With all the current turmoil in the Middle East—the daily battles, the constant peace initiatives—why would you devote seven years of your life to a book about two events that happened 50 years ago?
Well, the short story is, in a United Nations document there is a reference to a couple of events in 1956 during the crisis over the Suez Canal when Israel conquered Egypt in the Gaza Strip. Both incidents involved a lot of casualties: the biggest killings of Palestinians on Palestinian soil—ever. The report gives an Israeli version and a Palestinian version, but leaves it at that, without making a conclusion. That seemed a bit odd. So I figured, why not find out what happened? The long story is in the book’s forward.
You spent time in Gaza in the early ’90s working on your first major book, Palestine. How had things changed when you returned a decade later to create Footnotes?
There’s always a new plateau of violence. At first it’s shocking, and then you grow accustomed to it. On my first visit, during the first Intifada, the violence was rocks and bullets. The last time, during the second Intifada, it was bombers, tanks, rock-propelled grenades, and mines. The suicide bombings in Israel at the time had kicked the whole thing up several notches.
The other thing that was really different was the amount of building that had gone on. Because of the Oslo Accords (a 1993 peace agreement), the Palestinians actually decided to spend their money and build on their property. No doubt many of them regretted it, because many of those homes were getting bulldozed by Israelis while I was there.
You’ve often had no mainstream media affiliation. Does that help or hurt you as a reporter?
I think it’s helped me, especially when I was starting out. You could say that because I had no backing, I wasn’t important. And I didn’t think of myself as that important. So I didn’t even try to approach the power brokers. If they want to talk, they’re going to talk to someone who’s going to trumpet what they’re saying. And I was useless in that respect. Because I had no money, I ended up living in hotels or getting rooms with people. And because I had no clout, I hung out in cafés. It wasn’t a thought-out concept, but I ended up finding stories that had nothing to do with the people who are making the decisions. My stories became about the people whose lives are being affected by the decisions.
When interviewing big fish, or even the regular people, how do you introduce yourself and your work? Is it, “I’m a cartoonist, but I’m serious”?
When I first started out, I was more self-conscious, so I was very careful about what I said.
But on these last trips, it was very useful to have my book Palestine with me. My guide would give it to each person before the interview. These were often older people who were not English speakers, but they could get what I was doing right away. They could open the book up and see themselves in the drawings. A book of prose wouldn’t mean anything to them.