Tuesday, Dec 26, 2023

Reading Joe Sacco’s ‘Palestine’ in 2023: What happens to the war when you look away?

The systems are not failing those killed, they are built to kill. And now, once again, a lot of us know. In the background, the bulldozer is charging ahead anyway

“This is not an era of war,” they say. At important international summits, India and the world’s leaders have been driving this point home. Meanwhile, the last count of civilian casualties in Gaza was 20,258. Of this 8,200 are children, and there are another 7,000 that are missing – presumably, under the rubble. Due to the collapse of Gaza’s health system, the Health Ministry has failed to provide regular updates since November 10.

Joe Sacco’s Palestine, a nine-issue collection of comic strips depicting the artist-journalist’s two-month stay in the Occupied Territories (his words), has recently been rushed into reprint. The trigger — Hamas’ October 7 attack.

The collected works are narrated from Sacco’s point of view. An American, plucked from within the Empire and dropped into the thick of its consequences, amid those condemned to suffer it, Sacco has the sensibilities that most Westerners do when it comes to the “Middle East”, albeit perhaps with a little more context than most. This characteristic nonchalance about the lives and trials of Palestinians he is around is despite his being sympathetic to the Palestinian cause from the very first comic — much more so than the average American.


He says, at one point, “I mean sure I had sympathy for a homeland lost, but what were the problems of Palestinians to me next to [Leon] Klinghoffer, who ate Brand X cornflakes and probably borrowed my ladder…” Naming the game and yet being under its spell, unlearning in real time — that’s the process Sacco commits to showing to readers.

Twenty years, another intifada, tens of thousands of illegal settlements and one “war” later, reading Sacco’s Palestine is an exercise in cruel irony. The litany of losses faced by Palestinians, the aggression of the occupation have only escalated since Sacco first sketched them out. Israel may be hailed by the West as West Asia’s “only democracy” — but from the ground, what one bears witness to cannot be wished away by a PR machinery.

Festive offer

In Balata, Sacco meets young boys who show him the mandatory ID cards they have to carry which indicate whether or not they were involved in the intifada. In a village close to the Green Line, he meets a woman whose home has been demolished, her son imprisoned and daughter-in-law barred re-entry into the area. He meets a man whose son was shot dead in the street. He meets prisoners from Ansar III and hears stories of torture and resilience. Right after, he talks of the Landau Report by the Israeli government, which concluded that excessive force was used but none of the officers involved should be charged. In the interest of “defending Israel”, it further concluded that “moderate pressure” can be used. Two sub-chapters follow. They are titled and depict the “Moderate Pressure” in question.

Through Palestine, Sacco, in 2001, laid bare in shocking contrast the words and ways in which injustice against the Palestinian people is normalised and legalised. Reading it now allows a peek into the systems that enable thousands of civilian casualties and captures the moment of impact for most who are hit. Palestinian journalists today, from Plestia Alaqad to Motaz Azaiza, are/were all doing the same thing. Documenting life and death in Gaza, laying bare the ugliness of the assault they are under. Turns out, the Empire had a contingency plan for what happens when the gig is up — “we just keep going”.


Despite multiple UN resolutions in which the overwhelming majority lay with calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, Israel and much of the West have managed to veto almost every single one. Then, of course, there’s the small matter of Palestine not even being a member state of the UN. There are calls for investigation of war crimes and yet there seems to be no force in this world that can even stagger the onslaught.

We thought bearing witness was enough. Once we know, suffering shall end. As it turns out, that we know, does not matter. The systems are not failing those killed, the systems are built to kill. And now, once again, a lot of us know. In the background, the bulldozer is charging ahead anyway. This is not an era of war. Not if you look away. As the Palestinian poet Noor Hindi wrote in 2020 in the poem, Breaking [News]: “I’m holding a lightning bug/ hostage in one hand, its light dimming in the warmth/ of my fist, and in the other, a pen, to document its death./ Isn’t that terrible?”

First published on: 26-12-2023 at 08:00 IST
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