A Thin Black Line

What happened in November 1956 during the Israeli occupation of Khan Yunis and Rafah? Based on documents and testimonies, 'Footnotes in Gaza,' a graphic novel by cartoonist-journalist Joe Sacco, describes the killing of some 275 civilians. Official Israel at the time did not deny it, nor did it acknowledge any wrongdoing.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Amira Hass
Amira Hass

"It is quite evident that the Israelis do not wish to have United Nations observers circulating in the Strip and reporting upon the actions they are taking against the civilian populace. From the reports we receive from UNRWA personnel and from the very few incidents that have been witnessed by observers, I have come to the conclusion that the treatment of civilians is unwarrantedly rough and that a good number of persons have been shot down in cold blood for no apparent reason."

These words were written not in the 2009 Goldstone report, but in a letter dated November 13, 1956 - eight days after the end of the Sinai Campaign and five days after Israel, under pressure from the United States and the Soviet Union, announced its readiness to retreat. The letter was sent by Lt. Col. (U.S. Army) R.F. Bayard, chairman of the Egyptian-Israeli Mixed Armistice Commission (UN observers), to Col. Lear of the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO). "Of course, we hear many rumors of atrocities, much of which we can discount, but a small percentage are probably factual," he added.

The "small percentage" was detailed in a special report by the local UNRWA director, covering the period from November 1 through mid-December, and submitted to the UN General Assembly on January 11, 1957. According to this report, on November 3, during the conquest of Khan Yunis, Israeli forces killed 275 Palestinians: 140 refugees and 135 local residents. On November 12 (after the fighting was over), Israeli military forces killed 110 Palestinians in Rafah: 103 refugees, seven local residents, plus one Egyptian.

Official and other sources are quoted in full in a graphic novel published in New York late last year by Henry Holt and Company. "Footnotes in Gaza," by cartoonist-journalist Joe Sacco, is a hefty, album-sized tome whose hard-cover version is 418 pages long - 388 of which are covered with meticulous and highly detailed black-and-white illustrations depicting Sacco's journeys to Khan Yunis and Rafah (and Jerusalem) to investigate this unknown "small percentage" of atrocities, and his interpretation in graphic-novel form of the testimonies he collected from dozens of people. To judge from the reviews, the speed with which the book is being translated into other languages, and the surge of renewed interest in Sacco's earlier works, this piece of the past will not remain unknown for very long. The comic-strip form, and Sacco's style in particular, is a good match for the Gazan temperament. Like Gazans themselves, the author-illustrator extracts comical and ludicrous moments from intolerable situations, which are the norm in the Strip. In one respite from illustrating interviewees' memories of 1956, Sacco and his companions are drawn returning from Gaza to Rafah some years later, just prior to the disengagement. Of course, on the way they are stopped and stuck in a long line of cars at the Abu Holi junction, so that - thanks to Israeli fortifications and observation towers and tanks - the traffic generated by the 7,000 settlers in Gush Katif can proceed unhindered.

No still photos could rival the illustrations and texts depicting the aggravation and wasted time at the blocked checkpoint. "It's closed again," their taxi driver tells them morosely when they are stopped by (unseen) soldiers. "Who closed it?" asks a small boy in the taxi. The driver, who looks about to explode with irritation at the innocent question, keeps his cool and replies: "Shlomo." In Gaza, "Shlomo" is a general name for Israelis. A lot of people use it, and for some reason it always makes people there smile.

To a large degree, the book owes its existence to an editor's censorship. In June 2001, Harper's magazine sent Sacco, a Malta-born American citizen, and his journalist friend Chris Hedges, former Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times, to Gaza. They chose to concentrate on Khan Yunis, and in the report that Hedges wrote, which appeared in October of that year, "for whatever reason" - as Sacco puts it - the paragraphs relating to the mass killing of local residents perpetrated by Israel Defense Forces troops there in 1956 were omitted.

This deletion made Sacco feel hurt and angry. And he writes in the introduction to his new book: "This episode - seemingly the greatest massacre of Palestinians on Palestinian soil, if the UN figures of 275 dead are to be believed - hardly deserved to be thrown back on the pile of obscurity." He resolved to go back and research the past.

