​Palestine – A medley of emotions

This book is going to be the highlight read of 2018. Period.
The book cover
​​Palestine by Joe Sacco has been an intense and difficult read. You’d think a comic book would be easy to read and completed in a couple of days. Not this one. Not for me at least. Joe, with his mix of graphics and text, gives the reader a comprehensive insight into the life and times of Occupied Territories in the early 90s. The text not only spells out the atrocities meted out to the Palestinians, but forms a broken yet hard-hitting style of narrative. With ample context and snippets, intense conversations and monologues, Joe managed to transport me to the world he witnessed, a world wrought with gunfire and uncertainty, of being denied basic human rights and land expropriated.

This book, with its stories of hate and destruction, pain and torment, has not been easy to stomach. I’ve had to stop numerous times in between, take a breather, to let my anger subside or stop my eyes from welling up. I would get choked up while reading some portions, and while I will share a few snippets from the book, there can be no comparison to reading it as a whole. Please pick it up. I may have the benefit to pause and look away, live my life, but Joe stayed and experienced many things first-hand, while the real sufferers live such a life day in and day out. There is no escape, nowhere to look away, to focus on something else. This is their reality. And it’s far from pretty.

Joe visited West Bank and Gaza Strip in late 1991 and early 1992, and he first published the accounts under nine issues. In 2001, all these issues were put together. These accounts describe the life and times of Palestinians after the First Intifada against the Israeli occupation which had begun to run out of steam. He does begin with a very ‘neutral’ perspective, present only to document the happenings around him, but it’s obvious with every chapter and every meeting how his thoughts shift a little. He visits the occupied territories, refugee camps, and even a bit of Tel Aviv (former capital of Israel*), which is sheltered from the harsh realities of their surroundings.

Joe’s journey begins in Cairo from where he gets a visa to Israel. From there, he heads to the old city of Nablus, which is in the northern part of West Bank. All conversations with locals would include someone having been shot, hurt, jailed, missing a relative, friend or having lost someone dear. Some would consider it shameful if they did not have a stint in prison. There, even if boys in their teens would throw stones, there were chances they could get shot for their actions, or even jailed for eleven years.

Sometimes Jewish settlers would “boot” out Palestinian residents, giving people very little time to retrieve their belongings. They would move in, roll out barbed wire and stake claim to their land. And with the approval of Israeli authorities, the Palestinians did not have anywhere to go. Last week, Israel gave the green-light to creation of 3,000 new Jewish settler in occupied East Jerusalem.

“We are committed to building wherever possible in order to increase Jerusalem’s Jewish majority,” said Meir Turjeman, chairman of the municipal planning committee.

Last year, Israel’s Channel 10 reported on plans to build 300,000 new Jerusalem housing units as part of a so-called “Greater Jerusalem” bill aimed at annexing settlements built in the occupied West Bank. According to Channel 10, most of the units would be constructed in areas located beyond the Green Line, in reference to territories that Israel occupied during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.  (Read the full report here)

The economy of the region had been crippled by the occupiers. Many Palestinian villagers depended on their olive trees to make ends meet. These were uprooted by the army. Sometimes, they were forced to cut down their own trees, trees that have been in the family since ages, trees that produced good quality olives used to make olive oil. One villager described it like ‘cutting down his own son’. It’s very difficult for them to find jobs, and often, if they did, they would have to travel great distances for it and end up spending more than they made. Hospitals, schools, almost every public institution had been attacked. Blood banks ran low, if they did at all.

One account that really hit me was an account of an elderly lady with her youngest son in a refugee camp in Rafah, which is along the Egyptian border. This was her account:

“We were sitting here when the soldiers attached our area…They were throwing gas…so the children and old people became sick…A gas bomb landed in our courtyard…The women went out, shouting for help. All the people were running out, gathering…throwing stones at the soldiers…

The youth put up a barricade, including a fridge. They didn’t want the jeeps to enter…I told my neighbours, ‘Why are you staying in your house? The soldiers might be coming to take our sons…We have to stop them…’ My son Basel wanted to help the people affected by the tear gas. He went to see if the soldiers were still outside…A soldier behind the barricade shot him in the head…I saw him fall…He was taken to the health center and then to the hospital in Khan Younis…We followed him there…The soldiers stopped the car with his father and siblings and started to beat them…They forced them to remove a burning tire from the street. They broke my son’s arm – the eldest son…The soldiers stopped the car I was in, too, and we were beaten…

At the hospital in Khan Younis, the doctors said my son would be taken to a hospital in Israel…The soldiers refused for him to go in an ambulance. They said they would take him in an aircraft from a settlement near Khan Younis…I went with the ambulance to the airport. We reached a checkpoint. The doctors said, ‘We have an injured person, we are in a hurry…After half an hour, they let us go…But we didn’t find the aircraft…

We returned to the hospital. They told us to go to another place for the aircraft…But it wasn’t there either…We went back to the hospital. The doctors decided to take him to Israel by ambulance. Why hadn’t they taken him directly? He was injured at 11 am and we didn’t get him to the Israeli hospital until 6 pm…No doctors, no one came to ask about him. They ignored us…I couldn’t control myself at that time. They took me back to Gaza…

My son died after 45 hours…He had no medical care…no change of dressing…just oxygen…Forty hours after he died, the soldiers came at night. They said we should go to the cemetery, just the family, at eight o’ clock…We waited till 1 am in the rain…”

It’s a longish extract, and of course, it’s something else to read it with the graphic panels, but just thinking about it makes me numb and angry at the same time.

An account like this is just a drop in the ocean. It had become the norm. Maybe, it still is, I’m not entirely sure about the current situation from an insider’s perspective.

And yet in the face of such hardship, Joe was always received with open arms. The people here are extremely hospitable. Even if they had homes with crumbling walls and leaking roof, a house without a floor, they would still offer guests the best they could. Joe would befriend locals to move from place to place interviewing people, and he would rely on them to translate while getting a better understanding of the lay of the land. And everywhere he went, he would always get a cup of tea with spoonfuls of sugar, sometimes infinite; but a warm hearth to share.

What is also special about this non-fiction graphic novel is the foreward by late Edward Said. A professor of literature who taught in Columbia University, I am in awe of this person. Reading his five-page dense prose had me reaching for the dictionary very often, but I’ll confess it left me bristling for more.

*The US, under President Donald Trump’s administration, has now officially recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and plans to move the embassy to the holy city by May 14, a date that coincides with Israel’s 70th anniversary of proclamation of independence.  
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