Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Maybe it's time

Maybe it's time to wrap them up - he said -
these demons yelling in my head
these crazy bitches clasping my veins shut

And the heart pumps dry.

Three angels. Salt wings.
Many revolutions that went by
bad girl moods
hazel eyed peters.
Getting stuck . Falling in love.

Move slowly on - he said.
Another is waiting. In line.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Reading Travels: Khan Younis and Rafah - Gaza Strip, November 1956

Footnotes in Gaza
Sometimes the books I enjoy the most are not recommended by a friend or carefully selected from my "to read" list. They are, like "Footnotes in Gaza" by Joe Sacco, random picks from a library or bookstore shelf. I was not even looking at books for myself, I was in the graphic books section searching for something that will rather entertain my oldest son, when I spotted the title that arose my interest. The author's name seemed vaguely familiar as well, whatever I read any magazine articles by Joe Sacco before  I  am not sure, but the fact that he published in some of my favorites such as Times and Harper's represented spoke well for the author and  I knew that I had to borrow "Footnotes in Gaza" . I started reading it as soon as  I got home and  soon I got so absorbed by its lecture that I almost congratulated myself for following my instincts...

Beyond the excellent graphic format - which makes it an enjoyable read even for someone who admits to get easily bored by historical books, especially non-fiction ones - the book is a well documented journalistic and historical  account on the IDF killingsof civilians in Khan Younis and Rafah during the occupation of the Gaza Strip by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)  in November 1956 as the Suez Crisis was unfolding. 
The book starts slowly by making the reader become familiar  with the geo-political context and historical events  which make Gaza Strip such an uniquely conflict prone area starting with  1948  and up to today :


The author continues to initiate the reader in the details of the political context beyond the Suez crisis and the invasion of Gaza Strip by Israeli forces by sketching the portrait of Jemal Abder Nasser's ambitions and his vision of a pan-Arab coalition, stopping for a short comment on the British and French commercial interests in the Suez Channel and trying to determine through eyewitness accounts the role played by the Fedayeen in the on-going conflict between Israel and the Palestinian refugees living in Gaza Strip. The Fedayeen  where a guerilla force composed of former Palestinian combatants as well as delinquents backed by the Egyptian government which was supplying the logistics and training. Focusing their attacks on military targets at first, the Fedayeen  were usually recording more causalities than the Israeli forces deed as their weapons, military discipline and training were inferior to the IDF. A twisted turn of events and politics switched the focus from military attacks to civilian attacks and in the spring of 1956 a Fedayeen assault on a mosque lead to 11 victims among which several children.