Perhaps it never really happened and that's why it's unknown? For, as some MKs complained and then-chief of staff Moshe Dayan concurred, much superfluous information leaked out about the battles in Sinai. Perhaps the talk of a massacre is just propaganda, exaggeration, typical lies that the Palestinians were unable to disseminate? It is expected that Israeli skepticism will be automatically aroused by any mention of Palestinian dead at the hands of Israel soldiers - especially when terms like "without a battle" and "mass killing" are used, and most certainly in regard to "civilians."

Prof. Benny Morris thinks that something did happen back in 1956, however. The Israeli historian has devoted several paragraphs in his books to the events in Khan Yunis and Rafah - one paragraph in his panoramic work "Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001" and five in his book "Israel's Border Wars: 1949-1956."

In the latter book, he relies on UNRWA reports. Many fedayeen (members of Palestinian or Arab militias) and approximately 4,000 Egyptian and Palestinian regular troops, he writes, were captured in Gaza, and "dozens of these fedayeen appear to have been summarily executed, without trial." Some, he theorizes, were "probably killed during two massacres by IDF troops soon after the occupation of the Strip." He cites UN data on Khan Yunis and says the number of casualties in Rafah ranged from 48 (the number cited by Israeli spokesmen) to 100, plus a number of local residents.

"Another 66 Palestinians, apparently fedayeen, were executed in several other incidents that occurred in the course of the searches carried out in the Strip between November 2-20. The Israeli authorities claimed that there had been resistance to the screening in a number of places," Morris writes.

In the pertinent paragraph in "Righteous Victims," Morris writes that "the Israeli conquest and its aftermath were characterized by a great deal of unwarranted killing, especially of retreating or captured Egyptian soldiers." Altogether, Israeli forces killed about 500 Palestinian civilians during and after the conquest of the Gaza Strip.

But the six paragraphs in two books by this Israeli historian were not enough to make the hundreds of casualties and the methods by which the civilians were killed part of any Israeli discussion, written or otherwise, of the history of hostilities between the two peoples.

Interviewed by phone from his home in Portland, Oregon, Sacco was asked if he was surprised to find that no Israeli had tried to investigate these events further. "No, I'm not that surprised," he answers. "People focus on '48, on '67. This fell between the cracks. I imagine that now Israelis will start to give it more attention."

Bodies in the street

On November 7, 2006, on the 50th anniversary of the Sinai Campaign, prime minister Ehud Olmert gave a speech in the Knesset in which he sought to distinguish between two components of that war: on the one hand, the Israeli alliance with two superpowers (France and England), "trying, against the tide of history, to preserve their assets in lands that are not theirs," and Ben-Gurion's declaration about the Third Kingdom of Israel which "lasted just 31 hours," and, on the other hand, the justified causes for launching a war that "was imposed upon the side that started it" - referring to the fedayeen raids by which Egypt sought to disrupt life in Israel, plus other Egyptian moves such as tightening the naval blockade, increasing armament and the establishment of a joint military command with Jordan and Syria. The quiet on the borders that was attained following the war, and the courting of Israel by Third World countries, were proof of the war's achievements, Olmert said.

In his speech, the premier did not neglect to mention "the tragic event that occurred on the first day of the operation (October 29), the Kafr Qassem massacre." And he continued: "As we remember today the 170 IDF soldiers who fell in the Sinai Campaign, we must also remember the 49 peaceful villagers who were killed for violating the curfew of which they were unaware." But he made no mention of the massacres that took place in the Gaza Strip.

Sacco spoke with dozens of people in Khan Yunis and Rafah, and based on their accounts, described in comic-strip form the modus operandi of the army units that conquered them. In Khan Yunis, his inquiries yielded the following events: On November 3, the day after the conquest of the city and refugee camp was complete, the forces went from house to house. In some houses, they instructed the women, children and older men to leave and then shot the younger men who remained inside. Elsewhere, they instructed the males aged 15 and up to go out to the street, where they saw bodies lying about.

In his drawings, Sacco also depicts memories recalled by the bereaved women who were young at the time and are now elderly: They had searched for their loved ones among the heaps of corpses. Some of the interviewees gave their full names; others were afraid.

Sacco's illustrated journey into the past at Rafah is continually punctuated by IDF attacks - mainly to raze houses in an ever-widening area along the border with Egypt. He depicts the day that activist Rachel Corrie was killed (March 16, 2003), and also shares with readers moments of laughter, tension and affection with his friends.

