Joe Sacco on Footnotes in Gaza
The subject for your book focuses on a particularly bloody incident that occurred in Rafah in 1956. What motivated you to explore this specific altercation?
The short answer is that I didn’t want to see an historical incident of this magnitude lost in the oblivion of time. I was aware of only one reference to what happened in Rafah (and what happened in Khan Younis a few days earlier), and that was in a U.N. document which mentioned extraordinary numbers of Palestinian casualties but presented no solid conclusion as to what had happened. I figured there must be some survivors still alive and I determined to find them and record what they remembered.
How does the 1956 incident inform our understanding of the Israeli/Palestine conflict today?
The 1956 incidents in Rafah and Khan Younis are particularly bloody episodes, but there have been many calamities along the path of Palestinian history, and the Palestinian story today is still so tragic. Sometimes I think it is worthwhile to stop and consider past episodes that are part of the context of today’s events. What happened in 1956 represents the brutalization of one generation as subsequent generations have also been brutalized. Each generation is being inculcated with hatred towards its oppressors. The brutalized themselves become callous, and this is something I try to deal with in the book.
Throughout the book, you engage in dialogue with both the Palestinian refugees and the Israeli occupiers. Yet you manage to represent both sides with unbiased journalist integrity. Was it difficult to maintain such a balance?
Well, though I studied American-style journalism, I am not one who is convinced that a reporter’s job is done when he or she has “told both sides” of the story. My goal was to make a determination about what actually happened and that’s a process. But there is a context for what has happened, and in the framework of the story I’m telling, I try to provide it. So, of course, I spoke to Israelis to get an understanding of their motivations for invading Gaza and how they perceived the threat of Palestinian guerrillas who were raiding Israel prior to 1956. That doesn’t mean I feel their ultimate response was justified.
Can you describe the research you conducted for the book? How many years did it take? Was it difficult to secure certain interviews?
The interviews for the book took part mainly during two trips to Gaza in 2002-03, though two other visits also informed my work. I spent a total of about two and a half months in Khan Younis and Rafah, mostly gathering stories and getting a feel for the place. Some people didn’t want to open old wounds, but most people were willing to talk. The interview with an old Palestinian guerrilla was the hardest for me because over the course of four visits he spoke mainly in generalities, but my goal was to get him to talk about his own actions. For documentary evidence, I visited the U.N. archives in New York and hired a couple of Israeli researchers to see what they could find in various Israeli archives. The book took some months to write, and the drawing took a great deal of time. Overall, I spent six and a half years working on it.
Obviously, it must have been hard for some of your interview subjects to talk about what they experienced in 1956. How did you keep them focused?
Some individuals were quite focused and had very good memories and understood that I needed them to lay things out as clearly as possible. Most interview subjects were more difficult than that. Memories were often strained and clouded by subsequent tragedies – as I try to show in the book – and perhaps only certain aspects of their experiences remained sharp in their minds. I can’t say it was easy to keep people from skipping around in the story or sometimes telling things in a jumble of words. One learns to slow people down and keep them on track.
Why do you think the 1956 incident has been relegated to a footnote in this war?
Because the victims in this case have not been allowed much of a voice and because what happened in 1956 in Khan Younis and Rafah, as dramatic as it was, has to compete with any number of awful historical episodes in the minds of the Palestinians as well as the very real blows they are suffering today. The Israelis gave their official explanations, and in the West the case was essentially closed and forgotten.
How long does it take you to draw a panel? Do you draw from memory, or do you use photographs to inform your illustrations?
It takes about two and a half days to draw a page. I take a lot of photos for reference. I also used many photographs from a U.N. archive in Gaza City to recreate what the refugee camps looked like in 1956.