Still Seeking Justice for Muhammad al-Durrah

In front of the Durrah house in Al-Breij Camp in central Gaza. (Photo: Sheaib bou Jahel)

By: Doha Shams

Published Wednesday, May 2, 2012

In September 2000, a 12-year-old boy became a symbol of the second Palestinian intifada when he was filmed being shot to death by Israeli troops as his father desperately tried to shield him. Al-Akhbar meets his family in the Gaza Strip.

Gaza – Jamal al-Durrah’s family lives in a two-story building accessed from a narrow alleyway. Refugee camps within Palestine look much like those that are spread throughout the neighboring states. Building “development” is equally improvised. The entrance to their home is through a wooden arch decorated with Palestinian flags. The walls are covered in graffiti: about the prisoners, the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, the electricity shortage, the siege, and the right to resistance.

When we inquire about the whereabouts of Abu-Muhammad al-Durra’s house, we are directed to a building above a furniture store.

The alleyway leading to the martyr’s home is so narrow it all but blocks out the sunlight. Opposite the entrance, about one meter from the front door, is a high breeze-block wall on which someone has spray-painted in black the words: “The Heroic Martyr Muhammad al-Durrah.”

Jamal al-Durrah, the martyr’s equally well-known father, holds out a welcoming hand. The thin, rough fingers of a construction worker, extend at an awkward angle from an elbow shattered by bullets, whose obvious source the Israelis continue to question to this day. He was hit seven times in his arm, pelvis, and legs as he tried to protect his son from the hail of Israeli gunfire. All the injuries are on the side of his body that he tried to shield his son. Yet the Israelis, using their own vast disinformation machine and compliant Western media, still cast doubt even on Muhammad’s death – despite the video, and despite the fact that it was aired by “usually friendly” French media.

Israel’s obsessive denial over the incident infuriates Abu-Muhammad (Father of Muhammad). “It even got to the point of them saying that Muhammad was not killed, and that they saw him afterward buying groceries for his mother.”

This typical attempt at obfuscation might have succeeded – as is so often the case with Israeli outrages committed against Palestinians – had it not entailed impugning the professionalism and credibility of the French media (the publicly-owned France 2 channel, which screened the video filmed by veteran cameraman Talal Abu-Rahmeh, with commentary by its Jerusalem correspondent Charles Enderlin).

This video is still the subject of two lawsuits in France.

The first was filed by Durrah against an Israeli surgeon and a French-Israeli journalist, who had claimed that the bullet wounds in his arm were actually scars from an operation which the surgeon performed on him in 1994, prior to the incident. Durrah won the case one year ago. But it went to appeal and on 15 February this year the judge cleared the doctor, Yehuda David, of wrongdoing, while upholding the verdict against the journalist, Clement Weill-Raynal, who had conducted the interview with him and published it under an assumed name. Durrah filed a further appeal.

The second suit was filed by France-2 against Philippe Karsenty, head of a group called Media-Ratings, who claimed that the shooting incident had been faked. Just prior to our meeting with the family, an important development had occurred in this case. A French appeals court overturned an earlier ruling which judged, bizarrely, that the allegation was merely an opinion that Karsenty was entitled to voice in line with the principle of freedom of expression. This was seen as a victory by the TV channel.

We follow Durrah up the cement staircase of a building that is still in the process of construction: the owner ran out of money mid-way. Much has happened since the day of the incident. Durrah became something of a media “star.” Accordingly, he seems to have reserved the first floor – shortly to be occupied by Iyad, Muhammad’s older brother, after his impending marriage – for “receptions.”

Sofas for guests have been placed in the bare cement-walled sitting room. The place feels cold and its separation from the family’s daily life makes it colder. In an adjacent room, empty but for a huge poster of the martyr Muhammad, the father poses for the photographer. More formality.

Where is the family, Muhammad’s mother and siblings? He says they are “upstairs.” He does not seem eager to receive us in the real family home on the second floor. But he is persuaded after we insist that we want to meet Umm-Muhammad (Mother of Muhammad).

It turns out that that Umm-Muhammad is not actually called Umm-Muhammad. The couple’s firstborn is called Iyad, but the martyr’s name has supplanted that of his older brother in their mother’s title. They have since had another son whom they also named Muhammad, and they see an extraordinary resemblance between him and his namesake.

“Muhammad is Muhammad,” says the father, now sitting in the family living room which includes a large kitchen and bread oven. This place exudes life and warmth. Shoes are piled by the door, the smell of cooking fills the house, and children’s toys are strewn here and there. The children make their entrance, girls and boys of virtually every age. They are followed by Umm Muhammad, whose enchanting smile belies her sorrow.

“When I tell you that Muhammad is Muhammad, I don’t mean just his name,” says the father as he hugs the new Muhammad, who next year will be the same age as his namesake was when he was killed. “They have the same personality, the same way of doing things.”

The mother, who has retained her beauty and youthful looks despite having given birth to “eleven jewels,” interjects. “He was strongly built and liked helping people...He was very active and liked to play. He had so much energy, bless him, and mischief. He’d be running around from the moment he woke up,” she recalls. “Iyad, my eldest, is two years older than him. If Muhammad had lived he would have been 23 today.”

Iyad duly arrives, the 25-year-old bridegroom-to-be with a trimmed beard. He works as a policeman in the traffic accidents department, and bears a resemblance to his mother. A grin appears on his serious, youthful face when we ask him if he minds that his parents are called after his younger brother. “Of course not. I call them Umm- and Abu-Muhammad myself.”

