Shades of Grey: Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco

Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco

Recently, I have spun off with rapt attention into Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza (Metropolitan Books, 2009). Until I’d read the whole book, I spent a good part of my mornings before going to work, and evenings before going to bed glued to this finely and painstakingly crafted four-hundred (!) page comics-documentary

Beginnings

As is explained in the book’s foreword, the impetus for Footnotes in Gaza stems from a 2001 collaboration for Harper’s magazine between journalist Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco. Hedges was hired as writer and Sacco was working as an illustrator on assignment, which involved travelling to the Gaza Strip. Hedges and Sacco decided to concentrate on the Palestinian response to Israeli occupation in the town of Khan Younis, during the Second Intifada (uprising).

Hedges and Sacco heard repeated testimony from people who personally witnessed the massacre of Palestinians by Israelis in Khan Younis in 1956, many of whom had friends and relatives who were been killed. Hedges described the massacre as part of his final article for Harper’s, but these sections were edited out of the published version.

Sacco was incensed by this deletion, and recognized that very little information about the massacre had ever been printed in English. This led to his researching the Israeli raids on Khan Younis and the neighbouring town of Rafah in greater detail, which in turn became Footnotes in Gaza.

The title of the work derives from Sacco’s comment that:

This is the story of footnotes to a sideshow of a forgotten war…the ongoing raids across the Gaza border by Palestinian guerrillas and Israeli forces; and the footnotes—History can do without its footnotes (8-9).

Sacco suggests, “Footnotes are inessential at best; at worst they trip up the greater narrative” (9). He is referring to the complexity that inevitably arises from becoming entangled in exceptions, doubts, and alternative hypotheses that trip up the neatly packaged history lessons that are generally delivered in newspaper reports and history primers.

My father, a retired history professor, did footnotes for a living. In fact, even retiring has not stopped him from continuing to explore and even obsess over the minutiae of events otherwise lost to the past—forgotten, committed to the silence of memory, or buried in archives, old journal entries, letters and outdated publications. It doesn’t take much for me to buy into Sacco’s general argument, and to sympathize with his cause.

Journalistic Approach

Sacco recognizes how history, and in particular, its footnotes, “…often contain the seeds of the grief and anger that shape present-day events (ix).” He brings his story to life through recounting the eyewitness experiences of the many men and women still living in the Gaza region whom he interviewed for Footnotes in Gaza. In the process, he bears witness to the living memory of atrocities and abuses that were inflicted upon the townsfolk of Rafah and Kahn Younis, as well as addressing the fragility of memory and the subjectivity personal testimony:

Who decides what is credible and what is not? Abed and I, that’s who, sitting in our room drinking coffee. We decide. We edit. We determine. In the absence of UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency] records, or Israeli records—and could we rely on them if we had them?—it’s up to us to fill history’s glass with as much truthful, cogent testimony as we call. If some truth spills along the way, we apologize (277).

 

Artwork

Sacco mentions in “A Note on Names, Portraits, and Interviews” at the end of Footnotes in Gaza that for the individuals who have been given voice in the book, he worked off photographs with the exception of those who requested to remain anonymous—in which case their features were depicted more loosely from sketches. The quality of photographic realism present in Sacco’s work does not detract from his equally cartoonist-inspired style. Sacco is a master of shading and crosshatching, and those scenes in which there is anywhere from an absence of full light to near pitch-darkness are rendered with tremendous precision. The same is true of the many crowd scenes where masses of people are crowded together in cramped enclosures, scenes of dense urban activity, and finally architectural structures (including demolished buildings) that are portrayed from a variety of carefully considered “camera angles.”

As Sacco explained in one video interview excerpt on “The Appeal of Graphic Storytelling,” whereas in a prose description a writer would describe a setting by saying “there was mud everywhere,” in a graphic representation of the same scene, mud could be included in series of panels in which the setting was visually and viscerally brought to life.

The Fedayeen

Sacco’s narrative is a seamless journey through the minds and hearts of numerous witnesses to the events that comprise Footnotes in Gaza, interwoven with detailed historical contextualization. Let us consider series of incidents, which provides some of the background to the 1956 massacres of Khan Younis and Rafah. This is by and large a direct recapitulation of Sacco’s work; I include it to demonstrate the complexity with which Sacco presents his subject matter, and in an attempt to unpack and makes sense of the information for myself.

