TCJ #301: Joe Sacco on Footnotes in Gaza

Joe Sacco is virtually a one-man comics genre: the cartoonist-journalist. True, there have been examples of comics journalism in the past and there are a handful of cartoonists who have more recently used the comics form to illuminate contemporary events, but no cartoonist has practiced journalism as seriously or gone as deeply into his subject as Sacco.

I have no hesitation in proclaiming Sacco’s latest book, Footnotes in Gaza, a masterpiece — of the cartoonist’s art, of reportage, of history — and, perforce, the subject of the following interview.

As Sacco tells it, he became aware of the Israeli massacre of Palestinians in the town of Khan (pronounced Han) Yunis in 1956 when he stumbled upon a brief mention of it in Noam Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle — almost a footnote, but not quite; a half a paragraph on page 102 of a 481-page book, it reads:

The Israeli occupying army carried out bloody atrocities in the Gaza strip, killing ‘at least 275 Palestinians immediately after capturing the Strip during a brutal house-to-house search for weapons and fedayeen in Khan Yunis’ and killing 111 Palestinians in ‘another massive bloodletting’ at the Rafah refugee camp in ‘disorders’ after ‘Israeli troops stormed through the hovels, rounding up refugees for intelligence screening.’ General E.L.M. Burns, Commander of the U.N. truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), commented that this furnished ‘very sad proof of the fact that the spirit of the notorious Deir Yassin massacre of 1948 is not dead among some of the Israeli armed forces.” The head of the Gaza observer force, Lt.-Col R.F. Bayard of the U.S. Army, reported that treatment of civilians was ‘unwarrantedly rough’ and that ‘a good number of persons have been shot down in cold blood for no apparent reason.’ He also reported that many U.N. relief officials were missing and presumed executed by the Israelis and that there had been extensive looting and wanton destruction of property. Israel claimed that the killings were caused by ‘refugee resistance,’ a claim denied by refugees. (There were no Israeli casualties). Love cites Moshe Dayan’s diaries confirming the looting, which caused ‘much shame to ourselves,’ and indicating that there had been practically no resistance.

That was it, and that was enough to pique Sacco’s interest in what, as it turned out, was one of the most under-reported incidents of its kind in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. — Gary Groth

All images ©2009 Joe Sacco.

Gary Groth: The first thing I wanted to ask you is, what, when you went into this project, were your preconceptions, in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? What were your views of the Israelis and Palestinians, and what would you consider to be your biases?

Joe Sacco: Well, I guess my major bias would be — if you want to call it a bias — that the Palestinians have been historically wronged. They were kicked out of their homeland in 1948 and we’ve seen the results ever since. They’re dispossessed. And there’s a great refugee problem that exists to this day. I feel they deserve a state at this point. They’ve worked toward that; sometimes they’ve worked in ways that are contrary to their own interests, of course. The situation seems really deep-rooted now, especially with the settlers. Once the settlement project began, it became more and more difficult to untangle what had happened before.

The whole idea of the settlement project, from the Israeli government point of view (the settlers might have had some religious imperatives for going in), was to make it impossible to go back so you could create facts on the ground that would make a Palestinian state, the idea, very unlikely or relatively unviable. As we’re seeing now, even if a lot of the settlements withdrew, they’re still put together in way that would cut off parts of the West Bank. When I went, you have to remember that there were still settlers in Gaza — about 30 percent of Gaza was either occupied by settlers or were military zones. Or was somehow run by the Israeli military. So a fair amount of it was a little bit off-limits to Palestinians.

That’s the situation, which has just changed considerably. When I was there, the Palestine Authority was in charge. And now there’s Hamas that has taken over the Gaza Strip, and the settlements have been moved back, but Israel still contains and controls Gaza. When I went in, my ideas were basically the same as when I went in the first time, back in the late 1980s — I had to say that. Now if you’re asking what I think about Israel ... Israel exists. And I don’t think it’s a good idea to think in terms of making Israel go away, because you’re just going to create another great and massive problem. Ultimately, I recognize that it’s not going to happen, unless there’s some incredible bloodletting. Which is conceivable ...

Groth: The U.S. wouldn’t let that happen, regardless.