But readers can also rest easy: Throughout the book, Sacco does not cut the Palestinians any slack either. In digressions from the main storyline (when tracking down survivors), he puts his finger on many vulnerable points, asks tough questions (about the killing of Israeli civilians, for instance), and documents arguments with armed Palestinian militants. And in the historic background that he depicts via meticulous illustrations, he does not forget the Israelis killed by the fedayeen and other infiltrators in the years that preceded the Sinai Campaign.

The soldiers with sticks

The mass killing at Rafah (November 12) was perpetrated about a week after the battles ended. In Rafah, IDF troops went through the streets, calling with megaphones for men over 15 (up to age 50 or 60; different people recollected different ages) to assemble at a local public school. Sacco draws the men preparing to go out to the street. Warily, but without panic. On the street they encounter the soldiers who shout at them and fire into the air, telling them to hurry up. One interviewee recalled that a soldier fired his weapon in his direction and ordered him to put his hands up. Everyone began to run with their hands in the air. Strip after strip of illustrations show, from different angles, in different sizes, men running with their hands in the air while lots of soldiers along the street aim their rifles at them. Nothing specifically identifies the soldiers as Israelis - no Star of David or other symbol on their uniform. Was this intentional? Sacco: "I drew them as I saw them in photographs from the period."

Next to the UNRWA distribution center, soldiers fired upon a group of people who collapsed on the spot. One of them was Mohammed El Najeeli, who recalls how other people, who'd been sent running toward the school, stepped on bodies. Najeeli told Sacco that he pleaded with a soldier to kill him, and claims that the soldier fired 36 bullets at his head.

Sacco decided to include his testimony in the book despite deep skepticism about Najeeli's claim of being shot in the head 36 times. Clearly, the man, who is now elderly, had been wounded in the head, whatever the actual number of bullets.

Sacco tells readers of his doubts about some of the testimonies (e.g., that the accounts are exaggerated, illogical or "adopted" by someone who wasn't actually there). He also depicts his consultations with friends as to what is credible and what isn't. How can one be sure that people haven't added invented details over the years?

Sacco, by phone: "That's why I tried to talk to as many people as possible and to address the problems, the contradictions. I agree that there is a problem with oral testimony. But there is also a problem with written sources: Archives are controlled by states and the written sources also do not give the whole picture. But when you speak with dozens of people, a certain overall arc emerges. Some people may exaggerate, but enough people say the same thing."

For example, regarding the entrance to the gathering place at the school in Rafah, Sacco explains: "Though some of the men do not remember the barbed wire and others don't remember the ditch, almost to a man they remember something else at the school entrance: the soldiers with the heavy sticks."

Groups of men in Rafah were herded toward the school and at its entrance were soldiers who beat them with truncheons. Again, entire pages are filled with strip upon strip of illustrations, depicting the beatings from numerous angles. Hundreds of people were made to assemble in the school during those hours - on the ground, heads down, hands on their heads. A whole day without food or water; injured people, too. Talking was prohibited and anyone who moved was beaten.

Sacco asks Mohammed Shakar a "stupid question": Were people permitted to use the bathroom? The answer is no, of course: People had to go in their pants, close to the noses of the people bending down in the row behind them.

A screening process was used as well; anyone suspected or marked by others as a soldier (in the Egyptian army) was taken away. Many men were forced to pass by military jeeps, in which were riding people whose heads were covered by blankets - collaborators. Those marked as enemy soldiers were paraded in a long line before soldiers and officers who sat behind tables and asked questions. "'What's your work?' [I said:] 'Teacher,' so they left me," one man recalled. "'Where do you live? What's the nature of your work?' 'I'm a policeman,'" recalled another. Someone else remembered that the soldiers sorted the men without asking questions: "They selected the handsome guys, the well-built guys." Those suspected of being soldiers were put on buses and taken to detention facilities in Gaza and later to a POW camp in Atlit.

Did the Arabs shoot?

Journalist Meron Rapoport helped Sacco with his research. "At first it sounded strange to me that two massacres occurred without us knowing about it," he says. "It seemed a little unrealistic." To judge by the written evidence he found, information about what transpired in Khan Yunis did not reach the Israeli public at the time. With Rafah it was a different story. A week after the incident there, there were several reports about it in the communist daily Kol Ha'am. Reports also appeared in Ha'olam Hazeh and in The Times of London. Communist MK Esther Vilenska sought to bring the matter up for discussion in the Knesset. Ben-Gurion announced that a hearing had already been held in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and that a report had been sent to the UN secretary general.

