Nahum Shahaf’s relentless Muhammad al-Dura dissent

The man who spurred on much of the investigation into the killing of the Gaza 14-year-old reflects on the controversy and vows to persevere

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Nahum Shahaf at work in his study (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)
Nahum Shahaf at work in his study (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

Suspend what you think you know about the killing of Muhammad al-Dura, and step into Nahum Shahaf’s Ramat Gan apartment.

There’s a certificate on the wall: The Ministry of Science’s 1997 prize given to him for his work developing a system for compressing video footage into small, storable bytes.

Nearby is a picture of him on a hang glider. Why, yes, he is “the Israeli representative to the United States Hang Gliding Association.”

Farther along: a “see-through” wall of mirrors, a bullet-ridden piece of metal and a smattering of clippings, folders and photocopied pages.

Shahaf is 67. As a physicist, he helped develop CT technology while working for the innovative company Elscint. He was a leader in developing the second generation of Israel’s unmanned aircraft. He was at the forefront of a military intelligence unit dealing with optic intelligence. In 1989, working with Israel Aircraft Industries, he helped develop “smart missiles” for Israeli attack helicopters. He developed a system that enables unmanned aircraft to assist in delivering accurate artillery strikes. And, during the fall of 2000, he launched a crucial investigation into the iconic and excruciating footage of 14-year-old Gazan Muhammad al-Dura’s apparent death — a saga that continues till today.

But be fair warned, there is a road bike at the entrance to Shahaf’s apartment, and if you indulge him, he will talk about bikes for as long as you like: front and rear suspension, off-road and on.

I came to Nahum Shahaf’s home on Wednesday because it was here that the boy’s death was first called into question, and this day, April 3, 2013, was supposed to be another milestone on the still-spiraling tale.

“This is Shahaf,” he said into his cellphone during my visit.

On the other end of the line was Yossi Kuperwasser, the director general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs.

“Have you heard anything?” Shahaf asked.

A French Court of Appeals was to deliver a ruling on a defamation case revolving around Shahaf’s investigation of the events of September 30, 2000.

Kuperwasser had no news; in fact, the court on Wednesday postponed a verdict in the case to May 22. But Shahaf is understandably pleased nonetheless that the prime minister has made Kuperwasser, formerly the head of research for the IDF’s military intelligence directorate, the accessible point man for all matters al-Dura.

For a long time, after all, no one was interested in hearing what he had to say.

Shahaf watched the evening news on that September day, the eve of Rosh Hashanah, two days after Ariel Sharon made his famous visit to the Temple Mount, and was incredulous. “It made no sense,” he said, recalling that he noted the presence of TV cameras all around the Gaza junction, and the well-fortified position the IDF soldiers held. “And it seemed unfeasible, geometrically speaking.”

The footage itself is brutal: a child unceremoniously killed in his father’s arms. The father, Jamal, waves frantically at the soldiers to stop shooting. He does everything physically possible to shield his son. But at the end of the clip, the boy, Muhammad, is gunned down and lifeless across his father’s knees.

The Al-Dura shooting (YouTube Screenshot)
The Al-Dura shooting (YouTube Screenshot)

President Bill Clinton wrote in his memoir that he was moved by the image. Osama bin Laden vowed never to forget the sight of the dead boy. Daniel Pearl’s killers included a picture of al-Dura on the video footage of the Wall Street Journal reporter’s murder.

Right away, Shahaf left a message for Maj. Gen Yom-Tov Samia, the head of the Southern Command. He introduced himself as a physicist with a background in intelligence and asked that the general keep the scene of the shooting intact and that they speak about launching an investigation into the shooting.

Eleven days passed before Samia returned his call. In the interim, Israeli Arabs rose up in mass protest. During the course of the demonstrations, which began the day after the shooting, Israeli police killed 13 Arab citizens of Israel. On the following day, two Israeli soldiers were lynched and killed in Ramallah. As the violence spread through Gaza, the IDF leveled the wall against which Jamal and Muhammad al-Dura had sought refuge. And Samia, on October 3, reportedly said about the al-Dura incident, “It could very much be — this is an estimation — that a soldier in our position, who has a very narrow field of vision, saw somebody hiding behind a cement block in the direction from which he was being fired at, and he shot in that direction.”

