Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel
by Joe Sacco
Reviewed by Steve Duin
When Abed El-Aziz El-Rantisi sat quietly and listened to the memories of the massacre at Khan Younis, he could still hear the screaming and wailing over the body of his uncle.
"I couldn't sleep for many months after that," El-Rantisi told Joe Sacco three years before the Hamas official was assassinated by an Israeli missile. "It left a wound in my heart that can never heal.
"They planted hatred in our hearts."
After spending three months examining the roots of that hatred, and more than six years getting his graphic thoughts in order, Sacco doubts that peace will break through the scorched earth of the Gaza Strip.
"I hold out less hope now than ever," the Portland cartoonist said.
Yet as you quietly make your way through Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel, and the murderous echoes of the Israeli purges at Khan Younis and Rafah, what hope and optimism remains for journalism and comics.
Sacco first became curious about the extraordinary events of November 1956 when Harper's Magazine enlisted journalist Chris Hedges and Sacco to report on how Palestinians in Khan Younis were dealing with the Israeli occupation in 2001.
During the Suez Canal Crisis, a United Nations document suggested, the Israelis killed 275 Palestinians in the camp. Nine days later, Sacco discovered another 111 Palestinians were killed in Rafah.
For young Palestinians who don't have "the luxury of digesting one tragedy before the next one is upon them," Sacco's curiosity about "the events of 1956 (was met) with bemusement. What good would tending to history do them when they were under attack and their homes were being demolished now?"
But Sacco, 49, didn't want all trace of the carnage visited upon those villages to vanish with raw memories of the survivors. He understood the killings in Khan Younis and Rafah were mere "footnotes to a sideshow of a forgotten war."
He wanted to raise their profile, if only for the sake of "the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of refugees who arrived with nothing and for whom nothing fundamental has changed."
Footnotes to Gaza is a milestone of comics and journalism. When Sacco was researching this graphic history in Gaza in 2002, his guide, Abed Elassouli, would often introduce the cartoonist to potential interviews by presenting them with a copy of Palestine, Sacco's first (1991) swan dive into the Middle East.
"When they opened the book," he said, "they got a view of what they were living." Had his portrait been in prose, Sacco added, "They wouldn't have gotten what I was doing. Because it was comics, they got it right away."
The experience should be no different for Sacco's American audience.
As the United States was gearing up for the war in Iraq -- and Israel and the Palestinians swapped the lead role in their endless murder-suicide pact -- Sacco interviewed dozens of the aging Palestinians who lived through the 1956 massacres.
Although he dutifully reports the rationale that Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir forwarded to Dag Hammarskjold, the U.N. secretary general -- the United Nations' food depot was "attacked by an unruly mob," Meir insisted, "and Israel authorities were compelled to take action to prevent large-scale looting and destruction" -- Sacco's exhaustive research reaches dramatically different conclusions.
One Palestinian after another remembered Israeli troops pulling their fathers and uncles from their homes on Nov. 10, 1956, lining them up against the walls of Khan Younis' Mamluk castle, and gunning them down.
Two days later, the soldiers ordered all the young males into the streets of Rafah and marched them down to the local schoolyard, beating them with baseball bats as they ran the gauntlet into the school, and shooting any Palestinian who tried to break away.
"There was an attempt to screen for Palestinians who were in the Egyptian Army," Sacco said, "but it also seemed they were trying to terrorize the military-age male population.
"They did terrorize people. Who knows what that spawned in the long run?"
Beyond, of course, a generation of Abed El-Aziz El-Rantisis.
Sacco's attention to detail in his drawing and his journalism is extraordinary. He is, he argues "a newspaperman at heart," in endless pursuit of "the facts, the definitive version, not a bunch of 'on the other hands' and 'possibles' or even 'probables.'"
And the disdain for "objective journalism" that he acquired at the University of Oregon is largely rooted in his early exposure to media coverage of the Middle East conflict.
"When I was growing up, the only time Palestine was mentioned on television was when there was a hijacking, a bombing or a rocket fired at Israel," Sacco said. "In my mind, I associated Palestine with terrorism."
Gaining a more balanced view of the deep-seated -- and deep-seeded -- hatred, and the context of the atrocities committed by both sides, required "a long self-education," Sacco said. "It took reading. It meant spending time in Europe. Europeans have a more nuanced perspective about the Palestinians. They don't have the filter of American journalism."
Sacco makes no apologies for a viewpoint that is sympathetic to the Gaza refugees, and no concession that he sacrifices one speck of truth to that perspective. When the eyewitness testimony is flawed, and a tower of memories collapses, he is fastidious in negotiating the rubble. When he hears the ring of trauma, not truth, he closes his notebook.
"It's up to us," he writes during one of his evening gut-checks with his Palestinian guide, "to fill history's glass with as much truthful, cogent testimony as we can."
Footnotes in Gaza is energized by Sacco's relentless reporting, self-deprecating asides ("And thus begins the aggravating mismatch pitting hapless cartoonist against wily ex-guerrilla,") and the design sense that he brings to each of its 389 pages. The graphic investigation provides essential context for the bitterness that keeps Palestinians and Israelis at one another's throats.
And it rescues the terrible events of November 1956 from the "pile of obscurity" that is the final, silent resting place for the refugees who lack a champion and a voice.