The Importance of the Kuperwasser Report

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On September 30, 2000, the French channel, France 2, broadcast a televised report which claimed to show the cruel murder of the twelve- year old Palestinian boy, Mohammad al-Dura, at the hands of Israeli soldiers.  This powerful visual purportedly portrayed the merciless death of this young man sheltered in the arms of his father at the Netzarim junction near Gaza.  France 2, in an exceptional gesture even distributed this dramatic and powerful clip free of charge to other networks. The indignation which followed resulted in a tsunami of hatred and violence which gave impetus to the Second -Intifada and rapidly inflamed the whole Arab world.  In fact, the murderers of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan claimed that they were avenging the death of Muhammad al-Dura.  Even the Israel Broadcasting Authority mindlessly televised this image in Israel, and the Palestinian Authority embellished it with the addition of an Israeli soldier in the foreground holding a rifle.

 Great harm had been done.  Although nearly a generation has passed since this event, the image of the “little Mohammad” became the icon of Palestinian victimhood and the embodiment of Israeli brutality.  Even worse, this image ties in with the underlying accusation of the blood libel, dating from the Middle Ages, that Jews used the blood of Christian boys in the making of matzoth.   Thus, a horrifying visual image was superimposed upon the hateful traditions of religious and folk prejudice.

 The Kuperwasser report may effectively be the first official statement on the part of the government with regard to the truthfulness of the France 2 reportage.  The very publication of this report vindicates a number of courageous individuals who challenged the veracity of the France 2 reportage.  These included Israeli physicist, Nahum Shahaf, General Yom Tov Samiya, Esther Shapira of the German ARD channel, and Philippe Karsenty, an independent French blogger against whom France-2 initiated a lawsuit. 

The publication of this report represents a change of government policy.  Until the present, the effective policy of the government of Israel was to issue a vague apology and hope that the problem would go away.  According to the CAMERA report, the IDF on October 3, expressed sorrow over the tragedy and concluded that its troops were probably responsible for killing al-Dura.  In fact, Major General Giora Eiland stated, “There is no way to prove who shot him. But from the angles which were fired, it is likely that he was hit from our gunfire.”  While the IDF attempted to close the incident by accepting responsibility, Major General Yom-Tov Samia, the commanding officer at the time and other senior officers in the Southern Command were convinced that IDF soldiers did not shoot the boy.

 Here we have two tendencies:  on the one hand, the hasty decision to accept responsibility and hope that the issue would go away and, on the other, the determination of others who wanted to discover the truth and make it public.  Among the latter were the physicist, Nahum Shahaf, who contacted General Samia and by reconstructing the scene came to the conclusion that IDF soldiers could not have been responsible for the death of al-Dura.  The first approach which became official policy, — and which failed, — reflected the view that silence was best.  In a recent interview, Shahaf explained that officials and members of the army who had cooperated with him previously now ceased to be forthcoming.  Similarly, those who wished to pursue the matter were actively discouraged and made to feel that they opposed the forces of progress. Although policy makers did not state this officially, one may observe the ethos of the bureaucracy, which includes the army and the foreign ministry, and conclude that at a high level a decision had been made.  

Despite the fact that Arafat sabotaged the Camp David talks during the previous summer, the feeling persisted that if it were just possible to achieve a breakthrough, it would no longer be necessary to fight the political war.  This type of short-term thinking may explain why, time after time, Israel’s enemies ambushed the Jewish State at Durban, Jenin, in Lebanon, and, more recently in Gaza (with the Goldstone Report).  Similarly, the tactic of an expedient apology failed again in the case of the Mavi Marmora.

By the very fact that a special committee undertook a review of the al-Dura affair, the Kuperwasser Report represents an honest effort to face up to a costly failure of policy.  Although painful, there may be a positive benefit, because it is only through the careful study of the historical past that sound strategy can be formulated for the future.  By studying what went wrong, there may be hope that certain mistakes will not be repeated.

The Importance of the Kuperwasser Report

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Joel Fishman

Biographical Statement:

Joel Fishman was born in Winston-Salem, N. C. and has lived in Israel since 1972. He grew up in Brookline, MA, received his B.A. from Tufts University, and his Ph. D. in modern European history from Columbia University. From 1968-1970, he was a Fulbright scholar at the Institute for History of the State University of Utrecht, The Netherlands. His dissertation was published under the title, Diplomacy and Revolution; the London Conference of 1830 and the Belgian Revolt. He is married and has three children and four grandchildren.

Like many of his generation, the unsettled conditions of the seventies interrupted his academic career. By the time he completed his doctorate in 1972, the job market had evaporated. During the following years, Fishman researched and published several pioneering articles on the postwar reconstruction of the Dutch Jewish community and from 1975-1978 carried out post-doctoral work at the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation in Amsterdam.

After returning to Israel in 1978, Fishman found that he was “overqualified” for nearly all manner of salaried work, so from 1980 to 2000, he worked as a photographer until the Second Armed Uprising ruined business conditions. Fortunately, an opportunity arose to join the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, so Fishman made the transition into a new field, contemporary history, or, better stated, the history of the present. His research applies the historical method in order to explain contemporary events. One of his pioneering accomplishments was the publication of the policy paper, “Ten Years since Oslo: The PLO’s ‘People’s War’ Strategy and Israel’s Inadequate Response,”[1] which analysed the strategy of the other side, many aspects of which were borrowed from the North Vietnamese, and the failure of Israel’s military and leadership elite to understand and adapt to the new situation. His findings appear in a series of articles, which are posted on the web. A selection of his articles has also appeared in book form, in French, under the title, La Guerre d’Oslo (Prof. Efraim Karsh was the coauthor).[2] Since 2004, Fishman has been a Fellow of the JCPA.

Independently, Fishman served as Chairman of the Center for Research on Dutch Jewry at the Hebrew University (2006-2009). There, he introduced sound fiscal practice and oversaw the construction of a new library.

Currently he is Book Review Editor of the Jewish Political Studies Review at the JCPA and is carrying out research on political warfare, particularly media warfare and propaganda.

Statement about SPME:

The members of SPME comprise a community of leading scholars with whom I have been able to share ideas and to learn. In their company, I have observed the combined virtues of courage moderated by maturity and caution. I find this outlook congenial.

Most scholars of my generation who grew up in postwar America enjoyed a period of opportunity and relative grace. Now, there are signs that this era may be ending, and we are entering “interesting times.” In this uncertain environment, SPME will have an increasingly important job to do, telling the truth, fighting for freedom of thought and protecting civil discourse, in America and abroad.

[1] Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Jerusalem Viewpoints No. 503, 1 September 2003. .

[2] La Guerre d'Oslo. Paris: Editions de Passy, 2005.

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