Sacco: Yeah, but I’m talking about 50 years from now, 100 years from now, where the U.S. might not be in a position to intervene or things might have changed on some level. So my hope is always that this will get solved now rather than in the future when we don’t know what the future’s gonna be.

Groth: You’re thinking this could be so intractable that you’re thinking 50 or 60 years out. [Laughs.]

Sacco: Oh yeah, easily. You’ve gotta recognize that the Palestine Authority might end up signing the peace agreement just like Oslo where it looks like there’s going to be some settlement and it’s all gonna be fine. But ultimately, you can sign a bit of paper and it might not satisfy the core constituents, the people who are actually going to be impacted by that.

Groth: In another interview, you said, “What I would point out is that I don’t sugarcoat the Palestinians. I don’t sugarcoat their anger, their vitriol. I don’t sugarcoat acts they commit that as far as I’m concerned don’t help their cause. I lay it out.” And that’s absolutely true, but there’s a sense in which their vitriol, their anger toward Israel and so forth is justified in your account.

Sacco: Well, justified I would say is understandable … In a sense of you just have to see the context. I think it’s important. One of the main reasons I got interested in the Palestinian question at all is because when I was a kid in high school the only time I ever heard “Palestinian” was “hijacking” or “terrorist act,” and to me, they all seemed crazy and they were all terrorists. I mean, that’s the only time you ever hear their name brought up. So you have to understand what has happened, and whether it’s in the larger context or in the smaller context.

Groth: Let me ask you about the nuts and bolts of reportage. First of all, how do you actually start a project of this magnitude? There’s a character, a friend of yours, named Abed. Would you call him a fixer?

Sacco: No, he wasn’t a fixer in the true sense of the word. I would say he acted as my fixer, and he might have helped journalists before, but that wasn’t his thing.

Groth: But he was helpful?

Sacco: He was helpful. Someone introduced us. Basically, I wasn’t sure how to go about doing some of this sort of thing. It was like one of those things where someone put me in touch with someone in the West Bank, a Palestinian guy who became my friend, and I talked to him when I was living in Switzerland. I moved myself to Switzerland for about 10 months, because I knew I had to make a number of trips, and Zurich is just closer than New York, where I was living before. It’s just a quicker flight. I’m not going to get there and lose a couple of days because I’m jetlagged. Also I had to go to Russia to do a story, so I knew I would be doing some traveling, and I just wanted another base.

Groth: So you lived in Switzerland for 10 months?

Sacco: Yeah. And that wasn’t bad, because I had friends there. It was quite OK. Anyway, I talked to this guy when I was in Switzerland, and he said, “Yeah, I’ll take you to Gaza and introduce you to some people.” And he was good to his word. We met, and he was a young guy — he lives in Ramallah now — he’s a Palestinian-American: very smart. He hand-held me, took me to Gaza. I had been to Gaza before, but he actually showed me some people and said, “I think this guy might be able to help you.” And we spent two weeks there together. I got to know Abed. I did some of the research for the books, especially in Khan Younis, where Abed was from. And by the end of the trip, I still wasn’t sure if he was going to agree to helping me out any further, because I was going to come back for two months then — and he has his own life. And that’s how it worked out: He agreed to do it. I came then and spent another two months. We just basically lived together, ate together, worked together. It would have been impossible without him.

Groth: And he let you live in his home, is that correct?

Sacco: In Khan Younis I lived in his home. The first two weeks I spent in Khan Younis at his home. The second trip was for two months; we rented a place in Rafah. I didn’t even bring it up in the book.

Groth: The palace.

Sacco: It was a palace! And he stayed with me the whole time, and he lived and breathed the project too. He was more than a fixer. A fixer is ...

Groth: Like Neven [from Sacco’s The Fixer].

Sacco: Yeah, Neven was a fixer in that way, in the true sense of the word, but Abed was getting very interested in the project — a smart guy himself, he really kept his ears open. He became a little filter. He was listening.

Groth: He sounds like he was very helpful in terms of sifting through testimony and helping you determine what was accurate and perhaps less accurate. What did he do in terms of his own job or profession?

