LONDON (Reuters) - Comic book meets investigative journalism in “Footnotes in Gaza,” a graphic novel by Joe Sacco that focuses on two days in Gaza in 1956 when Palestinians said hundreds of civilians were killed by Israeli forces.
Sacco and his researchers found almost nothing written in English about the episodes, despite U.N. estimates at the time putting the death toll at nearly 400 — 275 in Khan Younis on November 3 and 111 in nearby Rafah on November 12.
In a bid to discover the truth about what he called a “footnote of history,” the 49-year-old traveled to Gaza twice to interview people who witnessed the events.
Sacco, an award-winning artist and journalist who has produced a graphic novel about the West Bank and Gaza Strip and a comic book about the conflict in Bosnia, wanted to use the past as a way of exposing problems in the Middle East.
“People are so focused on what’s going on now,” he said in a recent interview.
“When I was growing up there was a lot of news about Palestinians on TV and it was always hijackings, bombings and always related to terrorism.
“I was never given the context, and what brought them to that unhappy point. Some younger Palestinians I met thought perhaps I should be focusing on the here and now. This is not an isolated incident. Is it talking about a people who have been hammered over and over again.”
The novel, around 400 pages long and containing detailed, black-and-white drawings, jumps from Sacco’s visits to Gaza between November 2002 and March 2003 to the events of 1956, and places them in the context of the Suez crisis.
Israeli forces crossed the Gaza Strip and Sinai Desert with the declared aim of halting attacks by Egyptian-backed Palestinian fedayeen guerrillas, and it was during the campaign that the alleged massacres took place.
Sacco is recognizable as the bespectacled reporter brandishing notepad and tape recorder as he travels around the region talking to witnesses and joining the community of foreign journalists who party hard after an often grim day’s work.
He also seeks to recreate the bombings, assassinations, beatings and executions of 1956, underlining how violence in the region today is nothing new.
Sacco concedes that an account based on the memories of Palestinian witnesses recalling events 53 years ago, which he then turns into pictures, will never be 100 percent accurate.
He addresses the issue of accuracy in the book, pointing out how people’s memories of the same incident vary. Sacco also quotes from a 1956 U.N. report that points to differences in the accounts of Israeli authorities and Palestinian refugees.
Even Israeli troops involved in the operations disagreed on what happened, he says, underlining how competing truths have helped perpetuate an apparently intractable conflict.
But Sacco hopes “Footnotes in Gaza”, which has won warm early reviews, will encourage others to look at the more obscure passages of the region’s history.
“There are very few definitive histories, especially talking about this part of the world,” he said. “I hope the book does give an Israeli historian some kind of impetus to try again.”
Sacco’s next project is a magazine piece about African migrants trying to enter Europe, after which he plans to take a break from reporting.
“I would like to step away from journalism for a while and do something else. Fiction perhaps.”
“Footnotes in Gaza” is published in the United States on Tuesday by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Macmillan.
Editing by Paul Casciato