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Joe Sacco, Author Of ‘Footnotes In Gaza,’ On Journalism And Palestine

Above Photo: Joe Sacco photographed in West Hollywood. Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

Sacco, whose graphic novels marry illustration with cutting-edge journalism, speaks on his career reporting on Palestine.

And what it means to bear witness as a journalist committed to justice.

Few journalists can be credited with as innovative and impactful a career as Joe Sacco, whose graphic novel-style reportage from his coverage of Palestine and Bosnia broke down barriers of genre to expand our concepts of what journalism could look like. Sacco appears on The Chris Hedges Report to discuss his work, the intricacies of ethics in journalism, and Israel’s current genocide in Gaza.

Joe Sacco is a cartoonist and journalist and the author of several books, including Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza.


Chris Hedges:  The cartoonist Joe Sacco invented nonfiction and graphic journalism, marrying rigorous and detailed reporting with illustrations that leap off the page and give his stories a texture, depth, and visceral power that is often hard to match for writers. He pioneered this work with nine issues on the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, from 1993-1995. The nine comics, later published as the book, Palestine, educated a generation about the tragedy that has gripped the Palestinians since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Palestine, which gained a cult following, won an American Book Award and is a staple on college syllabuses across the country. Edward Said, in the introduction to Palestine, wrote, “With the exception of one or two novelists and poets, no one has ever rendered this terrible state of affairs better than Joe Sacco.” Joe’s book sadly remains even more relevant today than when it was written.

But Joe was not done. He invested over four years in his masterpiece, one of the finest books on the Israel-Palestine conflict, Footnotes in Gaza. He explored the little-known massacres of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers when they occupied Rafah and Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip in November 1956. He doggedly tracked down victims and eyewitnesses to combine investigative journalism and oral history from the past to explain the present. Context is key and context in the reporting of the genocide in Gaza is largely absent in US media. This makes Joe’s work not only timely but vital for our understanding of this conflict. Joining me to discuss his two seminal works, Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza, is Joe Sacco.

I’ve read the books before, of course. I reread them. They are stunningly powerful. I’ve worked with you and I know what high standards you have as a journalist and a reporter. Palestine was where you formulated this marriage between journalism and illustration. At first, no one quite understood what you were doing or knew how to handle it. It’s incredibly effective. But talk about how that evolved, how that came to be.

Joe Sacco:  Okay, Chris. Very good to see you. Well, I wasn’t sure what I was doing, to be quite honest. I was a cartoonist doing comic books. I’d had a degree in journalism, couldn’t get a journalism job, and I wanted to do a series of comics of like a travel log in the Palestinian Territories. I was quite interested in what was going on there.

And it was coming out of the autobiographical tradition of underground comics, or alternative comics. So I went there thinking it would be me, my experiences, talking to some people, and trying to get some Palestinian perspectives on things. But when I was there, the journalistic training I had kicked in and I found myself behaving like a journalist and thinking in those terms, the way I had studied, and it came together organically. So in other words, I didn’t have some big idea about what I was going to do before I went there. The things came together very naturally. It’s in my later work that I was a little more journalistically inclined. But that first work was where I was experimenting with the melding of comics and journalism.

Chris Hedges:  Talk about the illustration. I know because I’ve worked with you, it is highly laborious. It takes you tremendous amounts of time. We did a book together, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, and I know from your great work, Footnotes in Gaza the research you do. It’s not that you are meticulous about the reporting but you’re meticulous about the images.

Joe Sacco:  Yeah, that’s super important. I want the reader to viscerally feel like they’re in the places I’ve been. And in those times when I’m taking them back into historical episodes, I want them to feel that too. So I do a lot of visual research. I look at photographs, I look at books, whatever I can get to make what I’m doing feel more real.

Chris Hedges:  Let’s talk about Palestine. The book itself was a series of originally nine comics put together in the book Palestine, but having just reread it it doesn’t feel like nine comics. It holds together and coalesces as a book. Partly because you look at various aspects of the occupation. Can you talk about what you did in those nine comics, which have now been published as a book?

Joe Sacco:  Yeah. Originally, I was going to do six comics and it became nine. A lot of it was episodic. I let it go where it went in my actual travels. In other words, there were a lot of random events and it has that quality to it. But while I was there, it became clear to me that if I wanted to assemble a picture of what the occupation looked like, I would have to piece together some things.