Mordechai Bar-On, chef-de-bureau to the chief of staff of the Israeli army in the mid-1950s, assumes a central role in recounting to Sacco events of the time. Bar-On explains that Israeli retaliation operations were an attempt to coerce the Palestinian military and police into neutralizing Arab infiltrations into Israeli territory, thus preventing “the spilling of Jewish blood (38).” These efforts were realized through attacks on either the Arab army or civilians, up until a fateful raid led by (future Israeli prime minister) Major Ariel Sharon, in which 42 civilians were killed, including 38 women and children.

In response to the large number of killings on this particular raid, the fedayeen, (Arab guerrillas; the classical Arabic word fida’I means “one who give his life for another or for a cause”) conducted raids into Israeli territory to redeem the Palestinians. Sacco interviews one such anonymous character possessing a somewhat unsavoury and rough demeanour. Initially a soldier in the British army during WWII, he fought against Jewish military in 1948. Later, he joined a Palestinian militia operating under Egyptian command—though not long after that, he was forcibly removed for a time due to associations with the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, only to be eventually reinstated and tasked with surveillance of the Egypt-Israel border. During one patrol, troops allowed Bedouins to graze their sheep in Israeli territory. A gunfight initiated by Israeli soldiers took place, which led to the fedayeen taking matters of retribution into their own hands. Caught during a retaliatory raid by the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization, Sacco’s interview subject was sent by the Egyptians to a prison in Khan Younis.

During this same time period, the Israeli government grew increasingly more antagonistic towards Arabs in the region. In response to an Israeli killing by Palestinians in early 1955, army chief of staff Moshe Dayan directed a raid gone wrong on a small military camp. Accounts vary, but a reported 22 Egyptian soldiers traveling in a truck were killed, as well as an additional 13 people described by one account as “mostly Palestinian.”  In reaction to the raid, riots ensued against Egyptian authorities in Palestinian refugee camps.

Egyptian president Jemal Adbel Nasser was an advocate of pan-Arab nationalism who envisioned North Africa, Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula as one united region. With the uprisings in Gaza, Nasser chose to respond to the Israeli attacks in a way that would rally Arab support. Nasser also purchased arms from Czechoslovakia during the same period.

Here, the story of Sacco’s anonymous fedayeen interviewee and Nasser converge. The soldier was released from prison to join a newly formed Palestinian group of fighters, many of whom were formerly convicted criminals. Many deaths occurred on both Egyptian and Israeli sides in a series of assaults, up until Nasser suspended his fedayeen campaign due to Israel escalating the strength of her attacks. The newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion was being encouraged by military advisors to start a war with Egypt, before the country’s Soviet planes and tanks arrived from Czechoslovakia. He refused, afraid of the reaction of the Americans and British, who were bound by a treaty with the French to protect the borders of the Middle East. Ben-Gurion did, however, continue to mount pressure against Palestinians on the Egyptian border.

The International Scene

Israeli-Arab power politics involved a complex constellation of international players, even in 1956. Israel was buying weapons from France, intent on surpassing the quality of the Soviet stockpile being purchased by Egypt. After a brief period of reprieve during this time, an exchange of gunfire between Egyptians and Israelis escalated to mortar fire, leading to civilian deaths in Israeli kibbutzes. In response, the army chief of staff Dayan ordered a direct attack on Gaza, in which roughly 50 Palestinians civilians were killed, and 100 were injured.

The fedayeen retaliated by conducting an assault on a synagogue in which ten or 11 Israelis were murdered. Israel and Egypt were on the brink of war, and Nasser called a halt to the second fedayeen campaign, due to international pressure.

We learn from Sacco’s fedayeen soldier that initially, Nasser’s goal was to have the fedayeen killed during military action, since many of the soldiers were former criminals. Initially, Nasser’s greater political goal of establishing a pan-Arab state had little to do directly with skirmishes along the Israeli-Egyptian border.

