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CONVERSATIONS WITH ENDERLIN

CONVERSATIONS WITH CHARLES ENDERLIN
AT FRANCE2 STUDIOS IN JERUSALEM

Charles Enderlin is a French-born Israeli citizen who has served as France2’s Middle Eastern correspondent for several decades. He was the one to whom Talal abu Rahme, the Palestinian cameraman who took the only photographed the al Durah’s under fire on September 30, 2000 at Netzarim Junction, sent his footage. He edited and presented the footage with a commentary based on Talal’s testimony, and he gave out for free about 3 minutes of raw footage from Talal to any station that wanted it. The full set of Talal’s rushes from that day and the next, however, neither he, nor France2 have been willing to the Israeli investigation team or other independent investigators. On October 31, 2003, I had the privilege of viewing the tapes and talking about them with Charles Enderlin and an Israeli cameraman who works for France2. On two subsequent occasions I got to view the tapes and have further conversations with Enderlin.

Charles Enderlin plays a critical role in the Al Durah affair. Without his active effort both to present Talal’s version of events as “news” and to distribute the footage freely to everyone, the tale would never have carried the weight it did. Indeed, had he fired Talal on the spot for trying to put over such a grotesque fake, the story, even the intifada, might have taken a distinctly different turn. And were Enderlin to have reconsidered and admitted his error, the correction could have come much earlier.

Among those of us who think the footage is staged (Shahaf, Poller, Juffa, Huber, etc.), the question about Enderlin comes down to: when did he realize it was a fake? Hard-liners argue that he knew it from the start and is a co-conspirator with Talal in duping the global public. Others grant that, in his eagerness to break such a powerful scoop, he overlooked the evidence, and only realized his error later. But how much later?

I honestly do not know. I have a great deal of respect for the power of cognitive dissonance, for the ability of someone as smart as Charles Enderlin to convince himself that this footage is real – as he continues to insist – because the cost of realizing his error would be too crushing. He certainly made enough comments to me that bespoke his spectacular credulity of both Talal and other Palestinian sources to permit an interpretation that has Enderlin “genuinely” unaware of his mistake. On the other hand, Enderlin has enough of a reputation for dissembling that it could all be show. Ultimately, only Charles Enderlin knows.

Just what Enderlin knew or knows is certainly a matter of concern, especially for anyone concerned with journalistic integrity. What I lay out below involves conversations I had with Charles Enderlin on three different occasions. The first took place on October 31, 2003, and the following two during the following six months… in other words, after all the major attacks on his work had been published – Yom Tov Samya, Esther Schapira, James Fallows. Each of my meetings with him lasted at least an hour, during which I was able to view the tapes. I offer these recollections as evidence for consideration in determining what his knowledge and attitude tells us about his professionalism.

Enderlin and Palestinian Sources, including Talal

My first shock came when I realized that the footage was either boring (rock-thowing) or comically stages scenes. When the Israeli cameraman viewing these scenes with us laughed at one particularly silly scene, I asked him why. “They all seem so fake,” he answered. “That’s my impression,” I responded. At which point Enderlin commented, “Oh, they do that all the time.” “But,” I then asked, “if they stage scenes all the time, why could they not have staged al Durah?” “Oh,” Enderlin replied nonchalantly, “they’re not good enough for that.” [It was only much later that I realized the implications of that remark – without Enderlin’s editorial assist, their work would never “make it” as news.]

Evidence of Enderlin’s credulity about Palestinian sources abounded. During our conversation he got a message which he duly showed me as further evidence that the Al Durah footage was real. It was a press release from a Palestinian hospital claiming that a boy had been shot by Israelis. When I asked him how the hospital could have known what direction the gunfire came from, he gave me a quiet look of contempt as if to say, “where else would it have come from?” Apparently the significant percentage of Palestinian casualties during the Intifada coming from Palestinian fire (often intentional) had not come to his attention.

