The "Middle Eastern conflict" is really a series of conflicts that have been waxing and waning since 1947. People wanting to understand it can quickly get lost amid endless lists of politicians and combatants, military operations, and shifting international alliances.
In Footnotes in Gaza, Joe Sacco tries to focus on a single incident: in November, 1956, Israeli soldiers entered the Gaza Strip town of Rafah, searching door-to-door for weapons and militants. By nightfall, 111 Palestinians lay dead in the streets and school yard. Sacco's previous graphic novels include Safe Area Gorazde, about the Bosnian War, and Palestine. He's been called the first comic book journalist, and his detailed black-and-white illustrations keep the his story from getting lost in lists of politicians and combatants, military operations, and shifting alliances. Instead, the images of cramped Gaza Strip slums, bulldozed houses, and the frightened and weary faces of Sacco's friends and interview subjects keep the human cost of the conflict in sharp focus.
The Rafah tragedy is largely forgotten, even in Gaza. Sacco learned about it by accident while researching another military operation in a neighboring town, pointing out, "A couple sentences in a U.N. report were all that saved the incident from outright oblivion." But in late 2002 and early 2003, during the tense months leading up to the United States' invasion of Iraq, Sacco traveled through the Gaza Strip interviewing Palestinian witnesses of the Rafah operation. He presents their accounts word-for-word, even where they contradict one another. (The official Israeli version of events is given toward the end, and further accounts by U.N. observers are included in an appendix.)
But Sacco can't pull at one thread without unraveling the conflict's entire 60-year history. He can't understand what happened on that day in 1956 without understanding the events leading up to it, and also everything that's happened since that may have colored his interview subjects' memories. In the forward, he writes, "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 hatred was planted in hearts."
Cross-posted at my blog.
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