Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco – A Review

Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel
Joe Sacco, 432 pages, Metropolitan Books

Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza is his most ambitious work to date, both in page size and in the depth of his reporting. It is not only a book about current events as all of them are, but a detailed examination of events in Gaza in the mid 50’s. The search for witnesses of the events in Khan Younis and Raffa not only make the book more involved, opening questions of memory and truth, but also creates a contrasting history that is frustrating in its continuation of a conflict that has existed over 60 years.

The book is covers two different areas, the events in Khanunis and Raffa and what led up to them, and the events in Gaza during the early 2000’s before Hamas took over Gaza. Sacco spends most of his time investigating the history in part because he wants to look at some lesser known events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For Sacco it is not only the events themselves that are interesting, but the process of creating the story, the way memory is shaped by the survivors, current events,  and those taking down the stories. Sacco makes it clear that the memories of the survivors and witnesses to these events vary in reliably. Often Sacco would find people who mixed events, or, worse for Sacco, wanted only to push a political agenda. When Sacco finds a fidayeen veteran he shows repeated scenes of the man talking about events he thinks are important, avoiding what Sacco is after, but Sacco continues on, sure the man has the story he is looking for. Eventually he get what he is looking for, but throughout the book is the interplay of the journalist and the story. As the he goes deeper and deeper into researching the story it appears he becomes intoxicated by the act of searching for the story, knowing what will actually be relevant. In doing so, he controls the narrative, yet his depiction of the process is a refreshing reflection on the act of journalism. Sacco has always been aware in his works how journalists become adventure seekers and how that distorts part of the story. His Christmas with Karadzic in War’s End: Profiles From Bosnia 1995-1996 is probably his clearest expression of the phenomenon.

From all the interviews and archival research (20 pages of the book are reprints of archival documents) Sacco tells the little known story of mass killings of Palestinian refugees in Khan Younis and Raffa by the Israeli Army. While exact numbers are not clear, all together a few hundred may have died in these incidents. In Khan Younis the survivors tell of a systematic rounding up of men between 15 and 60 and their mass execution and the forced quick burial. Since most of what happened in Khan Younis was witnessed by just a few survivors, Sacco only has a couple testimonies of Palestinian men who escaped the shooting. There are plenty of post incident witnesses, the women and children who helped in the burials, along with UN reports that say something happened, and Israeli reports that say the soldiers were panicked and shot in self defense. Sacco’s rendering of the survivor’s testimony is vivid and it is clear that he thinks that the Palestinian story is what happened.

The events in Raffa, on the other hand, were less brutal and so there are many more survivors. In Raffa, the Israeli army rounded up all the men and sent them through a gantlet where they had to jump over barbed wire while being clubbed by soldiers. Sacco notes that the memories of the survivors don’t always agree, but from each of repeated images he finds he structures a narrative that he thinks is most likely what happened. As with Khan Younis, the Israeli’s come off as brutal and arbitrary, more interested in killing and terrorizing than finding fidayeen in amongst the refugees. The story of Raffa is the most compellingly researched and has the best interplay between memory and journalism.

But what preceded the incidents? Sacco explains some of the history that had occurred since the 1948 war when Palestinian refugees spilled into Gaza. He notes that the border was easy to cross and little by little a series of tit-for-tat  killings and attacks by refugees, Israeli’s and Egyptian sponsored terrorist squads called the fidayeen, led to a state of violence where the refugees in Gaza became victims of power plays between Egypt and Israel. The cross border attacks had gone on for several years and both sides had hardened their positions substantially. Sacco includes a quote from Moshe Dayan who noted that Israel had to be strong, but in doing so the Palestinians, too, would harden and continue to fight. It is amongst these incidents the larger incidents in Khan Younis and Raffa occurred.

For Sacco, it is relatively obvious that the Israelis committed the abuses described in the books even though they deny they did. He notes that even right wing historian Benny Morris agrees that there were killings in the two refugee camps. However, given the state of tensions between the two sides it seems impossible for something even resembling agreement to be reached on what happened.

The notion of agreement and the problematic search for the past, continually surfaces amongst the modern day inhabitants who are only interested in the present and continually tell Sacco why do you bother with the past, it doesn’t help the present. Recovering the past doesn’t feed one, but given the endless tit-for-tat that can consume one’s perspective, a look back at the historical can help. Sacco’s nuanced reflection on one little part of the past is an excellent look at some of the events that had served to lock the conflict in its current stalemate. Unfortunately, his book will probably be taken by many as belonging to one side.

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