I listened to what people were telling me and I realized what were the important components, and then I began following them up. For example, life in prison or what it was like to be in prison. So many people there had been in prison that I talked to. I realized that was an essential part of it. Torture, because that was going on, the demolition of houses, and the random humiliations. So I put those things together in one section of the book and then in another, a little more self-contained when I went to Gaza and I talked about my experiences there. That was another part of the book where I wanted to see how people got along in that incredibly impoverished strip of land.

Chris Hedges:  Well, it has a sense of discovery. One of the things I like about all of your work is that whatever journey you’re on, you allow us to see exactly what is happening around you, even when it doesn’t reflect particularly well on the Palestinians or yourself. I love your critique of yourself as a journalist. I did that job for many years and there is a darkness, maybe callousness; It’s not that we don’t feel, we do feel. But in that drive to get a story, in Footnotes in Gaza, you’ll talk about those interviews where – And we’re going to talk about that in a minute, the 1956 massacres in Rafah and Khan Yunis by the Israelis – But when you can’t get stories about atrocities or carnage there’s frustration or when somebody starts repeating something you’ve already heard before, that unvarnished view, including all the people who want to get shekels from you for taking you on a tour of a mosque or all the gaggles of kids who surround you – But we know that you’re completely honest because you don’t take anything out – It reminds me very much of… Orwell pushes this. But I want to talk about the importance of that. It gives your work tremendous credibility.

Joe Sacco:  Thank you. Well, it’s important to show those shady parts of journalism or the seams of journalism. Because when I was studying journalism, I didn’t understand how things worked in a way. I was studying it, but to me, journalists seemed like demigods that were floating on the wall and looking down with their all-knowing eye. Then when you’re there and you realize how you are assimilating material and you see how other journalists are assimilating it, you realize it’s not quite like that.

There are a lot of misunderstandings, there’s a lot of guesswork, there’s a lot of realizing you don’t know things and a lot of wondering if you’re being told the truth. All those things are important. They’re important because I want people to understand the process of journalism, the process of getting a story, and also to show that journalism is created by imperfect beings. It’s not a science, exactly. We all go in with our preconceived ideas and our prejudices, and you have to face those things. That’s an important element of the work I do and I’m lucky in that I’m not working through the mainstream, so I can put those things in it.

Chris Hedges:  And also, as you said, the way you will portray the senior side of Palestine and why that’s important to your work.

Joe Sacco:  Oh, yeah. As you suggested, you are often hearing things and you realize this won’t sound so great for the greater cause, but then you have to decide if you’re an activist who’s going to winnow those things out for some greater good or if you’re a journalist who’s trying to, as much as possible, tell the story honestly. And I always went on that side of things because even when Palestinians read the work, they get it. Why should they be ashamed of all the passion and fury and anger that they might feel? It’s completely understandable in the context, which I’m also trying to present.

Chris Hedges:  You’ve spent many, many years… If you count Palestine, and then we did a piece for Harper’s Magazine, A Diary in Khan Yunis, then you went back and did Footnotes in Gaza. What is it about Palestine and did Palestine grip you from that first experience? But you’ve invested tremendous time in Palestine.

Joe Sacco:  Well, you’re a fellow journalist. Particular stories hit you in the gut and mattered to you for whatever reasons and the whole Palestine thing mattered to me on a personal level because I grew up thinking Palestinians were terrorists. And that began to shift around the time of the invasion of Lebanon in ’81, and then the massacres in Sabra and Shatila when I realized that, something else was going on. Later on, after I got my degree in journalism, I began to look at how journalism had shaped that viewpoint of Palestinians and I realized that’s what it was, I was appalled by what I didn’t know and what I wasn’t told by journalists.

There were a lot of reporting effects like an attack on a bus, a hostage situation with some airplanes, or whatever it was, all of those were facts but there was never any context. And I realized the only time I’d ever read or heard the word Palestinian was with the word terrorism. So in a way, I needed to do penance. I almost needed to atone in my own mind for those misunderstandings and that ignorance. And it became a special passion because I began to see how deeply wronged the Palestinian people were historically and how badly misrepresented they were. And it’s those two things, people deeply wronged and so badly misrepresented, that pulled me in that direction.

Chris Hedges:  What is it from your first trip to Palestine… It’s interesting, I was there, we didn’t meet then, but I was covering, I was living in Cairo, covering Gaza for the New York Times. What is it that particularly struck you? Were there certain incidents? What is it that first hit you or gripped you?

