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Footnotes in Gaza



Awards: Eisner Award Nominee; Eisner Award Winner; L.A. Times Book Prize - Finalist

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Foreword

The genesis for this book dates to the spring of 2001 when the journalist Chris Hedges and I prepared to go on assignment to the Gaza Strip for Harper’s magazine, he as a writer with me as illustrator. We had decided to focus on how Palestinians in one town—Khan Younis—were coping during the early months of the Second Intifada against the Israeli occupation. I recalled a reference I’d read many years before in Noam Chomsky’s book The Fateful Triangle—basically a short quote from a United Nations document—about a large-scale killing of civilians in Khan Younis in 1956, and Chris agreed that we should add this barely noted historical episode to our story if it turned out to have some validity and current resonance.

Once in Khan Younis, we devoted about a day to gathering eyewitness testimony to what had happened in the town in November 1956 during the Suez Canal Crisis, when Israeli forces briefly occupied the Egyptian-ruled Gaza Strip. Old men and women had stark stories to tell about their fathers and husbands being shot in their houses or being lined up in the streets and killed by Israeli soldiers. One of those we interviewed was Abed El-Aziz El-Rantisi, a senior official of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Party (who was later assassinated by an Israeli missile). El-Rantisi, who in 1956 was nine years old, told us his uncle had been killed that day. “I still remember the wailing and tears of my father over his brother,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep for many months after that. . . . It left a wound in my heart that can never heal. I’m telling you a story and I’m almost crying. This sort of action can never be forgotten. . . . [T]hey planted hatred in our hearts.”

Chris deemed what had happened in Khan Younis in 1956 a significant part of the town’s history, and he included several paragraphs about it in the Harper’s article. For whatever reason, that section was cut by the magazine’s editors.

I found that galling. This episode—seemingly the greatest massacre of Palestinians on Palestinian soil, if the U.N. figures of 275 dead are to be believed—hardly deserved to be thrown back on the pile of obscurity. But there it lay, like innumerable historical tragedies over the ages that barely rate footnote status in the broad sweep of history— even though, as El-Rantisi alluded, they often contain the seeds of the grief and anger that shape present-day events.

To me, the story of the Khan Younis killings was not so easily dispensable. I had done some digging, and almost nothing had been written in English about the episode. I determined to go back to Gaza to research what had taken place in 1956. As I prepared, I began to learn more about another incident that had occurred around the same time, on November 12, in the neighboring town of Rafah, in which scores of Palestinian men were killed. What had happened there? Again, a couple of sentences in a U.N. report were all that saved the incident from outright oblivion. In some ways, the Rafah story began to interest me more. The violence done in Khan Younis was shocking and brutal but, as I ascertained on my initial trip to Gaza with Chris, very straightforward; the killings in Rafah took place over a daylong screening operation for Palestinian guerrillas and soldiers. How had more than 100 people died in what should have been a standard, if complicated, military procedure? Had Israeli soldiers simply “panicked and opened fire on the running crowd,” as the U.N. report surmised? Creatively speaking, there were more layers to investigate with the Rafah story, more pieces of a puzzle to put together. In addition, almost all the men of military age were caught up in the sprawling Rafah incident and many survivors would still be alive; at Khan Younis, only a handful of those involved survived being lined up and shot. So this book is broken up into two major though uneven sections—one about Khan Younis and the other, considerably longer, about Rafah.

Most of the on-the-ground field research for this book took place during two trips to the Gaza Strip between November 2002 and March 2003. My main priority was to record the stories of Palestinian eyewitnesses to the events in Khan Younis and Rafah. But 50 years is a long time to wait before asking people what they remember about a particular day. Thus the recollections reproduced here have been scrutinized in light of an inevitable blurring of memory and are compared in their details: Did the survivors recall essentially the same thing? Documentary evidence is usually considered more reliable than oral testimony by historians, but the record is scant and certain unsavory orders and reports are often kept “off the books” or are stored out of reach of even the most diligent researcher. Egyptian military records are closed to most inquiries. Certain U.N. records in Jordan and elsewhere that might shed some light are near unreachable. Still, it was important that available avenues be explored, and to this end I employed two Israeli researchers to go through the Israel Defense Forces archives. One of them also examined the Israel State Archives, the Knesset Archives, a press archive, and the Kol Ha’am (Communist Party) newspaper archive for any mention of the two incidents. Translations of key records and a list of Israeli historians and significant personnel consulted are included in the appendices at the end of the book. My hope is that this account will prompt former Israeli soldiers who might have witnessed the events in 1956 to offer their own recollections and points of view. Perhaps an Israeli historian needs to step into the breach.

Besides the problems inherent in relying on memories, addressed more fully in the book, the reader should be aware that there is another filter through which these stories passed before reaching the page, namely my own visual interpretation. In essence, I am the set designer and the director of every scene that takes place in the 1940s and 1950s. In reconstructing what the towns and refugee camps of Gaza looked like, I relied heavily on photographs available at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) archives in Gaza City. I also drew on physical descriptions related to me by Palestinians. Still, any act of visualization—drawing, in this case—comes with an unavoidable measure of refraction.

My research did not take place in a vacuum. While I was investigating what had happened in 1956, Israeli attacks were killing Palestinians, suicide bombers were killing Israelis, and elsewhere in the Middle East the United States was gearing up for war in Iraq. Among the most critical developments in the daily lives of Gazans at the time was the wide-scale demolition of Palestinian homes in Rafah and Khan Younis, which made its way into the fabric of this book. (Interviews with Israeli military personnel for their take on the matter can be found in Appendix 2.) However, even the present-day stories I tell here quickly fell under the category of history because the situation in Gaza has undergone two major changes since I started this project almost seven years ago.

First, in 2005, Israel unilaterally dismantled all the Jewish settlements in Gaza and left the small sliver of land entirely to its Palestinian inhabitants. However, Israel still tightly controlled Gaza’s airspace, coastline, and its entry and exit points save one. (That one was the Rafah terminal, with access to Egypt, which severely limited movement to and from Gaza.) In effect, the Gaza Strip, overcrowded and destitute, had not been freed from the Israeli clamp or the threat of withering attack or retaliation by Israeli forces, as witnessed in the winter of 2008–9.

Second, in 2007, the Islamic group Hamas seized control and has been in charge of Gaza ever since. Hamas, branded a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, had won the majority of legislative seats in a 2006 election. A national unity government with its rival Fatah was unacceptable to the Israelis, who further tightened the screws on Gaza. When tensions between Fatah and Hamas boiled over, Hamas preemptively seized Gaza ahead of a U.S.-engineered coup by Fatah. What shocked Palestinians, even those disgusted with years of corruption under Fatah rule, was the ruthlessness with which Hamas crushed its Fatah opponents. The tradition of Palestinian militants, regardless of faction, standing shoulder-to-shoulder against Israel and not against each other was at an end. With the Hamas takeover, Israel declared the Gaza Strip an “enemy entity.” The blockade of Gaza, which was joined by the United States and the European Union, is, at this writing, almost complete.

As someone in Gaza told me, “events are continuous.” Palestinians never seem to have the luxury of digesting one tragedy before the next one is upon them. When I was in Gaza, younger people often viewed my research into the events of 1956 with bemusement. What good would tending to history do them when they were under attack and their homes were being demolished now? But the past and present cannot be so easily disentangled; they are part of a remorseless continuum, a historical blur. Perhaps it is worth our while to freeze that churning forward movement and examine one or two events that were not only a disaster for the people who lived them but might also be instructive for those who want to understand why and how—as El-Rantisi said—hatred was “planted” in hearts.

Joe Sacco
July 2009