Drawing International Humanitarian Law : “Palestine” by Joe Sacco

« Face à un monde saturé de médias où les actualités internationales nous noient sous les images contrôlées et diffusées par une poignée d’hommes installés dans des villes comme Londres et NY, la bande dessinée offre une remarquable antidote grâce à son flot d’images et de textes, tracées avec assurance, à la fois empathiques et grotesques pour rendre au mieux le caractère extrême des situations qu’ils dépeignent ».

Edward Said, préface de Palestine, 2001

It is common to feel that words are missing when confronted to atrocities, injustices or violence. This is maybe the reason why Palestine is unique in the literary landscape of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Instead of words, Joe Sacco exploits the power of lines, using his pencil as a defense speech. Palestine is the history of the Palestinian Occupied Territories during the last days of the first intifada in winter 1991. Joe Sacco draws his discussions with several witnesses dealing with the impunity of Israeli soldiers, expulsions, deportations, military violence, prison sentences and even torture – this word barely whispered fearing to incur the wrath of them. Sacco’s challenge is audacious: creating the lines of a centuries-old conflict and so, to address it both artistically and legally.


Maltese cartoonist living in the US, Joe Sacco approached comics’ art quite late after journalistic studies, focused on international relations. Thanks to Palestine, published in 1993, the cartoonist gained international recognition and is today unavoidable in political comics, considered as the heir of 20th century explorer journalists. This duality between international-relations-journalistic approach and drawings makes the study of Palestine particularly interesting for International Humanitarian Law. We wonder indeed how we can draw rights. Does using lines instead of words benefit to the legal field?

Palestine’s first purpose is to entertain. Consequently, the demonstration is not as rigorous as would be an IHL textbook. Nevertheless, our analysis allows us to rebuild its key elements, and to locate them in a legal context. Despite not being on purpose, a lawyer can find in Palestine elements to assess the applicability of IHL (I). Palestine is about “illustrating” (in its first meaning) the violations of IHL made by Israel vis-à-vis Palestinian populations (II).

Applying IHL.

The International humanitarian law is mainly conducted under the Four Geneva Conventions as well as customary law. Sacco mentions the Fourth Convention several times in Palestine. To apply its dispositions, it is firstly crucial to assess the existence of an armed conflict (a). Besides, the Palestinian situation of occupation implies specific obligations for the occupier, also reminded by Sacco (b).

Assessing the existence of an armed conflict.

Before even reading the book, it seems quite easy to identify an armed conflict in Palestine. On the front cover, three soldiers, with heavy weapons enter a house while a father and his son find refuge inside a car, their eyes revealing their fear. Sacco’s drawings are exclusively in black-and-white (with a large domination of the black over the white) with heavy and dark atmospheres. This tends to strengthen this idea of conflict and war.

Nevertheless this general atmosphere is not enough to make the distinction with internal tensions. The Tadic case established that “An armed conflict exists whenever there is a resort to armed force between States or protracted armed violence between governmental authorities and organized armed groups or between such groups within a State[1]”.

Provided this definition, two criteria intervene to apply IHL: the level of violence and the organization of armed forces.

Assessing the level of violence in Palestine seems quite easy. Sacco offers indeed numerous situations involving weapons, uniforms, armored vehicles… Out of the 285 pages, 84 involve the visual representation of a soldier. Moreover, the word “soldier” is used 149 times. Additionally all the interviews involve victims whom injuries have been committed by soldiers. Eventually, p 16, Sacco himself testimonies “Jerusalem is an armed city. The rate of light machine gun is the higher I have ever seen.” Sacco demonstrates thus well the level of violence and militarization of the environment in which populations in Opt have to live. The second criterion assessing the applicability of IHL is the level of organization. This is also one aspect dealt by Sacco, although more slightly. We count only three pages dedicated to the Palestinian armed groups’ organization – i.e. recruitment, opinion regarding the peace process, the role of keffiyeh as distinctive uniforms between factions. For instance, we could have wondered if these keffiyehs are enough to be considered as uniforms and so to strike. Sacco unfortunately says us nothing more about this organization.

This lightweight demonstration does not seem crippling though. Indeed, the sole occupation is already enough regarding common article 2 to call upon the application of IHL. Indeed, “The Convention shall also apply to all cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party, even if the said occupation meets with no armed resistance[2]”. IHL is thus applicable in Opt.

Some debates – evoked by Sacco – have however to be mentioned. Indeed, Israel does not recognize the occupation as they do not recognize the existence of the enemy. For Golda Meir, quoted by Sacco p42: “This is not like if a Palestinian people considering itself as a Palestinian people exists, that we would have come and that we would have put them away from their country. They do not exist.” This position is highly criticized by the international community as the Security Council, the EU, and the ICRC consider that IHL applies to the oPt.

Indeed, for them, as says Sacco in his preliminary note, since 1967, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip have constituted the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). Therefore, Israel military actions in the territories and its relationship with the Palestinians are governed by IHL. Besides, Israel is a state party to the Fourth Geneva Convention. The International Court of Justice reiterated this position in 2004.

The depicting of the occupation and its legal implications.

In his preliminary note, Sacco writes: “The conflict between Israel and Palestine will last as long as will last the occupation, whatever the forms and the methods it will take. (…) This book is about the essence of this occupation ».

Also significantly, lots of Sacco’s interviews begin with people asking: « What do you think of MY country ? »

In IHL, occupation is conducted by specific legislation. The section III of the fourth Geneva Convention is entirely dedicated to occupied territories and implements several obligations such as the occupying power’s primary responsibility to provide for the needs and ensure the welfare of populations. Also, he must ensure public life, order and respects the law of the country. The occupying power cannot transfer its own population into occupied territories; do forcible transfer, collective punishment and demolition of private property outside of military operations.