Joe Sacco:  When I was there, it was the day-to-day humiliations and degradation. There were always things that were more spectacular. You could always find stories of people who were shot, people who were wounded, and house demolitions. But it was these constant stories of humiliation, men being told to get out of cars, raise their arms, and keep their arms up in the air. They seemed like little things, but they were daily, and they added up. And I realized how dehumanized the Palestinians were from the Israeli perspective. The Israelis were constantly dehumanizing. Over time, that’s the thing that really struck me. It’s not so much the spectacular things.

Chris Hedges:  Although in all of the work, there’s that constant backdrop of violence. In Footnotes in Gaza, you will alternate between what happened in ’56 and what’s happening at the moment. It’s on the eve of the war in Iraq. But there’s that constant drumbeat. Either you hear shots or… And that is pervasive throughout all of your work.

Joe Sacco:  Well, yeah, unfortunately, because it’s been pervasive in Palestinian history. So when I was there – As you were during the first Intifada and then we were both there during the second Intifada – It’s not like the violence was turned on and then turned off and it’s been off since then and now we can all reflect on it in this way. It was constant and it is constant. Obviously, with what’s going on today, you see it’s ramped up to a great level. So violence has always been the backdrop for Palestinians, always, since before 1948. But in particular, since 1948, it hasn’t ceased.

Chris Hedges:  There’s a wonderful moment at the end of Footnotes in Gaza where you meet two Israeli women and they’re saying well, you should see it from our perspective. Or is that in Palestine?

Joe Sacco:  That’s in Palestine.

Chris Hedges:  Yeah. And you go to Tel Aviv. But you have this wonder thing of, in fact, I did see it from the Israeli perspective. I’ll let you explain.

Joe Sacco:  Yeah, I felt my whole life I’d seen things from the Israeli perspective. That was pretty much the only perspective I had and that’s what was filtered down through all the news broadcasts I ever saw and all the newspaper accounts I ever read. So I got the Israeli perspective. And especially at that time in the early 1990s, there wasn’t social media, there weren’t a lot of people reporting on the ground for independent media. So I hadn’t even heard many Palestinian voices. The only ones I ever heard were in human rights reports, let’s say Al-Haq, the well-known Palestinian human rights organization.

There would be these deposition accounts of being stopped or being shot or whatever it was and they all read legalistic. They were very legalistic. And originally, I thought I would try to draw those things. I’d see if I could get permission to draw those and then I realized that was so dry. Palestinians weren’t just victims, with a capital V, there were many other facets of their lives and that’s what I wanted to find out. I wanted to go and talk to Palestinians. You didn’t get that from the media at that time.

Chris Hedges:  Well, we also reflect that I watched the settlers and I watched the IDF. So in some sense, I do know the Israeli perspective; I know it as it’s seen through the Palestinian experience.

Joe Sacco:  That’s right. The whole two months I spent the major trip I took to Gaza, Footnotes in Gaza, I never once saw an Israeli soldier. I only saw Israeli vehicles, armored troop carriers or bulldozers, especially, military vehicles. I never saw someone’s eyes. So that was also the Palestinian perspective.

Chris Hedges:  Let’s talk about Footnotes in Gaza. Its genesis took place in a magazine piece that we did together for Harper’s Magazine. We were working in Khan Yunis, where we focused the piece and we heard about these massacres in 1956 when the Israeli army, under the Suez crisis – They were in Gaza for 100 days if I remember – Carried out wholesale killings in Khan Yunis, and then as you found out later, Rafah. And the magazine cut it out because it was history, it wasn’t deemed important. You and I felt very differently and this sets you on this project. But explain what happened and why you decided to devote so many years to this book.

Joe Sacco:  Well, frankly, it was anger that part was cut from your piece. These seemed like very valuable memories that we were taking down and were very important in understanding the context of what was going on. You remember we met al-Rantisi, the very high Hamas official, later assassinated by the Israelis, and his uncle was killed in 1956 by Israeli forces.

Chris Hedges:  He was nine years old at the time.

Joe Sacco:  Yeah, al-Rantisi was nine years old at the time. And what he told us was at that moment, through all the grief, he remembers his dad wailing and everyone incredibly upset. He said that planted hatred in their hearts. And unfortunately, there have been many instances like that, that have stoked that hatred. So it seemed very important to begin to understand those historical episodes because they’re like the building blocks for what we have today. The building blocks of the context for what’s going on now. And what’s going on now becomes the context for what will happen in the future. So these things are important. It’s important to understand them and it’s important to understand that things don’t come out of the blue. This question, why do they hate us or does the incitement come from textbooks, or something like that, come on. It comes from these episodes in history where people are shot and murdered. That’s where it comes from. And now bombed.

