among much of the media — for complexity.

The Palestinians have understood this for some time now, and thus either put forward or create images that convey a very simple message: Israel oppresses us.

Our images may change, from one blown-up bus in June to another on Aug. 19, but theirs hasn’t — even if theirs, of al-Dura, is not based on fact.

The relatively calm summer ceasefire, which was beneficial to both the Israelis and the Palestinians, has been shattered, and the road to peace is littered with (or blocked by) casualties of war.

I thought of this as I read the new graphic book, "State of Siege: User’s Manual" by graphic artist Doron Goldenberg (Gefen, $24.95), a former IDF company commander. He comes the closest of any media representation to depicting the complexities facing Israel. There is little prose here, but an ingenious compilation of images that reflect the good, the bad and the terrifying that have overlapped and overwhelmed Israeli life over the past two years.

Surprisingly, the book full of images of the second intifada doesn’t have the image of Mohammed al-Dura. Then again, that is part of the problem: the two sides have never agreed on a common narrative. Goldenberg does display the infamous photo of a Palestinian man holding up his blood soaked hands after having killed an Israeli in Ramallah. "At times," his caption for the photo reads, "through the power of faith, one loses one’s humanity."

Unsolved Mysteries

Although I am occasionally called a know-it-all, it’s not modesty alone that prevents my ever making the claim on my own behalf. The truth is that there are any number of things about which I know absolutely nothing. Right off the bat, I can think of several, ranging from soccer to Eastern religions, and from farming to trigonometry. I’m not playing Humble Harry here; I mean, get me started on baseball or movie trivia, and stand back!

There are, in fact, a frightfully huge number of things I have never begun to understand. For one, why can’t we ever compare apples and oranges? Maybe one would be hard-pressed to compare jet planes and roses, for heaven’s sake, but apples and oranges?! Compared as fruits, I prefer apples; in juice form, I prefer oranges.


There is a similar mystique surrounding the question about the beating of one’s spouse. Not too long ago, when a leading presidential wannabe was asked when he’d stopped using cocaine, he complained that it was tantamount to asking a man when he’d stopped beating his wife. What is so hard about saying that you never had to stop because you never began? What, exactly, is the tricky part that I seem to be missing?

Another thing I have never understood is how the world goes about deciding which individuals to celebrate and which others to ignore. Why, for example, has so much been made of Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Cecil B. DeMille and Darryl Zanuck, men who simply made movies or ran studios? The obvious colossus of the industry was the fellow who first came up with the brainstorm of putting salt on popcorn — in one fell swoop turning packing material into a snack, and the concession stand into a gold mine.

Another genius who has gone generally unnoticed is the person who invented shampoo. Actually, coming up with the product was child’s play, as its only prerequisites were that it smell nice and work up a decent lather. What separated this boy from the pack was that he somehow had to convince us that, although regular soap was just fine for cleaning all our other body parts — many of which are, themselves, covered with hair — when it came to our scalps, only a really high-priced concoction could do the job.

What I, personally, would like to know is how it is that only where I faithfully shampooed did I go bald, whereas in way too many of those areas I regularly soaped, hair has managed to sprout in supernatural abundance. I can’t help wondering if I might possibly have a legitimate case against Head & Shoulders.

However, as clever a puss as the inventor of shampoo was, even he was trumped by the brainiac whose idea it was to state in the directions that once you have shampooed and rinsed, you must repeat the procedure. Think of the originality of that concept! Think of the cleverness! Think of the chutzpah! Imagine if other companies had glommed onto that sales ploy: (Campbell’s) “Have a piping hot bowl of tomato soup. Now wipe your mouth and have another”; (General Motors) “Buy a brand new Chevrolet. Good. Now, run out and buy an Olds”; (Trojan) “Have sex. Okay, now do it again right away.”

Finally, would some smarty pants please explain the logic behind bigotry to me? I mean, what could be dumber than hating large groups of human beings for no better reason than their race, religion or sexual proclivity? After all, it requires so little effort to get to know people as individuals, to discover their little quirks and eccentricities — and thus come to hate them for really good reasons.

Burt Prelutsky has written for the New York Times and numerous magazines He has also written for such television shows as “Diagnosis: Murder” and “MASH.”