Sacco: He worked at a Palestinian NGO [Non-Governmental Organization]. It was an interesting NGO — I can’t remember exactly where they were getting their funding, but their debate was “Should we accept funds from any Western donors?” And they were basically against them, because they didn’t want to feel like they were being compromised in any way. But their idea was women’s issues and bringing up women’s rights within the conservative community in Gaza. The idea was giving lectures to women about political issues and things like that. Also to get them involved in certain things and he was involved in that; that’s mostly what he took the time on.

Groth: The two massacres in Khan Younis and Rafah have been little reported on, Khan Younis especially, and my understanding is that you noticed a footnote in The Fateful Triangle.

Sacco: Yeah, it wasn’t exactly a footnote.

Groth: No, it wasn’t exactly a footnote; it was a paragraph.

Sacco: It was a paragraph basically quoting a U.N. document. I was living in New York at the time. Basically, living in New York, I just went down to the U.N. archives and found that document, and then started looking around to see what else I could find. There were some pretty interesting reports. Not all my research got into the book. But it gave me a feeling for what was going on. I read whatever I could that was in the U.N. archives at the time.

Groth: I’m interested in why you think this hasn’t been investigated by journalists or historians much previously.

Sacco: Honestly, it was a surprise to me too. I mean, here’s a conflict where you feel people go over it — they sift through it. The truth of the matter is Israeli historians, revisionist historians, very good writers, like Tom Segev, people like Benny Morris, who is right-wing, but is a fairly good historian. Those people have revisited a lot of Israel’s story, usually from an Israeli perspective. They might find out, yes, there were massacres in 1948, yes, this sort of thing was going on. But this is all from Israeli documentation, U.N. documentation. There’s seldom any Arab sources. It seems like a lot of Western historians haven’t really approached things from a Palestinian perspective. I think it’s very difficult to get what a lot of historians rely on, which is documentary evidence. A lot of that stuff’s been scattered to the wind, in a sense.

Groth: It seems to be such an odd failure —

Sacco: And to me too! Frankly that was part of the impetus of doing it. Here I’m trying to rationalize why these things haven’t been brought up in any great length, but the truth of the matter is I was shocked too. I mean, some of these people were obviously still alive. But that’s the reason I did the book.

Groth: Now, you wrote and researched the book over a span of seven years, and you’ve said the last four years you’d been sitting at the desk, drawing and writing.

Sacco: Right, because I interrupted it a few times to do other stories and things like that.

Groth: So once you got on the trail of this story and you started contacting people, what was your strategy in terms of digging out the truth? Obviously you wanted to interview everybody you could find.

Sacco: Well, I knew the story in Khan Younis had existed, because when I was there with [Chris] Hedges we spent a day talking to older people. Maybe we spoke to four or five older people. But that was going to be part of the bigger story, and that part of the story was dropped by Harper’s magazine.

Groth: Which offended you.

Sacco: Yeah. And I’m not saying that they didn’t have their reasons — there’s space considerations or whatever — but I always think it’s interesting how that’s the kind of stuff to get dropped. To me that’s what makes up the conflict. That’s the stuff of this conflict, really, these grievances and the sense of injustice — and the sense of no one knows about these injustices. So I basically knew the general outlines of the story in Khan Younis. It was just a matter of going there, talking to people, trying to find some of those same people, but also: Who else? Who do you know?

We were able to do this because there was a local historian also who had written a book about what happened in Khan Younis. We sat with him, and he explained the outlines of the story. So that helped. But then it’s just a question of, “Yeah, well, go speak to this guy, he’s still alive — he’ll remember it”: that kind of thing. That’s how you can do it.

In Rafah, I wasn’t sure of the story. I read what I read in the U.N. document, but while — in that first two-week trip that I was mainly concentrating on Khan Younis — we took a couple trips to Rafah, and we found another local historian who had written about what had happened in Rafah and he also gave us the basic outlines. And from that day we saw and met four older men — I just wanted to talk to them and get a sense. You talk to four men separately, and you can get an idea of the general contours of this story, and it was clear that whatever was in the U.N. document simply wasn’t the case. So based on that general outline, I was able to formulate what my questions were gonna be. You need to get a general overview before you can ...