He repeatedly invoked Talal as an eminently trustworthy and professional journalist. “He was running out of batteries; that’s why he didn’t take much footage of the incident… He called me a number of times from the scene in a panic… he feared for his life.” I asked Charles how he knows that such claims and messages were not part of the performance. “I know him well. Our families have met,” he insisted, “he would not lie to me. You have to understand the cultural meaning of such matters.” I, who had seen Talal lie to Esther Schapira found such reassurances dubious. As for the cultural meaning of such family meetings, I found it difficult to believe that Talal would put his loyalty to Enderlin (no matter how flattered Enderlin might have felt at this social contact with a Palestinian) above his loyalty to the Palestinian cause. Talal is and was a member of the Palestinian Journalists Association, a pro-PLO group that passes on threats from the PA to Palestinian journalists about the consequences of reporting on matters that might put the PA in a bad light.

Later in our first meeting, I again tried, very gently to suggest that he might review the case. “I think you have to at least consider as a working hypothesis, that you may have been duped.” “Impossible,” he responded, “it never would have even occurred to Talal to attempt this.” “Why?” I asked, unable to imagine the answer. “Because in order to do so, he would have had to imagine that he could get such a fake by me, and since he would have known that would be impossible, he never would have even entertained the idea.” As tragic as this case was, I had to marvel at the combination of Talmudic logic and Gallic arrogance that his formulation embodied.

Enderlin’s Hand-drawn Map of the Incident at Netzarim Junction

My second major shock at this first meeting came when Enderlin drew me a map of Netzarim Junction (see above). Not only did he make minor but significant errors like the emplacement of the van behind which Talal photographed the key scenes (too far forward), but he placed the Israeli encampment on the wrong side of the intersection. (Among other things, this error rendered Talal’s taking cover behind the van incomprehensible, something Enderlin noticed and tried to correct by moving the van out of the line of fire). This is a stunning “error” which shows either a radical ignorance of the situation – and therefore of all the evidence in question – or outright dishonesty that counted on my ignorance to succeed. I personally think it was ignorance, because Enderlin made no effort to protect this damning piece of evidence and I left with it among my notes. But that’s hardly conclusive. He may have just assumed I was stupid/ignorant/lazy.

This map deserves some reflection. The whole thrust of the Yom Tov Samya report is that a) given the angles of fire , the Israelis could not have hit the boy, and b) given the circular dust clouds kicked up by the two bullets that hit the wall, at least some of the fire came from the Palestinian side. In placing the Israelis on the NE rather than the NW side of the intersection, Enderlin revealed his fundamental illiteracy in this matter. Anyone who read the reports, even superficially, could realize where the Israelis were. As for Enderlin, one would presume that he already knew this before he released the footage with the claim that the fire came from the Israelis.

In placing the Israelis on the side opposite the barrel, Enderlin was, in his own way, acknowledging that the fire came from that direction and trying to make the Israelis responsible. I had to marvel at the shoddiness of such an effort, aimed at gaining the adherence of only the most ignorant observers (e.g., me). And I had to wonder whether it was intentional (i.e., Enderlin was lying), unconscious (i.e., Enderlin had read the report about the direction of the bullets, could not admit its findings, and needed to re-imagine the layout of the intersection to save his “innocence”), or reflects a staggering ignorance about the intersection which implies that Enderlin never read Yom Tov Samya’s report or any of the other critiques of his work. (I have heard that he drew similar maps for other visitors, and if anyone has had a similar experience I would be most interested in hearing about it.)

In any case, this map makes Enderlin into at best a strikingly sloppy journalist, inexcusably uninformed about critical details involved in one of his own most important reports, or, at worst, a contemptuous liar. It is up to him to clarify.