Chris Hedges:  It’s fascinating, throughout the book you’re constantly being questioned as to why you’re focusing on 1956 with some anger and people hauling you off to say, well, you have to look at what they did to my house. This is more important. You were right. But even the Palestinians themselves, often, some of them, not all of them, fail to see the importance of what you were documenting. We should be clear that this has not been documented. There’s very little reference to this. And to go back, when you look at the UN reports and they do that or you quote the report in the book where the Palestinians say this, the Israelis say this and it nullifies the event itself.

Joe Sacco:  Right. And the journalistic comparative is to say, well, this is not a tennis match between two competing sides. What happened? And if you’re not going to get it from documents and people who are alive or remember it, you should make an effort to go and talk to those people. It’s a very simple journalistic enterprise in a way. Okay, I’ll talk to people and try to find out what happened. Yeah, so that’s what launched me in that direction.

Chris Hedges:  And explain what happened, what you found out.

Joe Sacco:  Okay. There had been, what you can say a border of war or a border of conflict with Palestinians, mostly refugees then, in the Gaza Strip. A lot of them were going back into Israel to harvest their crops, to go back to their homes that they had been displaced from or expelled from. And the Israelis were obviously against this. They were killing a lot of these people. And border skirmishes started, and guerilla groups were set up by the Egyptian army, which –

Chris Hedges:  I should be clear, occupied Gaza.

Joe Sacco  – Yeah. Which occupied Gaza at that time. And they attempted to control and were running Palestinian guerillas into Israel. So there were border clashes going on that could get quite heated at times with many casualties.

And in the ’56 war, when for various reasons, Great Britain, France, and Israel wanted to lay low – And Nasser, who was president of Egypt – Another one of the things the Israelis thought they could do like they’re doing now, is end this problem in Gaza once and for all, end the problem of the guerillas once and for all. So when they came into Gaza and they conquered it quite quickly, they went into the town of Khan Yunis and they didn’t do a screening operation of any sort. They started shooting men. They shot them in their homes, they lined them up against walls and in the street, and they shot them. According to the UN, about 275 unarmed men were killed.

Later in Rafah, a few days later, they did do a screening operation where they had all the men gather in a school so they could screen them to see if they were either in the Egyptian military or guerillas. In the process of that screening operation, especially when the men were running toward the school and going through the gate, they shot them or they clubbed them so badly that they died. And more than 100, like 111-112 individuals, died in that. And both those incidents had a great mark on the people. And as you say, though, some of the younger generation didn’t quite understand my focus on it. But as someone told me, events are continuous. They’re going on presently all the time. So it was hard for them to focus on those things. It was easier for me because that was what I was determined to do.

Chris Hedges:  There’s a lot of violence in the book. It’s a painful book to read. Many of the people you interview become emotionally very distraught. What was it like to draw it and write it?

Joe Sacco:  Well, you might feel some of this, Chris. It’s like when you’re in the field talking to people, it’s that coldness that I hint at in the book that you can get. You behave very professionally, almost like a doctor, almost like a surgeon trying to get the story in. You go in, you get the story, you come out. And you have to keep your feelings at bay. You have to collect the information and be as accurate as possible. So that’s one part of the job. The other part is when I’m drawing, even years later, that’s when it hits me because then I can no longer detach myself in the same way. I have to inhabit each person as I’m drawing them. You have to try to feel what they’re going through in order to draw them. So that’s when it becomes more difficult. That’s when you’re getting the full impact of what you did. The drawing table is a harder place to be than the streets of Gaza, on some level.

Chris Hedges:  You said you didn’t want to go through that experience again if I’m quoting you correctly.

Joe Sacco:  Yeah. I don’t know how you feel, but I always feel like journalism has a half-life. There’s only so much of it you can do before you begin to run out of steam. So you have to know when to maybe change focus a bit.

Chris Hedges:  Well, there’s a huge emotional cost.

Joe Sacco:  Right. And that’s what makes it so hard to watch what’s going on now. You feel everything that’s going on now, it’s pretty overpowering. You could imagine what it’s like for them.

Chris Hedges:  Yes. In some ways, it’s the culmination of 75 years of indiscriminate violence, and it seems that each time that wave of Israeli violence hits Gaza, it hits it at a level or has an intensity that it didn’t have before. And what we’re seeing now has an intensity we’ve never seen before, even in 1948. What are your thoughts on what’s happening and how it should be seen from a historical perspective?

