Religion News Service: In-depth. Impartial. Engaged.

Blogs » Omid Safi - What Would Muhammad Do?

What Would Muhammad Do? has moved: Click here to read the latest posts

Remembering a young boy martyred on live TV, and yearning for peace in Palestine/Israel


Today marks the 12th anniversary of the martyrdom of a little boy, whose tragic death was captured on live TV.

The little boy was Muhammad al-Durrah, a 12-year old Palestinian boy who was shot and killed by Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza on September 30th, 2000.   The entire footage was caught on tape by French media and became a global item of discussion—particularly outside of the United States.

What made this martyrdom so simultaneously heartbreaking and appalling was the sight of the frightened young boy cowering behind his father.  The father sadly, urgently, and pathetically tried to shield his little son, and begged anyone in sight to stop shooting.    A few seconds later, the boy had been shot, limped into his father’s arms, and passed away.

He was not the first martyred civilian, nor the last.   He was not the first Palestinian, nor the first Israeli, who was unjustly and brutally killed.  But there is something about this violent, and public, death that touches the soul of everyone who sees these images.    The helplessness of the father comes to mirror our own sense of helplessness, and outrage, and then resolve that this wrong must not happen.   

This was a tragedy upon a tragedy, wrapped up in agonizing frustration.  The uprising in Gaza, the Second Intifada, was started when Ariel Sharon, a prime minister candidate for the hardliner Israeli Likud Party, marched in the company of over a thousand armed Israeli soldiers onto the hotly disputed area near Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque that Muslims refer to as “The Noble Sanctuary” (al-haram al-sharif).   

Sharon, repeating the famous statement from 1967, said

The Temple Mount is in our hands and will remain in our hands.

The next day Palestinians demonstrated against Sharon’s provocation, and the Israeli defense forces opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators, killing seven and injuring over a hundred.  That began what was referred to as the Second Intifada

The martyrdom of the little boy Muhammad al-Durrah took place in the context of this uprising.      Over 5,000 Palestinians and about a thousand Israelis were killed in the context of the Second Intifada, with the majority of conflicts coming between Israeli Defense Forces and Palestinian civilians.   

Behind and through the political context of any story there are the human beings who experience these moments. 
Here are the words of the grieving father:

This is something we can never forget. My son...he was martyred in my lap. I could not protect him…I tried but... I still feel the pain. Not just mentally, but also physically from the effects of the bullets which penetrated my body.

The discrepancy between the Israelis and Palestinians is not just in wealth or in military prowess, areas in which Israel’s resources dwarf the Palestinians.  It is also in access to media, legal resources, and procedural justice.   The father of the martyred boy laments:

The Israeli occupation recruited an army of lawyers to support its case, nobody stood with us...
I condemn the silence of Palestinian officials…
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.

The Palestinians (and many Muslims worldwide) continue to remember Muhammad al-Durrah as a symbol of the injustice inflicted on Palestinians.    One life taken, one Jewish life or Palestinian life, is one life too many.   As both the Qur’an and the Jewish tradition concur, to have saved the life of any one person would be equal to saving the life of all of humanity.   Yet the constant narrative of “Palestinian terrorism and Israeli need for security” obfuscates the simple brutal facts on the ground:  the Palestinians have paid with death at a rate far greater than Israelis over the last 12 years.   Any conversation about “Israeli security” that leaves aside this far greater Palestinian loss of life at the hands of the Israeli Defense Force makes a mockery of what has been the reality of Palestinian life and death.

The Israeli coverage of the shooting of Muhamamd al-Durrah has focused on protracted legal battles to dismiss the legitimacy of this case, and to cast aspersions on the family, the cameramen, and the French media agency.

Let us work and pray for the day when there are no more boys and no more girls martyred, and that all the children of Abraham come to live together side by side in justice and equality.  

Getting there will necessitate the establishment of a state where every Israeli and every Palestinian can be guaranteed access to exactly and identically the same set of rights and privileges, regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, or gender.     

Getting there will be the best, and only, way to truly honor the life of a boy which was ended far too young, far too violently, and far too publicly.  

Let us hope that that day of peace will come to the City of Peace, and let us hope that history will record us as being participants in making it so.

Tags: gaza, idf, intifada, israel, israeli defense force, jerusalem, martyr, muhammad al-durrah, palestine, security, sharon


  1. Beautiful piece Omid, just one clarification: the total Israeli deaths in the B’tzelem table you linked to from your piece is not 1,000, it’s 702.  Each lost life is a tragedy, but it does change the ratio of Palestinian to Israeli deaths from 5/1 to 7/1,

  2. Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem: “For the 500th Dead Palestinian, Ibtisam Bozieh”
    Little sister Ibtisam,
    our sleep flounders, our sleep tugs
    the cord of your name.
    Dead at 13, for staring through
    the window into a gun barrel
    which did not know you wanted to be a doctor…  from “19 Varieties of Gazelle”

  3. If Israel were to lay down it’s arms, it would be decimated by those who’ve opposed it’s existence since 1946. But if these zealots were to acknowledge Israel’s right to that tiny portion of the Middle East, and lay down their weapons, there would be peace.

  4. dear Ross, if you look at the history of the peace movement between Palestinians and Israelis, you would see that Palestinians have in fact recognized Israel’s right to exist: 

    “Yasser Arafat, the late PLO Chairman and leader of Fatah, wrote in a Sep. 9, 1993 letter to former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin prior to the signing of the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles:
    “The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.

    The PLO accepts United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.

    The PLO commits itself to the Middle East peace process, and to a peaceful resolution of the conflict between the two sides and declares that all outstanding issues relating to permanent status will be resolved through negotiations. “

    Furthermore, the Arab states have established recognizing Israel in the context of peace treaties between Palestine and Israel.  I would be happy to send you documents here as well.

    however, it is also worth asking that if we ask Arab states/Palestinians to recognize Israel’s right to exist, which Israel are they recognizing?  Israel refuses to declare its border, so are people being asked to abide by the 1967 Israel in the context of a two-state solution?  Are they being asked to accept an Israel in which Jerusalem is shared?  are they being asked to accept an Israel in which Palestinians and Israelis share a state with equal rights guaranteed for all? 

    Quite apart from the question of the recognition of Israel’s right to exist, the above is an important question that deserves clarification.

    Lastly, I absolutely fail to see what the conversation about “zealots” has to do with the murder of a 12 year old unarmed civilian boy. 

Sign In

Forgot Password?

You also can sign in with Facebook or Twitter if you've connected your account to them.

Sign In Using Facebook

Sign In Using Twitter