The graphic novel has emerged from its expanded comic-book, detective-thriller, and pulp-fiction origins to become a powerful literary genre. Belying its name, the form has been applied to great effect as nonfiction. Art Spiegelman’s Maus comes to mind, in which the author/illustrator describes his father’s experience as a Holocaust survivor. In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi tells the story of growing up in modern Iran.
In two previous books, Safe Area Gorazde and Palestine, Maltese-born American journalist and illustrator Joe Sacco established himself as a master in the genre. Footnotes in Gaza charts his visit to Gaza in 2002–03 to investigate two massacres of Palestinians that occurred in November 1956. The killings, carried out by Israeli troops during the Suez crisis, took the lives of 275 unarmed Palestinian civilians in the towns of Khan Younis and Rafah. At the time, the events drew little international attention and are now largely forgotten—except by the communities where they occurred.
Today, the majority of Gaza’s 1.5 million people are refugees or their descendants—Palestinians who were driven from their farms, villages, and cities by Jewish forces during the campaign to establish the State of Israel between 1947 and 1949. This historical background is the core of Sacco’s story. Early on he provides a shocking picture of how these Palestinians were banished to tent camps in the sands of Gaza, “landless, destitute, hungry; dependent on meager handouts.”
William Faulkner famously wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In Footnotes in Gaza the pictures of what happened at Khan Younis and Rafah in 1956 alternate with the present scene of crowded cities bursting at the seams with restless energy and seething rage. Sacco depicts the grinding desperation of families attempting to make ends meet under forced resettlement and occupation. He reports on the late-night gatherings of aging, exhausted freedom fighters and unemployed young men. And, always, there are the memories—of dispossession, humiliation, loss—and the ineradicable hope of return to the land itself and to a condition of dignity and visibility.
Sacco walks the streets and visits the homes of Khan Younis and Rafah, searching for eyewitnesses to the massacres. More often, however, it is the horrors of the present that confront him. He encounters a woman on a street corner, watching the demolition of her neighborhood by Israeli bulldozers. She assails the author with the question, “What’s all this ‘little by little’? Why don’t they get rid of us in one go?” It is not only her home and her memories that are being destroyed, but the future. Her son is down the street hurling stones at the bulldozer. “Can’t you stop him?” Sacco asks. “You can’t stop them!” she screams back. “The blood of the Intifada is in the boys!” Reading this, I thought of Fawzieh al-Kurd, the matriarch of one of the Palestinian families forcibly expelled last year from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers. I sat with her in the flimsy tent she had pitched outside the house as protest against this outrage. I remember her pain as she told me about her grandson, a brilliant student who now dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot.
Sacco’s book feels too long. One loses track of the characters, and the story line rambles and doubles back on itself. This narrative style reflects the experience of its subjects. Despite their bitter experience, the Gazans continue to hope for improvement in their situation. Instead, their life is a story of crushing, cruel repetitions. Many of Sacco’s Gazans cannot sort out when a particular death or incursion occurred—was it 1952? ’56? ’67? In this respect, Sacco’s book resembles Lebanese author Elias Khouri’s magnificent 1998 Gate of the Sun. Khouri writes about the Palestinian villagers driven from their homes in Galilee between 1947 and 1949, who fled north to Lebanon to live in the open and in temporary shelters until 1952, when the great majority were placed in refugee camps. Like Khouri’s book, Footnotes in Gaza tells what happens to identity when it loses its place—when the ground upon which you raised your children and tended the earth is taken away by force. For Sacco’s Gazans, like Khouri’s fictional characters, truth and legend blur. Dreams, memory, and desire swirl in an unending cycle of military invasion, economic deprivation, and political anomie.
Footnotes in Gaza is awash in blood. The depictions of the massacres assault the reader with the crack of machine-gun fire and the thud of clubs. Women drag the bodies of their slaughtered men from the streets for hurried burial in mass graves. In unearthing these memories, Sacco is telling us that the cycle of violence is broken only through an understanding of the past. Ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will require not only ensuring human rights for the millions of dispossessed Palestinians, but also acknowledging the profound injuries they have endured. Meanwhile, the suffering has intensified. Although Israel removed its illegal colonies in 2005, its land and sea blockade of Gaza has led the territory to the brink of starvation. Recent events have brought this stark reality to the attention of the world. Jonathan Ben Artzi, an Israeli draft resister who happens to be a nephew of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has described Gaza as a place “where Israel is collectively punishing more than 1.5 million Palestinians by sealing them off in the largest open-air prison on earth.”
Why is peace so elusive? The eyes that stare out from the pages of Footnotes provide the answer. Those of the Palestinians are haunted, terrified, angry, and tired (and often crinkled in laughter—humor, often black humor, is a constant subtext). The Israelis’ eyes seem empty. Indeed, the Israelis are most often drawn as mere extensions of the gun, the club, and the uniform. They seem lost in a desperate search for the security that eludes them, preoccupied with fighting a people they can see only as an implacable enemy. The Israelis in Sacco’s book do not see the Palestinians as people or seem to care about their suffering. The humanity has been blasted out of them.
Does Sacco reveal an “anti-Israel” bias here, creating a monstrous caricature of the occupiers? As a Jewish American, born in 1948 and raised on the Zionist dream, I find his depiction compassionate and urgent. I have seen the deadened look in the eyes of Israeli army kids staffing checkpoints throughout the West Bank, the effect of the racism that has taken root in Israeli society, and the deep sense of vulnerability Israelis feel as the result of the violence visited upon them for their entire history. Sacco does not demonize or assign blame. Rather, he holds up a mirror to us all. Footnotes in Gaza explains the roots of Palestinian resistance. It thrusts the moral, psychological, political, and spiritual crisis facing the State of Israel and indeed the entire Jewish people into the light of day. It calls on Americans to recognize the key role played by our own government in financing Israel’s expansionism and in its blanket diplomatic defense of Israel in the international arena.
In his foreword, Sacco explains that he decided to write the book after an editor at Harper’s deleted the story of Khan Younis from an article he had written about Palestine. As a journalist, Sacco felt compelled to write about the massacres because such tragedies “contain the seeds of the grief and anger that shape present-day events.” And this is true, but not just for the Palestinians. Events in Palestine take place in the huge shadow cast by the Holocaust. None regard that catastrophe as a footnote. The consignment of the dispossession and suffering of the Palestinians to a historical footnote stands in stark contrast to the near-universal recognition of the anguish of the Jews in the twentieth century. The tragedy and irony of this contrast resonates throughout the story told here. Understanding it is the key to peace in the region.
During the brutal bombardment of Gaza in January 2009, Sara Roy, an American Jew, asked in the Christian Science Monitor: “What will happen to Jews as a people whether we live in Israel or not? Why have we been unable to accept the fundamental humanity of Palestinians and include them within our moral boundaries?” Rather, Roy continued, we “tribalize pain, narrowing the scope of human suffering to ourselves alone.”
It is not only Jews who must respond to Roy’s question. Sacco has given us a book about the universality of suffering and a lesson about the power of memory for repentance and repair. We ignore it at our peril.