Groth: Would you say that the U.N. document was a misrepresentation or simply incomplete?

Sacco: Incomplete. I don’t think they intended to ... They were working under very difficult circumstances. I think that report was written when the Israelis were still occupying Gaza. And if you read the stuff in the U.N. records it’s amazing — I mentioned in the book that the Israelis clamped down on the U.N. monitors that were in Gaza. They confined them. But you should read these telegrams between the U.N. headquarters and the people in Gaza — they might come in and smash the radio. “What are we gonna do? Are we gonna defend ourselves or not?”

Groth: The U.N.?

Sacco: Yeah, the people there.

Groth: So Israel intimidated the U.N.?

Sacco: They definitely intimidated those people. The word from [UNEF 1] was “Do not resist.” Just let them do what they’re gonna do, basically. But they were confined. And so a lot of what they were able to get was not really from — they had other U.N. personnel, Palestinian U.N. personnel, feeding them stories. But I think it was very difficult at that time to get the full picture. They were handled, yeah, that was definitely the case.

Groth: Not least by Israeli disingenuousness?

Sacco: Of course they don’t want those stories to get out, and if you read — and I put some in the back of the book — what the Israelis are saying at the time: “Yeah, we might have killed four or five people, but they were doing this.” They had excuses for everything they were doing: a lot of it misinformation, obviously.

Groth: With regard to your working methods, do you do all the research first —

Sacco: Not all the research, as much as I can to get —

Groth: — before you actually start writing and drawing and composing the book.

Sacco: Yes. Oh yeah. You’re actually reading any book you can get: Moshe Dayan’s book, Mordechai Bar-On’s book — there were a number of others. The top U.N. guide of the region at the time, they wrote a book. You just find what you can, read as much as you can, and see what you can get out of that. So yeah, obviously, I did not start until I was pretty set in my research.

Groth: I’m curious as to how you organized all this material. You mentioned earlier how you assigned numbers to the people you interviewed.

Sacco: Yeah, especially there. I could show you, if you ever wanted to see it, just how I organized things. But yeah, the organizing itself can take weeks because I’m going through all my interview notes, I’m actually transcribing all the tapes myself — and there were many hours of tapes; probably 70 taped interviews. But it’s important for me to do it, because when you’re going through it again, you remember things, and you think, “Oh, that’s perfect, I need to make a note that this is an important part of the story.” The thing is when you’re there you’re sometimes doing three or four interviews a day; at a certain point, you’re just kind of shoveling to the back of your mind.

Groth: You can’t keep them separate.

Sacco: No, no, it all becomes a blob somehow. So it’s really important to go through. And then what I do, I’m writing journal entries every day, and there’s a lot that’s in the journal entries. And I had several hundred pages, probably, of journal entries. And then I go through those, and I index all that. I index it by date; then I index it by subject. So, the character Ashraf: if I want to know what Ashraf said at a certain point, I’ll have some synopsis of what he said, and then the page number of what journal, blah, blah, blah. It’s really important, and saves you enormous amounts of time in the long run.

Groth: I think your organization is probably essential.

Sacco: Yeah, oh yeah.

Groth: And you do all your notes in longhand? Or do you have a PowerBook?

Sacco: My notes? I don’t take a PowerBook with me, because I find it’s just another bloody technical thing you have to deal with in a difficult situation. No, I taped; I tape. The question was finding batteries, but the batteries were always easy to find. And I am writing all my journal notes in my hand, correct.

Groth: I was curious because in one chapter of the story, you devote a page to interviewing a woman; you and Abed knock on her door, she comes to her door and it’s a little uncomfortable. You might have the wrong person — either she is or she isn’t. You’re standing there and you do not draw yourself as taking notes or recording. But, were you? Or was that exchange “transcribed” from memory?

Sacco: Well, that’s from memory. That’s why I keep the journal. Abed and I would go back in the night —

Groth: You summarize it later.