Sacco refers to a famous speech given by Moshe Dayan during a funeral, in which he acknowledged the suffering caused to Palestinians by Israel. For Dayan, conceding this point was strong incentive to forge ahead even more aggressively with a military campaign against Palestinian infiltrators.

Meanwhile, France objected to Nasser’s supporting the rebellion against French colonization in Algeria. The French were providing military arms to Israel, in part in the hopes that Israel would engage in an all-out war with Egypt. Britain was opposed to Nasser’s rule due to his nationalism and anti-colonialism. Furthermore, the British feared that an Arab alliance would threaten British control of oil resources in the area. And lastly, Britain was outraged when Nasser declared that the Suez Canal would be Arab-run, since the canal was the main route for British oil exporters in 1956. Nasser was reacting to the United States and Britain retracting an agreement to fund Egypt’s the Aswan Dam project; this in turn was a reaction to Egypt’s entering into a weapons deal with Czechoslovakia.

Britain, France and Israel were preparing an elaborate plan to lead Nasser into war. The plan would not unfold as anticipated, due to intervention from the United States; however, the seeds of war had been planted, leading to the occupations of Khan Younis and Rafah.

Conversations

Varying perspectives on important subjects addressed in Sacco’s work are not shunned, but provide pause for reflection on a complicated subject, especially for a reader who is not especially familiar with the material.

 

The position of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) is especially well represented in IDF interview excerpts. Unsurprisingly, the IDF are more overtly certain and suspicious about the existence of tunnels leading from Palestinian homes on the Gaza border into Egypt. The appendices possibly shed light on a brief exchange included in Footnotes in Gaza, which occurred in Sacco’s presence, between Khaled, Abed and Hani. Hani is upset that Sacco wants to live in the Rafah refugee camp while he is conducting interviews; he wants Sacco to live in a safer area of town.

“WHAT ABOUT OUR SECRETS?” Hani yells.

“We won’t tell him our secrets.” responds Abed.

“THE CAMP IS FULL OF SECRETS!”

We learn that Palestinian sympathizers have been proven to be Israeli collaborators in the past, which on one occasion led to a missile strike in Rafah. On another occasion, a Jewish woman who drove workers to Israel was also killed.

“Why?” asks Sacco. Khaled can’t remember. Does Hani?

“I don’t recall exactly…but there were reasons.”

Another telling exchange recounts a conversation between Abu Mohammed, a teacher friend of Hani, and a group of friends. Mohammed is critical of Arabs because they are not well enough educated about their own history:

“The cultural production of only one country—Spain—is more than that of the entire Arab world.” Hani grows vehement:

“Colonization and occupation are at fault! Where does our economy come from?” He answers his own question: “FROM THEM!” The colonizers and occupiers.”

“Yes, the economic situation is imposed on us, but what is the Arab military project? What is the Arab economic project? What is the Arab cultural project?” Is everything as it is, Abu Mohammed asks, because of outside forces? “Wasn’t India a colony? And now it’s a nuclear power! We Arabs haven’t done anything” (148-149).

The conversation continues, with Mohammed pointing out that once, in the eighth century, Muslims were the colonizers in Spain. He even comments on the treatment of women in the Arab world, compared with western cultures.

“Old stories are a sure thing.”

On one occasion, in contrast to the looming threat of a war with Iraq, Sacco seems pleased with the certainty of his investigative topic, “Because old stories are always good ones. Old stories are a sure thing (124).”

 

In another telling scene, Sacco is invited by Khaled, a well-respected member of the community, and Abed, Sacco’s fixer, to take photographs of an eight or nine year old boy who was shot in the head the day before. The author declines, suggesting,

After all, what right do I have to intimacy with the poor kid’s corpse? Only time, history, the bone-bleaching years can strip the dead of their privacy and make them sufficiently decent for viewing (260).

The comments above suggest that on an important level, Sacco prefers the emotional distance he is afforded by investigating events that took place over fifty years ago, as opposed to those events taking place before his very eyes. As a journalist striving for some sort of journalistic objectivity, this quality may be considered admirable—and yet Sacco’s research continually brings him face to face with the reality of Gaza; its abject poverty, and the plight of a refugee people struggling to survive.

