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Gaza in Ashes, GAza in 2003, Gaza in 1956

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President Obama has finally convinced the Palestinians and Israelis to participate in bilateral talks that might lead to the much glorified Two-State Solution to the unrest in that region. I don't know what what these discussions can hope to achieve, given that settlement building in full swing in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and Gazans living in a pile of rubble that is under siege for at least the second year. And, I don't know what substance the talks can have, given that the Palestinian participants are unelected collaborators, and Hamas, the only government in Palestine that actually was elected and actually governs in a region of Palestine, is specifically not invited. But, somebody is going to talk about something, and the details of their stillborn initiative will be dutifully reported to us as "progress," or at least "news" for some time in the future.

I have just finished reading Joe Sacco's book, "Footnotes in Gaza." Sacco was in Gaza researching this book before and during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, and at the time that Rachel Corrie was run over by an IDF Bulldozer as she attempted to stop it from destroying someone's home. His topic, however, was a massacre of between 50 and 100+ men in Rafah -- depending on whose numbers you like -- that occurred on November 12, 1956. The research for the book involved finding and interviewing older people who actually participated in, or witnessed the event.

As Joe and his Palestinian helpers investigate this tragedy from the past, they inhabit a world of continuous threat and violence. There are daily killings by the IDF, 10 one day, three another. Sometimes there is a political connection, often there isn't. House demolitions are ongoing. People's homes are regularly shot up and pockmarked with bullet holes. It isn't safe to walk down the street at night, as a tank might be waiting in the dark to shoot at you. It isn't safe to stand on a roof facing the Egyptian border, as there is an Israeli control tower from which suspect individuals are taken out by sharp shooters. Helicopters and F16s fly overhead on a daily basis. In this environment, Sacco and his Palestinian Abed, interview elderly witnesses about their experiences during a day of terror long ago.

But getting to the story of what occurred in 1956. Sacco and Abed track the information from different witnesses carefully. People's memories are fallible, but they develop a central core of reliable information, heard from numerous sources. At this time, Gaza was still controlled by Egypt. Israel, along with France and Great Britain, had attacked Egypt, but the US had forced them to halt their attack. At the time, Gaza was still under the control of Egypt, but Israel very much wanted to occupy it. On the 11th of November, Heavily Armed Israeli forces came through looking for Palestinian and Egyptian soldiers. Not armed well enough to defend themselves, many of these men took off their uniforms and disappeared into the civilian population.

Early the next morning, it seems that a jeep with a loudspeaker came down the main street, loudly demanding that all of the men between 16 and 60 go to the school. If they didn't go to the school, they would be found and killed. As the men went out into the street,they were herded by IDF soldiers, yelling at them and, in some cases, shooting at them. Some men were forced to travel down the road in small groups, with their hands against a wall. Each group was told to stop at some point, and the men were gunned down in the street, while facing the wall. The surrounding crowd was desperate and moved more quickly as this happened, stumbling over the bodies of their friends and neighbors. When they eventually came to the school, they found barbed wire strung across the entrance and a trench had been dug in front of the door. As they attempted to jump through the door, they were beaten with clubs and metal rods.

Inside the school, the men were crowded together and forced to kneel with their heads down while soldiers fired automatic weapons over their heads. Meanwhile, house-to-house searches were going on, and any man found was taken out and shot dead. In the school, many of the men were wounded, and they weren't given any food or water, or allowed to use a bathroom. This went on for hours. Finally, at some point in the afternoon, some VIPs with British, and maybe French, accents arrived.

A seemingly horrified British officer waved his hand and yelled at the soldiers to stop firing. He told the men to lift their heads. Several men reported that, at that point, they saw a dove on the man's shoulder, or white doves in the air. They said they thought the doves were angels who brought this man to save them.

Throughout the rest of the day, the men were individually interrogated, and some were taken away. Initially there was an effort to get men to declare that they were soldiers, and to report other men as soldiers. Eventually, men were just randomly selected and sent to another room. Many of the participants thought they were all killed, but apparently most were later taken to a prison in Northern Israel. The IDF had the bodies from earlier in the day picked up from the streets and dumped in a nearby field. People later went to find their missing loved ones and bury them. More than a hundred bodies were heaped here and there in an empty cactus field outside of town. Around 200 more men had been taken away to an Israeli prison.

Technically, the general content of this book isn't new to me. I've been reading about atrocities committed in Palestine for years. As I read on, I was safe in my little bubble of outrage and compassion until I got to the part where the European "Officials' arrived, and expressed some discomfort with the proceedings. When I got to the part where the men were finally allowed to lift their heads, and they thought they saw angels in the vicinity of their interlocutors, that's when I started to cry.

Sacco includes the reports and discussions of the event within Israel, and with the UN in appendices. Dag Hammerskjold was apparently unhappy with the reports he received on the event, but he didn't act forcibly. Most of the pressure was on Israel, and as far as I can see, no one questioned their European allies, who should have been out of the picture long before this event occurred. The war had ended months earlier. Despite some internal dissension, Israel ultimately claimed that, when the Palestinians thought the IDF had gone after the previous nights raid, they got cocky and tried to steal the food from the UNRAW storehouse. The soldiers who returned in the morning had to deal with a riot, and -- oops -- a few people were killed. But the soldiers had behaved appropriately and had done their best to restore order without excessive violence. They claimed that there were 22 dead.

Sacco's story has a very familiar ring, doesn't it?
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I spent the 50s and 60s in an upwardly mobile household full of food and kids, but focused on success. From there I went to Drew University in Northern NJ, which was serious culture shock for a city girl from Upstate, but I received 2 gifts there (more...)
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