by Paul de Rooij
The launch of a new book by Joe Sacco is a major event, and with considerable expectation a crowd recently gathered in London to hear the great Maltese-American cartoonist and author discuss his latest book: Footnotes in Gaza.  Sacco spent seven years researching and drawing about two sordid events that took place in November 1956 when Israeli forces invaded Gaza as part of the joint British-French attack against Egypt. The Israeli army conducted two massacres where hundreds of Palestinians were murdered, and Sacco set out to collate the oral histories of the Palestinians who witnessed or were the victims of the events. Sacco engaged in a detailed investigative work finding the witnesses who could credibly recollect what happened, sifted through the accounts to eliminate the factual inconsistencies due to the deteriorated memories, and then spent four years bringing these histories to life in his inimitable style. The book doesn’t only focus on the past, but the present is also very much part of his account; in present day Gaza giant armoured bulldozers flatten houses in Rafah and where the ongoing siege affects everybody’s lives. Sacco says: “… the past and the present cannot be so easily disentangled; they are part of a remorseless continuum…”
Contemporary history is usually written by academics with access to the main protagonists, usually politicians or military commanders, inert archives, and press accounts. This history is usually antiseptic – there are no piles of corpses to embarrass the generals. It is also imbued with certainty – historians usually don’t question the politician’s say-so. It is rare for mainstream historians to listen to victims; their accounts are seldom incorporated into the victor’s history. What sets Joe Sacco apart is that not only is he a great artist, but also a peoples’ historian who is willing to listen to the victims; his historiography is imbued with sympathy and respect for the these victims; their history is worthwhile recording. Sacco also focused on a usually-ignored slice of history. In 2001, he travelled in Gaza with Chris Hedges, the American journalist, to research an article about the 1956 massacres for an article for Harper’s magazine. When the article finally appeared, the history of the massacres had been editorially expunged; not all histories are treated equally. Perhaps it was this incident that piqued his interest to write about the neglected massacres.
Sacco quotes Abed El-Rantisi, the Hamas leader who was subsequently assassinated, saying about the 1956 massacres: “… this sort of action can never be forgotten… they planted hatred in our hearts.” To understand the Palestinians it is important to take into account the history that moulded their politics and social currents; this history should also inform future discussions about possible solutions. It is cynically facile for the likes of Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, to urge Palestinians to “look forward” and ignore the past. However, negotiations and a future reconciliation will only be possible if the victims of the Israeli colonial project are accorded a modicum of justice and recognition for their suffering. The future reconciliation will require a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission where the massacres at Deir Yassin, Safat, Jenin 2002, Gaza 2009, … and Khan Yunis and Rafah 1956 are acknowledged.
Sacco’s images depicting the massacres are haunting. The men older than 15-years of age were herded along a road constantly beaten, pushed against walls, terrorized with over-the-head gunfire, and then forced to pass a gauntlet at a school entrance where soldiers with large wooden clubs beat the entrants; those who passed this deadly hurdle had to jump over rolls of barbed wire. Thereafter the Palestinians were either singled out if they were wearing uniforms, if they were betrayed by collaborators, or merely if they stood out because of their appearance. In Rafah, some of the “wanted” men were taken to a side road and shot or beaten to death; others were loaded onto buses and taken to prison in Israel. Sacco’s images not only capture the horror of the events, but also the painful memories, or the conflicting reports. It is a slightly blurred rendition of history, very much like the nature of the witnesses’ memories.
The tyranny of explanations
Contemporary reportage about Gaza or the Palestinian condition usually describes the latest barbarity dispensed by the Israelis, and then automatically adds an Israeli-justification helpfully provided by the smooth Israeli military public relations officers. These are some of the lame justifications: “the men were killed because they were ‘wanted men'”; “the house was demolished because there were ‘militants’ there”; “the wall is being built for security”; “Gaza was attacked in 2009 to ‘stop the rocket attacks'”; and so on. Much of the Israeli rationale provided for the latest outrage is self-serving and often simply suggests that there was a justification in a given action. If there was a rationale, then the killing of civilians is deemed “understandable” and, the spokesman will add in an undertone, that the so-called collateral damage – the civilians killed – is regrettable, and it was unintentional. Seldom are such banal justifications challenged.
Providing the Israeli rationale for the massacres without a wider context is possibly a questionable part of the book. Sacco inserts Moshe Dayan’s rationale for the 1956 assault on Gaza and it looks absurd when juxtaposed to the victims’ accounts. Israelis purportedly rounded up the Palestinians to root out the fedayeen who were conducting raids into what is considered Israel. Sacco also quotes Mordechai Bar-On, Moshe Dayan’s right-hand-man, to provide this self-serving justification. However, one only has to remember what happened a few years earlier, in 1948, to find a more plausible rationale for the massacre. Yosef Nahmani, an Israeli witness to the massacre in Safat on 6 November 1948, described how that massacre was conducted, and it is eerily reminiscent of what happened in Rafah 1956 . In both instances, the men were herded down the streets into a corridor where they were beaten with wooden clubs and gunned down. Unlike 1956, the 1948 massacre did not require a pretext. What unifies both sordid episodes is that they were part of the means to make the Israeli colonial project possible, i.e., driving the people off the land. Maybe some more context is needed to provide this more accurate understanding of the massacres.
It is all in a footnote…
What Sacco has done in this book is to rescue the 1956 massacres at Rafah and Khan Yunis from oblivion. The footnotes, the title of his book, really refer to the massacres in 1956. The importance of this history, even if they are only footnotes, is that it puts current events into perspective. The time frame explaining what is happening in Gaza doesn’t start with the rockets fired at Sderot in 2008; taking a broader context highlights the nature of the mass crimes perpetrated against the Palestinian people during many decades. It also shows that for a people without a future, the past and the present are compressed; the massacres of the past resonate closely with the everyday violence perpetrated against the Palestinians enduring a siege and further dispossession today.
Sacco has produced much more than a beautifully crafted book. It deserves to be read and studied by historians who might seek to transform these footnotes into a bona fide chapter of history that deserves to be remembered. Sacco’s book is also an act of solidarity; indicating that if someone’s history is important enough to write about, it suggests that one is in solidarity with those people today. And that is something the Palestinians under siege in Gaza today are in dire need of; never before in history have the victims of colonial oppression been boycotted and ostracized by Europeans and Americans. Reading about their history also reminds us that they have been treated in this shoddy and barbaric manner for decades.
— Notes —
 Joe Sacco is perhaps best known for his Palestine (2001) and Safe Area Goražde (2000). Footnotes in Gaza (2009) was published by Jonathan Cape, London. All these books are oral histories brought to life in Sacco’s drawings.
 Yosef Nahmani was the director of the Jewish National Fund office in eastern Galilee during the Nakba and in his diaries he documents the massacres and ethnic cleansing he witnessed in 1948