The killing of Muhammad al-Durrah has gone down as one of Israel’s most colossal PR failures ever. After the incident, which took place at the outbreak of the 2000 Second Intifada, Palestinians claimed that Israeli soldiers had intentionally killed the boy, and the then-IDF spokesperson quickly assumed responsibility and issued a public apology for Israel’s supposed targeting of the 12-year-old.
When it transpired, several months later, that he was actually killed by Palestinian fire, it was too late. Public perception had been cemented; the world was convinced that the Jews killed him and there was no fact, video or investigation could change that false impression.
The Israel Defense Forces repeated its grave mistake from 2000 over the weekend as the dust settled following a deadly clash on Friday between Jewish shepherds and Arabs near Burqa, a village on the outskirts of Ramallah. The clash ended with one Palestinian dead and one Jew gravely injured. Although the facts were blurry, the IDF and the entire defense establishment were quick to label the incident as “Jewish terrorism.” This narrative is what was communicated to the Israeli media and the United States.
“We are greatly concerned about all the attacks that we saw in Israel, in the Palestinian territories over the weekend. We strongly condemn those attacks,” U.S. State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller said this week. He added that “the IDF spokesperson called the attack in Burka ‘nationalist terrorism.'”
Practically all those dealing with the incident—from the IDF to the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and Israel Police—have denied making a definitive determination that this was Jewish terrorism, or that they communicated as much to the Americans. In that sense, it appears that someone is lying.
Part of Communications 101 is never to make your views clear until you have checked the facts. In this case, Israel provided a version that adopted the account of only one side before it had the actual information regarding what had unfolded; in fact, it is still unclear how the incident happened.
Such conduct inflicts major harm that ultimately hurts Israel’s image the world over. Rather than rely on the Palestinians for this incident, Israel should have simply said the following: “This is an open investigation; the facts are not clear, but we will hold those responsible accountable.” The judge initially ordered that the main suspect in the killing, Israeli Jew Elisha Yered, be placed under house arrest, and said the evidentiary material did not meet the minimum threshold to establish that crimes had been committed.
His friend, Yehiel Indore, who sustained severe wounds in the incident, is still hospitalized and has yet to be interrogated due to his condition. The Shin Bet is no longer part of the investigation, suggesting this is no longer considered a Jewish terrorism case.
A few months ago a similar incident took place just off Ariel, not far from where the events of the weekend took place. A Jewish tour guide was gravely injured by an Arab mob and had to resort to live fire in self-defense, resulting in the death of one of the attackers. He was interrogated by the Shin Bet for several weeks until the truth came out.
It is high time that the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit and the rest of the security agencies draw the right lessons. If not from the events of two decades ago, then from what has just recently taken place.
Indeed there is a problem of Jewish violence perpetrated by some in the settler community. It’s also troubling to see some senior members of the coalition besmirch of IDF commanders; this is not how the IDF policy shortcomings should be addressed. But it is also important that the IDF, despite the pressures of the media and the tensions in Judea and Samaria, be careful in what it communicates at home and abroad. Unnecessary statements result in costly unforced errors.