At the end of Footnotes in Gaza, however, Sacco reveals a different side:

 

Suddenly I felt ashamed of myself for losing something along the way as I collected my evidence, disentangled it, dissected it, indexed it, and logged it onto my chart. And I remembered how often I sat with old men who tried my patience, who rambled on, who got things mixed up, who skipped ahead, who didn’t remember the barbed wire at the gate or when the mukhtars stood up or where the jeeps were parked, how often I sighed and mentally rolled my eyes because I know more about that day than they did (384-385).

The last pages of Sacco’s book are a silent reconstruction of Israeli forces entering Rafah. The fear in Palestinians’ eyes is palpable; we see the troops from the perspective of one person in a crowd of many rushes forward as chaos ensues. Shots are fired into the air; then people are lined up against the wall and killed. Panic ensues, an Israeli soldier begins to swing a heavy club, and all ends in darkness. These last poignant scenes, rendered with a heavy black border, are a dramatic finish to an epic undertaking. We are reminded in the final pages of Footnotes in Gaza that actions speak louder than words.

And yet Edward Said has been quoted as saying that the Palestinians have continually been denied “permission to narrate.” Footnotes in Gaza, above all else, gives voice to the countless Palestinian victims of violence in Khan Younis and Rafah in 1956, at the hands of Israeli troops.

One of Sacco’s interview subjects is Owda Ayesh, described as “Rafah’s unofficial chronicler.” Previous to Footnotes in Gaza, Ayesh wrote a book on the subject of the 1956 Rafah massacre. Sacco remarks, “And his motivations trump my Gaza dilletantism. Israel’s hunt for Palestinian combatants cost him six relatives (173).”

Sacco self-identifies as a dilettante. But in spite of his modesty, and in spite of his knowledge and understanding of Israeli-Palestine history far outweighing that of most westerners, the greatest strength of Footnotes in Gaza lies in Sacco’s storytelling. Weaving from one eyewitness account to the next, Sacco reconstructs the events of the Rafah incident—to which greater space is consecrated in his book—with tremendous care. So much care, in fact, that even Sacco himself seems aware of the limits that he can place on treating his subject for a general audience, as is evidenced in the last pages of the book as the author wraps it up:

We’re finished with our 1956 story. Perhaps there were more revelations to uncover and accounts to hear, but we have reached the point of diminishing returns, and now we cut the cord and let the rest of slide into oblivion. The historian could keep on digging, but he’s tired now, he wants to get on with his own life, and he knows the reader does, too (382).

Appendices

Sacco and a legion of new comics creators have elevated the medium to a previously unknown plateau. Footnotes in Gaza is only black and white in appearance; beneath its surface, the book speaks in shades of grey, as is especially demonstrated by the conflicting statements of Sacco’s interviewees, and the intriguing transcripts included at the end of his volume. The appendices are well worth close attention, since they include excerpts from:

  • diplomatic correspondences from UN observers in the Gaza strip;
  • classified Israeli Defence Force communiqués concerning the “Rafah incident;”
  • newspaper reports commenting on both Khan Younis and Rafah occupation by the Israeli forces;
  • transcripts between IDF chief of staff Moshe Dayan and the Israeli Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee;
  • the “Special Report of the Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (Covering the period 1 November 1956 to mid-December 1956);
  • an extensive interview with Mordechai Bar-On, chef de bureau to Moshe Dayan;
  • an interview with Major Sharon Feingold and Captain Jacob Dallal, IDF spokespersons, on the subject of the demolition of homes in Rafah (including comments on the demolition of Ashraf’s home in a second interview).

Last Words

I know next to nothing about this subject, which is a big part of what compels me to write about Footnotes in Gaza—because in spite of my following events transpiring between Israel and the Palestinians in a confused and cursory way, before reading Palestine and now Footnotes from Gaza, I have never tried to grasp in any depth the history of the region. And were it not for Joe Sacco, in all likelihood I never would.

Sacco has established once again that not all comics are a fast read by any means; this work demands an intense concentration to be fully appreciated, both graphically and on a textual level.

Links:

Eunice Wong on ‘Footnotes in Gaza.’

Embedding video!

I can be a deceptively simple man, as is evidenced by the tremendous pleasure that I’m experiencing from having learned how to embed video in WordPress:


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