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Joe Sacco, 'Footnotes in Gaza'

Jonathan Cape, 2009; ISBN 978-0224071093; 432pp; £20

In 2001 legendary non-fiction cartoonist Joe Sacco travelled to Gaza on an assignment for Harper’s magazine to report on the fate of Palestinians in the town of Khan Younis during the second Intifada.

That visit prompted him to follow up a reference he’d read many years earlier in Noam Chomsky’s book The Fateful Triangle: a short quote from a UN document concerning a massacre in the town during the 1956 Suez Crisis, in which scores of unarmed men were shot in their homes or lined-up against walls by Israeli forces.

Though barely known outside the Occupied Territories, if the UN-estimated death-toll of 275 is correct this was the greatest massacre of Palestinians ever to take place on Palestinian soil. The massacre in Khan Younis, and a second in neighbouring Rafah, are the “footnotes” of the title, and an agonising minute-by-minute reconstruction of these events, based on an extensive series of interviews by Sacco, forms the core of the book.

An undeniably gruelling read, it almost made me physically sick in places, so tangible is the horror captured in Sacco’s beautifully-drawn images. One section in particular, in which his elderly Palestinian interviewees recount being beaten with iron bars at the entrance of a school, will haunt many readers.

Acutely aware of the apparent perversity of his excavation of these half-century old events in the context of ongoing atrocities, Sacco skilfully interweaves his carefully pieced-together accounts of 1956 with the story of his piecing together. The latter against a backdrop of check-point closures, house-demolitions, and extra-judicial assassinations.

There’s also a wry look at the role of international activists: one teenager tells him he doesn’t like them (“They’re not Muslims. And god knows if they are with us or against us.”) while a second says he’d “like to be an international.”

And whether he’s recounting the story of Khaled, the ruthless, incorruptible guerrilla with an Israeli death-sentence on his head, Ashraf, whose dreams are shattered when Israeli attacks force him to evacuate his home, or Abed, who wants to leave the strip for three or four years “to see something else of the world” – the basic humanity of the Palestinians always shines through.

Anyone active on Israel-Palestine will want to read this book, and will have their understanding deepened in the process - and anyone who’s ever read one of Sacco’s books won’t need my recommendation before rushing out to get hold of a copy.