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.

Khirbet Khizeh

Khirbet Khizeh
S. Yizhar

Khirbet Khizeh has a controversial reputation in Israel and when reading it you can understand why: it questions the legitimacy of pushing Palestinians out of their homes during the 1948-49 war. Even to use the word push suggests I have taken sides, but it is Yizhar’s position and his moral stance, one who’s ambiguity is not in the actions of the participants, but in its oppositional position to the many histories that suggest Palestinians fled without any provocation, that make the book complex criticism.

The novella follows an Israeli army unit at the end of the war as they remove civilians from Palestinian villages. There are no grand battles, no moments of heroism, it is just the tired slog of at the end of a war. The unit comes upon one village; they shoot at it for awhile to chase of the inhabitants; then they enter it and round them up to put them on trucks to send them away. At another not one bullet is shot at the unit, instead the villagers leave peacefully, expecting, as the narrator says, to return home. Yet it is obvious that the unit is clearing the village so that the Israeli’s can have it and populate it in the future. The action is not for survival—it is a land grab. Even the most common place desires are a chance to show how the war has ceased to be about survival and instead of altruism each time the soldiers come upon something of value, an horse, a hoe, a shovel, he suggest that they would like to send these items home, except now that the war has gone on so long it doesn’t seem that important anymore.

Yizhar captures the tension between what the villagers have lost, not only in physical terms, but spiritual, and how the weight of the destruction, fatigue, and tired greed has now become a sense of resignation among the troops.

Walls that had been attentively decorated with whatever was at hand; a home lined with plaster and a molding painted blue and red; little ornaments that hung on the walls, testifying to a loving care whose foundations had now been eradicated; traces of female-wisdom-hath-builded-her-house, paying close attention to myriad details whose time now had passed; an order intelligible to someone and a disorder i which somebody at his convenience had found his way; remnants of pots and pans that had been collected in a haphazard fashion, as need arose, touched by very private joys and woes that a stranger could not understand; tatters that made sense to someone who was used to them—a way of life whose meaning was lost, diligence that had reached its negation, and a great, very deep muteness had settled upon the love, the bustle, the bother, the hopes, and the good and less-good times, so many unburied corpses.

But we were already tired of seeing things like this, we had no more interest in such things. One glance, a step or two were enough for the courtyard, the house, the well, the past and the present, and their attentive silence. And although there might be an abandoned pitchfork or a fine-looking hoe, or a good, and valuable, pipe wrench, momentarily enticing your to pick it up and weigh it in your hand, as one might in a market or a farmyard, and things that ought to be in their place, and even stirring and urge, incidentally, to take the motor from the well and the pipes, five inch, and the beams from above, and the bricks from below, and the wooden boards (we could always find a use for them in our yard) and send them home, there was such a tickling pleasure in getting such easy benefit, in getting rich quick, in picking up ownerless property and making it your own, and conquering it for yourself, and plans were already being made, right away, and it was already decided what was going to be done with almost all of these things at home, and how it would be done—except that we had been in so many villages already, and picked things up and thrown them away, taken them and destroyed them, and we were too used to it—so we picked up the fine looking ownerless hoe, or pitchfork, and hurled it down to the ground, if possible aiming it at something that would shatter at once, so as to relieve it of the shame of not being of use—with real destruction, once and for all, putting an end to its silence.

Khirbet Khizeh is not about heroism, it is about the mechanical grinding of war, not in the sense of front line action, but its uncontrollable nature once it has been set loose. The soldiers are not particularlly cruel, although they often say things such as, “they don’t even have blood in their veins, these Arabs,” and brag they could hit running villagers with the machine gun if only given the chance. The soldiers often speak of who started the war, which wasn’t them, and the expulsion is deserved and that certainty gives them license to steal. Throughout the novella, you have the understanding that no matter how right the war was, the war has become corrupted. They have become inured to the war and if they had away to differentiate between theft and combat at the start of the war (although it doesn’t seem so) they have long since lost it.

The narrative voice adds to the ambiguity and conflict between the defensive war and what the soldiers have become. Most of the novella is written in first person plural and gives one the sense of unit cohesion, of a an army united. Not until the last quarter of the book does the narrator become an I. The switch from we to I signals the arrival of not a moral actor, but the conscience who until now has reflected the fatigue of the soldiers and has not separated himself from them either. Now, though, the the narrator begins to wonder if what they are doing is justified and the change in tense is jarring. But it is a conscience that comes from a unit, a conscience that is enmeshed in a war. The narrator raises the question—do we have to do this—with his unit and Moshce, the leader. No one has a solution and so Mosche says get moving on to the next job, and the conscience that has just appeared is again subsumed back into the war. It is too much to expect the narrator to become a rebel, because he is part of the unit. War may allow one to question, but the imperatives of war are hard to escape.

When writing about war it is easy to over indulge in metaphors that put a barrier between the actual and the figurative. What exactly is hell? I don’t know, but if anyone but Sherman says war is hell, I’ve learned nothing. Khirbet Khizeh, though, takes a different approach. It is impressionistic and figurative, but never in describing combat (there is almost none). Instead, it describes the natural in terms of the beautiful fatigue: a tired mind’s memory of boredom and fatigue. The passages render the boredom into something physical and it give it a visual strength.

Now that we were going down the slope again into the body of the village along one of the lanes, wondering if it were wide enough for the jeep to pass through, and prepared for any kind of surprise that might come our way, as the stillness of the village closed in around the last house in the row, and the houses, still pent up within the walls of their courtyards, apparently breathed as they always had, only with a new astonishment, with the same woven tapestry of generations line by line and thread by thread, with an abundance of fine detail, the reason for each one of which may have been forgotten long ago and dissolved into the general appearance of a structure fixed in its form, like the bustle of ants to raise up something, grain upon gain, which, the larger and more complete it grew, the more shamefully its lack of purpose was laid bare, gradually exposed, and the disgrace of its end, weeping for the oblivion because of what had happened to it: instantly its condemnation was decreed, and very soon, here and there, the first curls of smoke would hesitantly rise, accompanied by curses because everything here was so wet and nothing would catch fire.

Khirbet Khizeh is one of those unique war novels (although it has the same feel as the movie Kippur ) where the absence of actual combat can still raise still deep and troubling issues that, in what seems cliché to say, still haunt us.