Joe Sacco:  Well, as you say, it’s a culmination. It might not even be the low point. That’s what scares me even more. It’s the natural logic of what’s been coming since 1948. It is the logic of 1948. Back in those days, it was the same idea. We need to expel the people. Herzl said that in the 1800s we needed to spirit the pennyless population across the border. It’s nothing new in a way but it was always inching toward this. And it seems to have reached another, what you can say is a catastrophe, and what looks like a genocide to me. So I don’t know where it goes from here. It seems like the Israelis do want to expel the Palestinians. They want to get rid of this population in any way possible. And by making Gaza uninhabitable, there’ll be a lot of pressure from the Palestinians living there themselves to get out, because a lot of them have probably reached a breaking point.

Chris Hedges:  Yeah, it’s clear Israel has offered them a choice. They can die from bullets, bombs, exposure, or disease. 500,000 Palestinians, according to the UN, are literally at starvation level, or they can leave. That seems to be what they’re orchestrating. And it’s on a larger scale. They used the same tactic, which you reported on in 1948. It wasn’t any different.

Joe Sacco:  Right. Yeah, they’re taking it to a greater level. This is their big chance in a way. Perhaps it’ll get foiled, I don’t know. But we’ve seen it now at its most raw, at its most naked. No one who sees it now can deny it.

Chris Hedges:  I was reading that passage in your book, Footnotes in Gaza. You write about Palestinians being expelled to Gaza. And it’s exactly what’s happening today in southern Gaza. There’s no housing, there’s no infrastructure. And in the book, you’re writing about how they dig holes in the ground to sweep in, which is precisely what we’re seeing in Rafah and Khan Yunis at this moment.

Joe Sacco:  Right. It’s a complete reversion to what happened in ’48. People are intense. People are trying to shelter themselves. And in many ways, it is worse because there seems to be a starvation of the population. It’s not hunger, it’s starvation, and like you say, disease and continual military assault. So it’s at another point now, it’s at another level.

Chris Hedges:  And the other continuum, which you also note in particular in Footnotes in Gaza with the cynicism of Nasser and the Egyptians, is the indifference of the international community and even Arab countries who rhetorically will speak on behalf of the Palestinians, but do very little to help them. Can you talk about that continuum?

Joe Sacco:  Yeah. In some ways, the Palestinians are a way that other Arab populations are allowed to vent their frustrations at their dictatorships and their conditions. It’s the release ball for passions and anger. But I do think the average Arab person has a lot of feelings for the Palestinians, it’s the government. Governments make treaties and make agreements with other governments, they don’t make them with the people. So there’s always that disconnect. And yes, the Arab governments are treating this problem mostly, they’re treating it quite cynically.

Chris Hedges:  Have you been in touch with people you worked with? I haven’t been to Gaza for some time, since we did our magazine piece. But have you been trying to reach out to people? And if you had, what have you heard? And talk about that connection, if there is one.

Joe Sacco:  Sure. Well, there are a couple of people who I was in touch with for some time. One of them for not so long, I haven’t heard from him in about six or eight weeks. I’m quite worried. Another friend, I haven’t heard from him in about three weeks and I’m quite worried because a lot of his family members have died: An uncle and his entire family, a cousin and his entire family, and then two daughters of another cousin and their entire family. So it’s hit him quite hard. And I haven’t heard from him either. So I’m waiting.

Chris Hedges:  How do you see it playing out? Or do you have any idea where it’s headed? I don’t know that the Israeli government even knows where it’s headed.

Joe Sacco:  Yeah, it’s hard to say exactly. Netanyahu needs to demonstrate something. He needs to demonstrate something to the Israeli people that will help him claw his way back into their hearts. And it has to be something profound and that’s troubling. So I don’t expect any good things to come out of this. We’re in for perhaps some changes, maybe some surprises. These things, you lift the lid off them and you never know where they’re going to go. You never know how it’s going to play out. And then you have to think, well, what’s it going to look like in 5 years or 10 years or 20 years? And you don’t know. What you do know is that nothing has been resolved. The hatred will continue, and the fear will continue. And if we’ve come to this level, what’s the next step? What’s the next stage?

Chris Hedges:  Well, that’s why Footnotes in Gaza is so important.

Joe Sacco:  Well, thanks. It’s important to provide the context. You do wish these books would run out of steam and wouldn’t have the same meaning and would become obsolete.

Chris Hedges:  It’s absolutely vital and it’s tremendous work. That was the cartoonist, Joe Sacco, author of Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team; Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at

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