In mid-October Shahaf met Samia and the two agreed to launch an investigation. Within weeks, Shahaf and other members of the investigative team determined that the general’s “estimation” was physically unfeasible. First, the angles were wrong. The Israeli position, at roughly 45 degrees to the concrete barrel, had no line of fire except through the barrel, and the barrel itself, on the original footage, was hit several times during the course of the day but never once penetrated.

Second, the bullet marks on the wall, the neat round entry holes, speak to a shot from straight on and not from an angle. The same is true of the dust marks. A bullet that slams into a wall from straight ahead bores deep into the concrete and creates a small plume of dust. A bullet fired from an angle does not necessarily lodge itself in the wall and makes a markedly different sort of dust cloud. “The amount of dust from an oblique angle is greater by a factor of 100,” Shahaf said. “That’s just pure science.”

As a former ballistics instructor at Bar Ilan University, he concluded “100 percent” that no one from the IDF position had shot father or son.

Going much farther, he also concluded, with a “99 percent degree of certainty,” that the child shown in the footage was not killed on that September day.

In an editorial in October 2000, the Haaretz daily wrote “It is hard to describe in mild terms the stupidity of this investigation.”

As the second intifada raged, the military and political leadership in Israel distanced itself from Shahaf. Sitting on his living room couch, he said, “I can either be politically correct or a scientist. Not both at the same time.”

He likened himself to Albert Einstein. “In 1905, Einstein wrote four papers that changed the way we think about the world,” he said, counting them off. “But it took five years before he was even offered a position at a university. The farther you go, the more difficult it is for people to accept.”

And Shahaf has gone far. In fact, when the al-Dura story broke he was busy investigating the November 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. He found that an inexplicable amount of time elapsed between the shooting and the time of arrival at the hospital. The testimony of the operating physician clashed with the pathological report as to both the number of bullets fired and the manner in which they entered Rabin’s body. And the prime minister’s jacket, Shahaf said, bears the mark of a contact gunshot, a tear created only when the muzzle of a gun is pressed against the fabric. This is just “the very tip of the iceberg” of the incongruous facts,” he said. (The Supreme Court rejected Rabin assassin Yigal Amir’s appeal on August 5, 1996, upholding his life sentence and saying that his lawyers’ theory about a second gunman was “rooted in fantasy.”)

Few took Shahaf’s claims on the al-Dura case seriously until 2003, when James Fallows of The Atlantic interviewed him in his Ramat Gan apartment about it. “He came for a few hours and stayed for two whole days,” Shahaf said.

The former chief speechwriter for president Jimmy Carter and widely respected journalist wrote in a seminal article in the June 2003 issue of The Atlantic that, “It now appears that the boy cannot have died in the way reported by most of the world’s media and fervently believed throughout the Islamic world. Whatever happened to him, he was not shot by the Israeli soldiers who were known to be involved in the day’s fighting — or so I am convinced, after spending a week in Israel talking with those examining the case.”

Fallows’ report, based heavily on Shahaf’s investigation, led to a February 2005 American Academy of Forensic Sciences invitation to write and present a paper, along with an award from Israel’s Media Watch and, presumably, to Philippe Karsenty’s decision to publicly call on French 2 Jerusalem bureau chief Charles Enderlin and his boss at France 2, news production chief Arlette Chabot, to resign.

Seated in his study, a dark room dominated by two large-screen monitors and orderly piles of amassed material – including photos of Rabin’s blood-drenched undershirt, X-rays of the prime minister’s bullet-ridden body, and video footage of soldiers reenacting the al-Dura shooting at Netzarim Junction – Shahaf said that, “as a scientist I am compelled to go all the way.”

“But I am the opposite of a conspiracy theorist,” said Shahaf, who also stated at the close of our conversation that he intends in the near future to sue Enderlin and France 2 in the United States. “I say you should not believe in theories. If you have a theory – then you need to check it.”

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