Used by Nasser for its own political ambitions , the potential threat of the  Fedayeen  attacks was also one of the "reasons"  beyond IDF's actions against civilians in the towns of  Khan Younis and Rafah. Located in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, the towns are the closest to the  Egyptian border therefore more likely to be used as base by the Fedayeen. Also the Strip's geography makes it easier to isolate them from the northern Gaza City where all the UN international officials were based in 1956. [In fact Rafah's proximity to the border is the reason why the city remains one of the hottest conflict spots in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.) Perhaps, notes Sacco, these are reasons why the IDF killings  during the November 1956 conflict  are only a footnote in a book by Chomsky and a handful of documents buried in the archives of the times. The Israeli government is not likely to find an unbiased account of the events  work to its advantage as IDF's interest is to assume the least possible responsibility for a continuous conflict that lead to countless civilian victims on both sides. The younger Palestinians are too consumed with their own problems, the best way to deal with the   present conflict  to pay attention to the past. From their  point of view their times are harder and their fights are much more bitter. And for the older Palestinians? They survived 1948,1956 , 1967 ...and in their memory the events are so intertwined  that often they cannot tell if this one died in 1956 or in 1967 or was it later?
And thus  the 275 people killed in Khan Younis and the conflicting accounts on how what was supposed to be the screening of the  male population between 15 and 60 searching for Fedayeen  members as well as possible Egyptian soldiers hiding among the civilian population in Rafah lead to 111 dead men became only a footnote in the account of a conflict  that is but a continuous string of events - the attacks and the counter-attacks, civilian victims of suicide bombings in Israel and civilian victims of the rocket attacks and building demolitions in Gaza  Strip.  Joe Sacco takes that footnote and not only re-creates the most complete and best documented attack of the events yet, but also gives it its right place among the continuous string of events leading to the problems which his friends Abed and Ashraf have to face every day. Problems as the lack of a proper home as Ashraf  had to abandon the home started building with his father before they even got a chance to live in it. Since as a consequence of the most recent Intifada is the constant shelling and the destruction Rafah homes near the Egyptian border as they are perceived by the Israeli Army as a potential hub for militants and tunnels to the Egyptian side used now to smuggle black market goods as well as weapons and ammunitions.  Block by block, houses near the border are first becoming inhabitable and afterwards demolished - and towards the end of the story the house built by Ashraf's family shares their faith. The irony : his brother cannot marry until he has his own home or apartment, yet he will not qualify for a replacement home until he gets married. And even Ashraf who is married has to wait about seven years until his new house will be completed by UNRWA. Sacco's storytelling skills carry the reader back and forth between the 1956 events and his own account of the conflict as it unfolds in front of his eyes while he searches for witnesses. And thus the 1956 events become as current as the struggles of present day habitants of Khan Younis and Rafah .
Yes history is actual, and perhaps there is no place better than Palestine and the Gaza Strip to look at as we try to understand how current events unfold from the old ones. How current conflicts are rooted in old wounds. Sacco notes in his foreword to the book the comment of an witness: « " I still remember the wailing and tears of my father other his brother;" he said. "I couldn't sleep for many months after that ...It left a wound in my heart that can never heal. [...] [T]hey planted hatred in our hearts."» (p. ix, para. II).The witness was Abed El-Aziz El-Rantisi , a senior official of Hames, the political wing of the Palestinian resistance movement that is often blamed (and culpable) for terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. Terrorist attacks leading Israelis to intensify their efforts to eliminate the armed militants from Gaza Strip and destroy their connections with the outside world - the paths they use to bring in weapons and  send suicide bombers into Israel. And since rockets and bullets do not make a difference between civilians and militants - the more aggressive are Israeli attacks,  the more likely to hurt Palestinian civilians in the process and the isolation enforced on the overpopulated Gaza Strip  leads to  less employment and trade opportunities and therefore  more poverty, more victims, more wounded hearts, more hatred...
Another interesting aspect of Sacco's story is the chronicle his own work - the way in which he finds potential witnesses, records their accounts and builds charts to compare their stories  - one story with all other ones from the same area and timeframe and all stories with the scarce documentation of events he was able to track in UN and Israeli archives. Sacco's account of events is not the sensational aspect of  story  - he does not try to build sympathy for Palestinians in the Occident by giving an account of their plies as refugees and victims caught in a regional power game. He is a genuine journalist and his focus is on re-creating the events as objectively as possible given that he has to base his work on subjective memories because documentation is scarce and the Israeli records of the events are likely to be as biased as the memories of Palestinians. (No international officials were allowed in South Gaza during the November 3rd, respective November 12 events. ) This is why he allots more than half of the book to the November 12 events - how did a routine screening for Fedayeen combatants and Egyptian soldiers hiding among  civilians in  Rafah , days after the invasion and resistance was over, result in more than 111 men being killed and even more being wounded. Where those killed active soldiers or Fedayeen combatants resisting occupation ? Was it a mob looting the UNWRA warehouses ? Did  the Israeli soldiers panic  when people started running to the screening point trying to get there within the timeframe announced by loudspeakers and started shooting in the crowd as was the Israeli  official account of the events? Or where the random killings ,the humiliation of Palestinian civilians and the arrests of retired combatants  the result of carelessness for human lives by those who were in charge of organizing the screening and a tactic meant to instill such fear among the Palestinian refugees, intimidate them so they won't attempt any actions of resisting the Israeli occupation and accept their faith with no further objections as accounted for by Palestinian witnesses? 
The value of "Footnotes to Gaza" as a history book rests on the quality of Sacco's journalism - it encompasses the accounts of both sides , both perspectives are presented. He does not try to sugarcoat the responsibility of Palestinian resistance fighters for the mood of Israeli troops - some of them were murderers and their victims were civilians and children as well. He includes the solid account of a former government employee working close to Moshe Dayan during the time  on the dilemma the Israeli government faced than  (and it is still facing) - how to protect its autonomy in the midst of an "Arab world" especially as it faced a pan-Arab nationalist movement at that time (in 1956).  In fact Sacco's focus on recreating an objective account of facts and events from biased documentation and subjective memories almost makes him get sidetracked and forget the reasons why he started to work on the footnotes to Gaza n the first place. He saw in  the  book  a witness that can make the not-so-uninvolved- Occidental-witness, i.e. his readers , you and me, aware  of the complex history beyond  and the roles both sides had played in the past, roles making them equally responsible for the present-day conflict. He  wanted to give Palestinians the ability to take a step back and look at their current issues as part of their broader historical and political context, as well as preserve an important moment of Palestinian history for the generations to come. He hoped that Israeli readers once confronted with the other side of the story will be more likely to press for an actual solution, a real truce with the Arabs. So he ends by coming back to his original intent and stresses one more time how important human emotions are when they end up trying to find a solution to a state of conflict , especially a violent one that does not allow time for wounds to heal and for people to find their peace as well...

On personal note, one question following me since I finished reading "Footnotes to Gaza" : How comes  that so many IDF soldiers showed cruelty or at best indifference and lack of human compassion towards civilians? Yes, some where potential enemy soldiers or murderers -yet many of them were old men or boys as young as 15, they were teachers and merchants , some of them were peacemakers perhaps and some had been  living exemplary lives.  Considering the year when the killings happen : 1956, 11 years after the end of WWII  and the average age of active soldiers in the IDF , the Israeli soldiers had to remember the years of Holocaust as something that happened in their own time. The memory of those times when they could have faced , and some of them even had faced, humiliation and death just because everybody who held their religious beliefs, who belonged to the same nation was "the enemy" no matter what they had done or how they lived as individuals, that memory had to be still alive in their minds and hearts. And one hopes that the people who belong to a nation surviving so much harm, so much injustice are more likely to act most humanly: showing mercy, compassion, acting justly and avoiding the gratuitous humiliation and violence against their prisoners. Yet, in spite of what might hope, there is perhaps a harsher reality -most of us recall the fear instead. The thought that if they are acting too softly instead of being aggressively in offensive,  they may end up being those oppressed, those victimized... the hopeless ones.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Happines with you was a cry of despair

Panic within
your cubicled heart
just naked white
walls naked skin
I hurl curse scream 
obscured cubicle walls
pushed in

 Excerpt from the 3:15 Experiment  (August 21 )