Rapoport tried to locate Israelis who had firsthand knowledge of the events. What he found is that the IDF's 11th Infantry Brigade conquered the Gaza Strip on November 2-3, and that the 12th Infantry Brigade was tasked with "combing" the area. This was evidently the Golani Brigade, at least in Khan Yunis. But Rapoport was unable to find the names of any of the actual commanders. In an IDF archive, he did find a secret document dated November 19, saying that Haim Laskov, the GOC Southern Command, was appointing a committee of inquiry for the events at Rafah. Two investigators were appointed: Lt. Col. Aryeh Reis, chairman, and Capt. Herzl Golan, member; they were supposed to submit their findings no later than November 25, 1956.

Rapoport did not find any documents indicating what became of the inquiry. Nor was he able to find Golan. Reis was already dead. His son, journalist Menashe Raz, didn't know anything about it.

"There's a problem with the IDF archive," says Rapoport. "It's computerized so it's easy to search, but it's censored. Someone sits there and decides what is allowed to be made public."

But Rapoport did unearth the records of a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee from November 23, 1956, which was originally classified as "secret." At the meeting, chief of staff Dayan went into a lengthy and candid analysis of the military activities. The committee members asked a lot of questions that indicate they had heard something: They asked about cruel treatment of prisoners, abuse and even about cases of rape.

Dayan listened and replied (though not to all the questions). In regard to prisoners: "I know about certain units that encountered captives at a certain place or fleeing Egyptians. I do not know of any instance where captives were lined up and killed, where instead of taking them prisoner, they shot them."

On the situation in the Gaza Strip, Dayan said: "I think that there is apathy and total calm. And I include Rafah in this, aside from the one incident ... What happened was this: Our unit cleared the area as part of an exchange of units. The second unit had not entered yet. At the time there was the prime minister's speech here about our acceptance of the UN demand for a withdrawal, while there, there was confidence that we had left without the intention of returning. The second unit entered the next day, imposed a curfew and was supposed to search for the weapons arsenals and the Egyptian soldiers who were left in the area ... [They announced] that all the men had to show up in a certain location for inspection. The curfew was ignored and no one came. The [men with] loudspeakers went around announcing the curfew and inspection, and not only did they not come, they did not heed the curfew orders at all.

"Within a large group of Arabs that did not want to listen to the orders, there were many Egyptian soldiers and many weapons ... Then the unit opened fire. I do not know where they fired or if the Arabs fired, I only know the general picture. After they opened fire in several places, the Arabs went into the houses and afterward responded to the order to come for identification; then 200 Egyptian soldiers were found. About 40 people were killed ... If inside the houses 200 soldiers are found who do not want to turn themselves in and incite others not to identify themselves - then the commander of the unit acted perfectly fine by opening fire. You can't have the army declare a curfew and then have people wandering the streets."

In Ben-Gurion's version, Dayan's comment about "I don't know if the Arabs fired" was interpreted as a few people firing upon Israeli forces. After the forces fired into the air, they were forced to fire upon the unruly men, said the prime minister at the Knesset hearing, and 48 were killed.

The November 21 edition of Kol Ha'am quoted the military commander of the Gaza Strip, Lt. Col. Haim Gaon, who spoke with journalists in the area on November 18. Gaon recounted that on November 10: "They started plundering the UNRWA storehouses ... and shooting at the office of the military administration in the city and at the traffic on the roads ... On November 12, a curfew was declared and searches were carried out in the city. Rafah residents were commanded to identify themselves. They displayed passive resistance, and some actively resisted. From shots that were fired, one sergeant was wounded. Orders were given to the army forces to forcibly remove the men from their houses. Some started fleeing toward the dunes, but steps were taken to prevent their escape. After the actions, there were about 30 dead and wounded."

The people Sacco interviewed told him that there was no resistance, because anyone who was armed (soldiers or fedayeen) realized they stood no chance against the Israeli army.

Sacco also spent several months in Bosnia, in late 1995 and early 1996. "I spoke there with people who committed atrocities," he tells Haaretz. "I understood that fear and dehumanization are responsible for this. I think that people can do to you whatever they think you can do to them. In the 1950s, it was easy to manufacture this propaganda (that this is what the Arabs were capable of doing). I came to see that what's needed most is an understanding of human psychology, more than an analysis of the political events." W



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