Jamal al-Durrah sits with his children in their living room. (Photo: Sheaib bou Jahel)

The father, with his slight, bullet-shattered frame, is dwarfed by his well-built son. We ask him about the progress of the court case. “They sunk so low that they claimed Muhammad had a different mother. Then they brought an Israeli doctor, a surgeon, who started defaming me: saying that I was not wounded, and that the wounds in my arm are not from bullets but from an operation he performed on me long ago.”

What operation? He explains: “It’s true that he did an operation on my arm, six years before Muhammad’s martyrdom. When I was working as a laborer in Israel, there was a fight and I was stabbed in the arm. But that has nothing to do with the bullet wounds.” He shows us some of the horrific effects, explaining: “The pelvis is more or less shattered...The right arm, which I tried to use to block the bullets from him...They put metal plates in my leg.”

He continues, “My lawyer filed a suit in France...and one year ago I won the case against the doctor and the journalist. Then they appealed, and they cleared the doctor but sentenced the journalist and fined him. I appealed too because I want that doctor, David Yehuda, found guilty.” He adds, “I swear I will persist even if the case takes a million years. I have patience and forbearance. My rule in life is that those who walk slowly reach their destination.”

In the other court case, regarding the video recording, “Israel says it is fabricated, that it is the Palestinians who killed him, and that Charles Enderlin put the tape together along with Talal Abu-Rahmeh. OK, if the Palestinians killed him, then why do you say the tape is fabricated? What do you want – if it’s Palestinians on Palestinians? Then they said: ‘Muhammad al-Durra didn’t die, and there are people who saw him on the streets of Gaza.’ OK, he is still alive, why didn’t you bring him?” He pauses before adding: “But Muhammad got his revenge against them.”

The father continues: “I am proud of him not just as my son, but as a son of the Arab and Islamic nation. Muhammad’s cause and the images of his martyrdom moved the entire world, even people with little conscience...His cause is still out there, every day there are arguments over it.”

Iyad tries to ask for permission to leave, as it is time for his shift. We ask him to tell us about the day Muhammad was martyred. “I was 14 years old. That day we were sitting watching the events at Netzarim (a junction between a road leading to a former Israeli settlement of that name and the main Salaheddin street leading into Gaza City, where the Israeli army maintained an outpost) on TV. We expected him to be with his father because they were going to a car auction, and then we suddenly saw them on the screen. It was awful. It was the first time I saw the sight of a child being executed live on air, and it was my own brother. I kind of went into shock.” Everyone falls silent.

Jamal plays with the hair of his youngest son, whom he holds while two young girls lean on him from either side. He restarts the conversation. “This is something we can never forget. My son...he was martyred in my lap. I could not protect him.” He winces and hugs his son. “I tried but...” He recovers his composure. “I still feel the pain. Not just mentally, but also physically from the effects of the bullets which penetrated my body.”

We take advantage of the silence to turn to his wife. Can she tell us about that day? She sighs and begins speaking: “...I was at home and I knew that he had gone out in the morning with his father. It was strange that they had not returned by afternoon. There had been events since the morning at the Netzarim junction, shooting and other things. Just before afternoon prayers my aunt arrived. Before I knew he had been martyred, I was sitting watching TV. I saw a picture of a martyred boy and told her: ‘my God, that boy looks like Muhammad.’ My aunt said to me: ‘no, you should...get up and pray.’ No sooner had I finished praying when someone knocked hard on the door. I opened the door but found nobody. Maybe they ran away because they were afraid to tell me, or found it hard. Someone knocked at the door again, and when I opened it I found that everyone was out in the street, talking and saying that maybe Jamal might be wounded. I didn’t realize my son had been martyred. I went inside and began to cry. But then they wanted to bring the martyr to the house to prepare him for burial. Suddenly the house was filled with people, and one of them said: Muhammad has been martyred. There was no time to wait because the martyr was on his way...I can’t tell you how one feels in such a situation. At the same time people were filling the house because they had all seen him on television.”

She falls quiet for a while, and then continues: “Suddenly I asked them: where is his father? Nobody answered saying that my husband was injured too. At 10 o’clock at night they put on the television. They said this is Muhammad...I hardly glimpsed the image before they turned off the TV. After that I did not see the clip until one month and a half later when I went with Jamal to Amman for him to be treated because his condition was critical.”

After she returned to Gaza, Umm-Muhammad began watching it daily, and had seen it again just the previous day when the latest court verdict was issued in the France-2 case.

“Praise be to God, that is what He willed,” she adds with a sad smile. “And they sit there saying he is alive and well. He is indeed alive and well, thank God, as a martyr with his maker.”


Fighting Alone

Jamal al-Durrah, father of the martyr, has words of recrimination for “our government and officials, who have not lifted a finger to support me in prosecuting my son’s murderers.”

While “the Israeli occupation recruited an army of lawyers to support its case, nobody stood with us,” explains Durra, who currently works as a truck driver, the only job he can manage given his disabilities.

“I condemn the silence of Palestinian officials,” he says, and urges the case also to be actively taken up by the Palestinian lawyers’ syndicate and Arab lawyers’ union, members of the Palestinian legislative council, and Arab members of the Knesset.

“Regrettably, I am fighting this battle on my own, even though it is not my personal case, but a case of Palestinian rights in the face of Israeli injustice. Muhammad al-Durrah is not only my son. He is the son of the entire Palestinian people and of the Arab and Islamic nations and all oppressed people.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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