Palestine by Joe Sacco

23 Jun

Bibliographic Information

Palestine by Joe Sacco, Fantagraphic Books, 2001,  ISBN: 1-56097-432-X

Plot Summary

In the winter of 1991-92, Joe Sacco spent two months visiting the Occupied Territories during the first intifada (uprising) against the Israeli occupation.  Palestine is a book that collects the nine issues of his comic book series of the same name.  In the collection, Sacco reports in both pictures and words his efforts to better understand the lives of people living under the strict control of an occupying force.  His journalism involves interviewing Palestinians (and some Israelis) about their lives and the hardships they have to endure.  In each chapter, he visits a different region and records his experiences in comic book form.  During the course of his journey, Sacco travels to Cairo, Jerusalem, Hebron, Saburo, the Ansar prisons, Ramallaah, Jabalia (“the must-see refugee camp of the Gaza strip”) and Tel Aviv.  In each location, he meets men who have been arrested, imprisoned, and tortured, many times without cause.  He also meets families who have been forced to live in abject poverty due to the byzantine bureaucracy that prevents them from receiving work or travel permits.  Many are also forcefully evicted from their homes and forced to live in crowded rooms with relatives.

Critical Evaluation

In the foreword to Palestine (2001), Columbia professor Edward Said writes, “what finally makes Sacco so unusual a portrayer of life in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is that his true concern is finally history’s victims” (p. v). The graphic novel gives voice to “history’s losers” and allows the reader to move beyond the news headlines to glimpse a world few have access to.  It is a horrific journey that Sacco takes his reader on.  The stories of arrest, torture, and imprisonment are made all the more gruesome because the reader sees the brutality thanks to Sacco’s excellent illustrations.

Whereas most comics begin with a conflict for the superhero helps resolve, the conflict here seems to have no resolution.  And Sacco is no superhero.  In fact, he seems to go out of his way to portray himself as weak, helpless, and a little opportunistic.  At one point, he writes, “Let’s face it, my comics blockbuster depends on conflict; peace won’t pay the rent” (p. 76).  As a result, all the reader experiences is story after story of confinement, terror, and rebellion. The only glimmer of hope we see is in the traditions and small routines that make up Palestinian life – the gatherings over tea and coffee,  the families traveling for days just to catch a glimpse of each other through barbed wire fences, and the incredible generosity of people who share what little they have with Sacco.

The novel focuses exclusively on “history’s victims” in this conflict and thus presents one side version of events.  While some of the Palestinians are depicted as irrational and violent, nearly all the Israeli solders are depicted as sadistic beasts.

Reader’s Annotation

Travel beyond the news headlines of the Israeli-Palestine conflict and better understand the lives of those living under occupation.  Joe Sacco’s graphic novel Palestine offers readers a first hand account of Palestinian people as they struggle against the occupying Israeli army.

Information about the author

From the author’s page on, we learn that “Joe Sacco, one of the world’s greatest cartoonists, is widely hailed as the creator of war reportage comics. He is the author of, among other books, Palestine, which received the American Book Award, and Safe Area: Gorazde, which won the Eisner Award and was named a New York Times notable book and Time magazine’s best comic book of 2000. His books have been translated into fourteen languages and his comics reporting has appeared in Details, The New York Times Magazine, Time, Harper’s and the Guardian. He lives in Portland.”


Graphic Novel, Non-fiction, Journalism

Curriculum Ties

History, Civics, Journalism, Art, English

Booktalking Ideas

Is Sacco’s journalism objective?  Does he idolize the Palestinians while demonizing the Israelis?

Which person’s story resonated the most with you?

How is the depiction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict here similar and different from other stories of oppressed people?

Reading Level / Interest Age

Grade 9 and up

Challenge Issues

The biggest challenge to Palestine is that it is a biased account of the conflict, which demonizes the Israelis.  In response, teachers and librarians could share the reviews and awards the book has received and teach it along with a book that describes the conflict from the Israeli perspective.

Why did I include this title?

Last year, a history teacher did not include Palestine on a reading list because she felt its account of the Israeli-Palestine conflict was too biased.  She worried that if students only had this graphic novel, they would come away with a skewed version of history.  This made me curious to read the graphic novel, which I had been meaning to do for some time.  I’m glad I did because it help me better put names and faces to a story that I knew largely through news headlines of suicide bombers and helicopter gunships.


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