Blood and Bullets

During later visits to the France2 offices, I raised other troubling aspects of the dossier, in particular the absence of Israeli bullets recovered either at the site or from the bodies of Muhamed and his father Jamal (11 bullet wounds claimed). “There are no bullets,” I asserted, with Talal’s face smiling nervously as he gets caught in his lie by Esther Schapira in my mind. “The general has them,” Enderlin replied, as if he knew Talal’s first maneuver ("you, you spoke to one from the general... he could tell you"), but not how badly that move had ended. “Then why is there no public record of what kind of bullets, no ballistic investigation – where are the bullets?” I asked. “The general has them,” he replied, “in a sack in his drawer.” At this point I was flabbergasted. (The word sac in French made it sound like a little bag of marbles, sac de billes.) “And you believe him?” I asked incredulously. “Why not?” he responded. “I trust him as much as I trust Yom Tov Samya!”

Like Enderlin’s map, this response deserves some reflection. On one level he was playing the moral equivalence game of “even-handedness.” By invoking an Israeli general for comparison, he in principle had put me in the position of sounding like some kind of racist if I didn’t trust the Palestinian general as much as the Israeli. So what if the Israeli general had presided over an extensive investigation from which he drew cautious conclusions and the Palestinian one had not because “in matters where we know the culprits we don’t do investigations”? For Enderlin it was apparently ‘same, same.’

But appearances can deceive. The real meaning of his statement actually reverses the moral equivalence of whom one trusts. Given Enderlin’s map, if he was not lying to me outright, then he had not read Yom Tov Samya’s investigation, and in any case, he had dismissed its findings out of hand – so much so, that he still didn’t know the simplest facts of the case. So in fact, he did not trust Yom Tov Samya despite the man’s investigation, and he did trust the Palestinian general despite the man’s lynch-mob mentality in which one does not investigate when one already “knows” the guilty party.

On my final visit, I also raised the point that, on the next day Talal’s footage of the barrel, taken early in the morning, shows no blood on the ground behind the barrel nor on the wall against which the two had sought cover. Enderlin looked closely and claimed that one can see a slightly darker patch behind the barrel, which could be sand covering the blood. “Why would the Palestinians want to clean up the blood? And why was there no blood on the wall?” I asked, thinking of the photo taken later that day in which they added blood to the scene in time for the arrival of the foreign press (but not to the wall). “How should I know?” Enderlin responded impatiently, as if it were not his task to explore such minutiae.

Talking to Enderlin, in his Office, in Court

Talking with Enderlin was always a difficult task. I needed to seem sufficiently sympathetic for him to let me see the footage, but I never hid from him my reactions to the evidence or my sense that he had been duped. Any time I came close to actually confronting him, he grew angry and began shouting – a reaction another person who interviewed him at length also experienced (Gutmann, The Other War, p. 72-3). I did not press him closely on some of his more outrageous claims, such as, the “shots of the boy’s death agony” that he had cut because it was “too painful to look at,” although that has turned out to be one of his more egregious lies.

His favorite argument is “Look the Israelis admitted it, and if they had even the slightest suspicion of wrongdoing they would have arrested Talal a long time ago.” And while it is worth asking why the Israelis have not pursued this, it is at best a massively evasive response in that it avoids addressing the extensive evidence for fraud – Talal’s and possibly Enderlin’s. His other “out” is to claim that he’s lost too much time on this issue; that his opponents are just obsessed, and extreme right-wingers; and that he has other things to do. “J’en ai assez!” I’ve had enough. He may have lost time, but many have lost their lives and their loved ones in the aftermath of his release of such a hate-mongering message. To claim personal fatigue at this point strikes me as the height of bad faith.

Ultimately, I think that only a court case in which both Talal and Enderlin are submitted to a rigorous cross-examination and cannot wiggle out of the myriad contradictions that their statements and the evidence reveal will help us understand just what happened when this tragic farce hit the global community with the force of a psychological atomic bomb.

Enderlin never ceases to claim that he will sue anyone who dares to question his good faith, and he has pursued some things in the courts. Surely what I have written here merits his legal response if he really believes he is innocent. Let the court case begin. Let the world see Talal’s scandalous raw footage with which Enderlin regularly made his sausages, and let Charles Enderlin and Talal Abu Rachmeh sit in the witness box, under oath, and explain to the world what they did and why.

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