The Spinning Wheel

This review was written for the Palestine Chronicle.

This is not what you expect: an accomplished and self-reflective work of history enclosed within a layer of war reportage – in comic book form. But Joe Sacco’s “Footnotes in Gaza” is just that, an unusually effective treatment of Palestinian history which may appeal to people who would never read a ‘normal book’ on the subject. The writing, however, is at least as good as you’d expect from a high quality prose work. Here, for instance, is page nine: “History can do without its footnotes. Footnotes are inessential at best; at worst they trip up the greater narrative. From time to time, as bolder, more streamlined editions appear, history shakes off some footnotes altogether. And you can see why… History has its hands full. It can’t help producing pages by the hour, by the minute. History chokes on fresh episodes and swallows whatever old ones it can.”

The pictures – aerial shots, action shots, urban still lifes, crafted but realist character studies – work as hard as the words. Sacco depicts fear, humiliation and anger very well indeed, and often achieves far more with one picture than he could in an entire newspaper column. The cranes at work on a Jerusalem skyline are worth a paragraph or two of background. So is the fact that almost every Palestinian male has a cigarette in his mouth. And when dealing with historical process – the changing shape of the camps, for example – the pictures are more than useful.

The ‘footnotes’ focused on here are two massacres perpetrated by Israel in 1956. On November 3rd, according to a UN report, 275 men were killed in the town and camp of Khan Yunis. Homes were assaulted, men were separated from their families, were then lined up and shot against walls, sometimes under the eyes of their parents, wives and children. One survivor interviewed by Sacco was protected from death by his neighbours’ bodies. He lay in drying blood, his nostrils filled with cordite, until the Israelis had moved on.

On November 12th, according to UNRWA, another 111 men were killed in Rafah. This time the occupiers announced that all military age men should assemble in a school yard. The men who didn’t obey, or didn’t hear the order, were killed in their homes. Those who did obey were forced to run through the streets, beaten with clubs and shot at as they went. Shoes and the fallen wounded and dead were left littering the ground. Those who helped the injured were shot. At the school gate, progress was hindered by a trench and a roll of barbed wire, and a soldier with a heavy stick. His blows killed several more Palestinians. The men were kept crouched and terrified all day, with no water or toilet facilities, as the Israelis  selected who to release, who to incarcerate, and who to kill.

The immediate context is the 1956 British-French-Israeli assault on Egypt, known in the West as the Suez crisis. Israel’s aim, as well as pleasing the two crumbling empires and dealing an intimidatory blow to Abdul Nasser, was to eliminate the incipient fedayeen guerilla movement in Gaza. The mid fifties had already been full of deadly raids. Israeli forces met no resistance when they entered the West Bank village of Qibya in 1953, but they shot and then collapsed houses on 42 cowering people, 38 of them women and children. In August 1955 Khan Yunis police station was attacked. Up to 72 Egyptians and Palestinians were killed. In April 1956, 50 civilians were killed by a barrage on Gaza city.

Joe Sacco

Sacco also shows us the clashes and curfews of the Second Intifada, the period in which he was researching his book. “Footnotes in Gaza” is as much about the process of writing history, and the importance of history, as about the history itself, so we see Sacco and his helpers collecting, sifting, cross-checking and tabulating testimony from named eye-witnesses. Of course, half a century on, eye-witness testimony can be problematic. To bring this out, at one point Sacco draws contradictory versions of the same event. His attention to the inconsistencies, and his careful reference to UN and Israeli sources, strengthen his case immeasurably.

Frequently Palestinians ask him why he’s bothering himself with the past when there is destruction and desperation all round him in the present. His response is usually a shrugging of shoulders, but the text itself suggests a couple of reasons. One is that the historical study depicts not only isolated atrocities against the Palestinian people, but the Palestinian condition too, entire and connected. The repetition of detail in the massacre stories chimes with the repeated brutality experienced by the Palestinians around Sacco as he pursues his investigations. One day Sacco asks a woman why she chooses to live in such a dangerous area of Rafah, near Israel’s ‘Philadelphi Corridor’: “She says their home in Block J was demolished two months ago. They then rented in the Tal el-Sultan neighbourhood, but the Israelis damaged their new appartment and destroyed their car while demolishing the home of a neighbour. With so many people made homeless by the demolitions, there was no other place to rent but back in Block J.” Sacco meets the woman in hospital, after she has been shot by Israeli soldiers. Her sister has had her leg blown off. Her seven-year-old niece’s leg can’t be operated on because it won’t stop bleeding.

So the circle turns, with the Palestinians trapped inside. With the wheel spinning so fast, will anyone remember this particular family’s pain? How many legs have been shot or blown off since, after all? And this is the second reason for focusing on the past, because Sacco is keenly aware of the indignities done by time and forgetfulness. “Palestinians,” he writes in the foreword, “never seem to have the luxury of digesting one tragedy before the next one is upon them.” Here’s an illustration: one day a funeral procession passes under Sacco’s balcony. A boy of 12 or 13 has been murdered. A single shot is fired into the air. The crowd surges and moves on. In a few minutes the street is again busy with car noise and commerce. Was this boy, Sacco seems to ask, worth no more than a mere shot, a mere moment? By remembering, he insists upon the dignity of the victims.

It is to be hoped that an Arabic translation is in the works, to serve the generation who grew up more comfortable with images than paragraphs. And in the West, “Footnotes in Gaza” deserves a ‘Persepolis’-type success. “Persepolis” was Marjane Satrapi’s best-selling account, in comic book form, of her Iranian childhood. It later became a block-busting film. But the villain of Persepolis is the already-demonised Islamic Republic. “Footnotes in Gaza” will challenge Western readers rather more profoundly.

3 thoughts on “The Spinning Wheel”

  1. There were civilian casualties at Rafah and Khan Yunis in 1956 but it could hardly be called a “massacre”. The facts were more equivocal than you or even Mr. Sacco relate, one reason why the incident is so little remembered in the Gaza enclave today.

    There were **Fedayeen** in the towns–their raids on Israeli farming settlements had helped set off the war–and Egyptian soldiers as well. The Israelis wanted to identify them so they could send the soldiers to POW camps. I cannot say what would have been done with the **Fedayeen**. They did not want to be identified. They hid in the houses. Some hid behind the women’s skirts. There were some weapons among the Egyptian soldiers and **Fedayeen** and there was firing. The Israeli soldiers fired back and civilians were wounded and killed.

    In the hullabaloo raised by Nasser over the Anglo-French landings near the Canal, this and many other stories were lost. Even Nasser convinced himself that it was the English and French who had routed his army in Sinai. In fact the fighting was over by the time they landed–well behind the fleeing Egyptian army.

  2. Caleb, you relate the Israeli version of events given at the time. This version is also included in Sacco’s book (Sacco consulted Israeli records and interviewed Israeli officers and historians). However, the Israeli version contradicts all the eye witness testimony. It is interesting that the eye witnesses often disagree over details, but not over this detail: this was not a ‘caught in the crossfire’ event. When the massacres took place there was no resistance and the Israelis had total control.

    Of course there were some fedayeen among the victims. Just to make it clear, I am a supporter of the Fedayeen’s right to resist those colonists who had driven them off their farms and out of their towns into refugee camps.

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