Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Footnotes in Gaza: Joe Sacco

I've just finished reading Joe Sacco's 'Footnotes in Gaza' comic book which I found un-put-down-able. Far from being just a comic book about Gaza, I believe this is actually quite an important book, tout court. Sacco and his Gazan friend Abed set out on a long, tedious and often frustrating investigation into two nearly forgotten massacres (in Rafah and in Khan Younis) committed by Israeli troops in 1956, against the backdrop and under cover of the Tripartite aggression on Egypt (the Suez Crisis). Aimed at rooting out and deterring Fedayeen among the Gazan population of that time, the IDF, back then once again an occupying force in Gaza, used methods that resulted in considerable numbers of innocent Gazan men and boys being gunned down in the streets, often indiscriminately, in raids that can only be described as Naziesque.

The chapter 'Mud Tents, Bricks' (p.20) spends about ten pages on the fate and living conditions of the very early years of the Palestinian refugees of 1948, some 200,000 of which ended up in Gaza (thereby tripling its population). It makes for harrowing reading.

I'm not much of a reviewer and I'm short of time, so here's Patrick Cockburn with his review. There's perhaps one thing I disagree with Patrick on: Gaza hasn't changed that much, at least not for the better: it's a running theme throughout the book and voiced by many of its real-life protagonists that things were actually better in back then in 1956 than they are now...

Joe Sacco’s gripping, important book about two long-forgotten mass killings of Palestinians in Gaza stands out as one of the few contemporary works on the Israeli-Palestinian struggle likely to outlive the era in which they were written.

Sacco will find readers for “Footnotes in Gaza” far into the future because of the unique format and style of his comic-book narrative. He stands alone as a reporter-cartoonist because his ability to tell a story through his art is combined with investigative reporting of the highest quality.

His subject in this case is two massacres that happened more than half a century ago, stirred up little international attention and were forgotten outside the immediate circle of the victims. The killings took place during the Suez crisis of 1956, when the Israeli Army swept into the Gaza Strip, the great majority of whose inhabitants were Palestinian refugees. According to figures from the United Nations, 275 Palestinians were killed in the town of Khan Younis at the southern end of the strip on Nov. 3, and 111 died in Rafah, a few miles away on the Egyptian border, during a Nov. 12 operation by Israeli troops. Israel insisted that the Palestinians were killed when Israeli forces were still facing armed resistance. The Palestinians said all resistance had ceased by then.

Sacco makes the excellent point that such episodes are among the true building blocks of history. In this case, accounts of what happened were slow to seep out and were overshadowed by fresh developments in the Suez crisis. Sacco, whose reputation as a reporter-cartoonist was established with “Palestine” and “Safe Area Gorazde,” has rescued them from obscurity because they are “like innumerable historical tragedies over the ages that barely rate footnote status in the broad sweep of history — even though . . . they often contain the seeds of the grief and anger that shape present-day events.”

Governments and the news media alike forget that atrocities live on in the memory of those most immediately affected. Sacco records Abed El-Aziz El-Rantisi — a leader of Hamas (later killed by an Israeli missile), who in 1956 was 9 and living in Khan Younis — describing how his uncle was killed: “It left a wound in my heart that can never heal,” he says. “I’m telling you a story and I am almost crying. . . . They planted hatred in our hearts.”

The vividness and pace of Sacco’s drawings, combined with a highly informed and intelligent verbal narrative, work extremely well in telling the story. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how any other form of journalism could make these events so interesting. Many newspaper or television reporters understand that the roots of today’s crises lie in obscure, unpublicized events. But they also recognize that their news editors are most interested in what is new and are likely to dismiss diversions into history as journalistic self-indulgence liable to bore and confuse the audience.

In fact, “Footnotes in Gaza” springs from this editorial bias against history. In the spring of 2001, Sacco and Chris ¬Hedges (formerly a foreign correspondent of The New York Times) were reporting for Harper’s Magazine about Palestinians in Khan Younis during the early months of the second Palestinian intifada. They believed the 1956 killings helped explain the violence almost 50 years later. Perhaps predictably, however, the paragraphs about the old massacre were cut.

American editors weren’t the only people who found their delving into history beside the point. When Sacco returned to Gaza to search for witnesses and survivors in 2002 and 2003, with Israeli forces still occupying the area, young Palestinians could not understand his interest in past events when there was so much contemporary violence.

Sacco’s pursuit of Palestinian and Israeli eyewitnesses as well as Israeli and United Nations documentation is relentless and impressive. He details the lives of those who help him, notably his fixer Abed, and brings to life two eras of the Gaza Strip, its towns packed with refugees in the early 1950s as they are today.

It was an atmosphere filled with hate. Few Israeli leaders showed any empathy for the Palestinian tragedy. But early in 1956, the Israeli chief of staff Moshe Dayan made a famous speech at the funeral of an Israeli commander killed on the border with Gaza. What, Dayan wondered, explained the Palestinians’ “terrible hatred of us”? Then he answered his own question: “For eight years now they have sat in the refugee camps of Gaza, and have watched how, before their very eyes, we have turned their lands and villages, where they and their forefathers previously dwelled, into our home.” He added that Israelis needed to be “ready and armed, tough and harsh.”

What this meant in practice became clear as Israeli troops took over Gaza six months later. The killings in Khan Younis were relatively straightforward, according to eyewitnesses and a few survivors. The men of the town were told to line up in the main square and were then systematically shot so their bodies lay in a long row. Some who stayed in their homes were killed there.

The episode in Rafah was more complicated and took place over the course of a day, when people were summoned to a school so the Israelis could determine if they were guerrillas or soldiers. Here there were many more survivors than in Khan Younis; they describe how some were shot on their way to the school and others beaten to death with batons as they entered the school courtyard. The Israeli Army did order two officers to conduct an inquiry into the “Rafah incident,” as a top-secret communiqué called it. (The same communiqué said 40 to 60 people were killed and 20 injured.) Sacco’s researcher found no report in military archives.

Gaza has changed radically since Sacco did his research. In 2005, Israel unilaterally dismantled Jewish settlements and withdrew its military forces, although it remained in tight control of Gaza’s borders. In 2007, Hamas seized control, and in 2008-9 the enclave came under devastating Israeli attack. In this bewildering torrent of events, Sacco’s investigation into the 50-year-old killings is one of the surest guides to the hatred with which Palestinians and Israelis confront one another.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.”


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