Sacco: Yeah, and often we would sit and I’d say, “OK, so remind me.” He’d tell me right away what’s going on, so it’s already in my head: then we get back. We’d often sit and I’d say, “How do you remember it again?” I’m checking with him and then writing it in my journal — especially something like that, because I want to get it right. Now obviously, you’re right: I’m not taking notes at the time, I’m not having a recorder on at all times. But I find that those are really essential stories to get across, so to the best of my ability I try to present them accurately. Like I said, I would stay up and write in my journal every night, just because there are a lot of things you don’t want to lose.

Groth: Yeah, and yet you will.

Sacco: You will, because things are going on all the time.

Groth: Did you draw the book chronologically as it’s published?

Sacco: I had a false start, where I decided to draw in a very big format. I thought, “This is awful.” I had no sense of accomplishment, because it was taking days and days to do one page. I need a sense of accomplishment, so I scaled it down and started again. But that wasn’t more than five pages or so.

Groth: Why’d you want to do it bigger?

Sacco: I don’t remember. I think I wanted the art to spread out in a certain way, and maybe get more detail. And why, I don’t know, because when things are reproduced, the end result is always knocked down: yeah, basically chronologically.

Groth: You got a lot of grief when you were doing interviews, because people didn’t understand why you cared about an event that occurred in 1956; they wanted you to focus on what was happening now. And you resist that. A deliberate strategy you apply is to alternate between the present and the past, emphasizing that the past was at one time the present. So can you talk a little about why it’s important to connect the present with the past, and your strategy of alternating between he two continuously?

Sacco: Yeah, it’s not something I hadn’t done before. I did it in the Gorazde book and I did it with the book Fixer, where I had the present, then the past. And how I would often do it, is I would set the past with black borders so it was clear that you were in the past. Now in this case I decided not to do it because I wanted more of a blending, somehow. I wanted the past and the future to mesh more seamlessly, and not to necessarily differentiate so clearly with a thud: “OK. Now we are in the past.”

So I wanted things to be a bit more seamless, to get that effect that, in people’s minds — and I think when you look back historically — a lot of things are tangled together. That’s something I’m trying to show often, because I’m trying to show people’s confusion about events. Whether the events they’re talking about took place in ’67, and we don’t really find out till later on. Or sometimes they’ll get ’em mixed up with something that happened in ’54 or whatever. People sometimes would get things mixed up, and I find it interesting that here you have people that have been so hammered over the years that distinguishing one blow from the next can be very difficult when they’re looking back on it.

Groth: Yeah, there was that one woman who you depict in a succession of three panels who keeps misremembering when specific acts of carnage against her and her family occurred, but the brutality is all of a kind with only the historical moments changing.

Sacco: Oh yeah!

Groth: The acts of brutality blend together in her mind, almost as one continuous moment.

Sacco: Right, and I think that’s an important component of how people remember things. There’s a sense, I think, of event constipation, where they just cannot digest this stuff. Because there’s no time to do it, something else is coming up on its heels.

Groth: There’s no respite.

Sacco: There’s no respite, and then you have the younger generation, obviously concerned with their own monumental problems, and maybe they’re interested, but when it comes down to it, what matters now is their lives and their children’s lives. How can they think about their history? How can they actually think about what’s happened to them, and understand it, and digest it? That question is interesting to me. Can they do it? I feel like sometimes it seems like the Palestinians could probably have a project going where they have all that history, but I think it’s almost impossible to think in these terms. It all runs together. I mean that’s the whole idea: the events are continuous.

Groth: Tell me if I’m off base here, but were you essentially equating the present with the past? Even though bulldozing homes and firing upon homes obviously isn’t as harsh as putting people up against a wall and shooting them. Still, they’re still brutalized.

Sacco: Yeah, I’m letting the reader figure out what stands in relationship to what. Clearly, I personally think that putting people up against the wall and killing them in cold blood — that’s about as ruthless an act as you can think of. But that doesn’t necessarily diminish what’s going on now, which is something I try to point out to people who try to question me about why I’m not concentrating on their issues. And the truth is I did concentrate on their issues. And what’s interesting is that now that whole bulldozing thing is not going on in Rafah any more. And these people who’ve lost their homes, it’s like, who cares about it now? — Because that’s the past too. So what I’ve done really, is I’ve put that in — I’ve recorded that as best I could.

Continued in issue 301.