Israeli violations of these obligations are Sacco’s main topic. Expulsions are particularly mentioned. Although the Geneva Convention formally prohibits, in its article 49[3] the settlement by the occupying power of its own population in occupied territories Sacco offers us the testimony of this man.

We can also read:


These two extracts focus on violations of the obligations of the occupying power. With expulsions and the settlement of its civilian population, Israel violates the Fourth Geneva convention, section III[4].

To conclude, if Sacco’s first ambition was not to create a law textbook but rather an entertainment comics highlighting the situation of Palestinians, the journalist however spreads throughout the 285 pages, elements that justify the application of Geneva conventions in his book – mainly thought as a denunciation of Israeli abuses.

Denouncing IHL violations, Sacco’s main purpose.

Distinguishing civilians and combatants: the « direct participation in hostilities »

Most of the people that Sacco met are civilians[5] – and so supposedly protected under IHL[6]. However, all of them have injuries caused by soldiers. We can read: “This boy (…), seated inside his house, a bullet got through the wall. The little girl has been injured inside the schoolyard, multiple fractures.”

Civilians are also endangered in places that are supposedly protected[7] by nature. “Soldiers do whatever they want, (…), they enter into the surgery room, with no mask, they question the visitors, shout on people giving their blood, they even hit the director. Other told me about soldiers that stop ambulances or arrest people right after their surgery.”


Sacco then reveals that some victims – like the hospitalized little girl – were throwing stones to soldiers. What is the legitimacy of Israeli soldiers to shoot them? The “direct participation in hostilities” has been introduced in 1977 to fit with supposedly protected civilians newly taking arms.  How does Sacco deal with this issue? Are they still protected civilians? Are Israeli soldiers’ shootings legal?

Unfortunately, Joe Sacco does not answer. The interviewing context, with many people around, in people’s house or in hospitals, almost exclusively with Palestinians does not allow us knowing more about their actions. How many stones? How many persons involved? Who was targeted? Sacco says nothing on that. This partial explanation prevents us from stating or not the legality of Israeli shootings.

A catalogue of violations.

Palestine is organized as a catalogue of violations of the Geneva Conventions by Israeli soldiers. Three of them are particularly developed.

  • Without-trial sentences

Having 149 occurrences of the word “soldiers” in the comics is significant. For witnesses, indeed, soldiers are the main object of fear because of the total impunity they enjoy. Violence, expulsions are decided with no trial, as in this episode.


The Geneva Conventions dispose in common article 3[8] that: “the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.”

  • Principle of proportion

The principle of proportion is a key provision of IHL and one of the main Sacco’s charges against Israel with lots of testimonies of disproportionate answers to “aggressions”.

Several testimonies are offered: a teacher beaten up by soldiers because he spoke to them in English rather than Hebrew; Mahmoud, beaten after having asked to soldiers why they were searching his house.


Yet, the Article 51(5)(b) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I prohibits
to cause (…) loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, (…), which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated” Significant is this extract from the conversation with the injured hospitalized little girl. Also, Sacco denounced useless attacks vis-à-vis (rare) Palestinian goods with one highly-symbolic episode: the destruction of olive trees. “Totally, they cut 70 olive trees, the trees of thirteen families. Olive trees are our main source of income. We use oil for our food and we sell some to buy cloths.  Here we have nothing else than olive trees. The Israeli don’t let us work in Israel.”


  • Torture

Torture is central in Sacco’s book, being the exclusive topic of the fourth chapter (the central one). Torture seems quite common for Palestinians in his representation. “Has he ever been interrogated? Of course. Beaten? He looks at me: are you kidding me? »

With harsh drawings, darker than ever, Sacco’s representation of torture is coarse, painfully real.  « They undressed me, they fastened me on the roof and they let me 4 hours under the rain. They told they would fuck my mother and my sisters. They told they would kill them.”

These testimonies are sometimes hard to read, hard to watch, although Sacco preserves witnesses’ dignity. The rhythm is also different in this chapter. Small and numerous drawings replace large images of witnesses’ faces.


Torture is prohibited under any circumstances in international law. Debates still exist in the doctrine regarding imminent terrorist threats. Here, interrogations aim at proving the implication of these victims in past events. The denunciation operated by Sacco on torture raises no controversy: this is an IHL violation.

Joe Sacco presents a pledge against the violations of rights committed by Israeli soldiers. He makes reference to Geneva conventions – although quickly. With respect to Palestine’s testimonies and provided the Geneva conventions, we can confirm that Israel is indeed violating IHL in occupied territories.

A critical conclusion

« Lots of adults I feel, tend to associate comics with the frivolous and the ephemeral.”[9]

Edward Said in the preface to « Palestine »:

To conclude, Joe Sacco succeeds in impacting us. With this dark atmosphere, strong lines, and people represented with dignity (no one cries, shouts), we, as reader are tense between the envy of knowing more and the feeling of illegitimate voyeurism and intrusion.

By the visualization of victims (Israeli soldiers have no characteristics, no faces) and with the emotive presentation of their lives through comics, it is indeed correct that the legal truth is somehow biased. But Sacco’s lines, even if they are not perfectly rigorous (which is not their purpose) do provoke feelings, at least on the reader I am, and so, drawing allows efficiency and visibility that the law can benefit from.

However, the main critic regarding Palestine relies on its unilateral vision of the conflict. Sacco interviews only three Israelis. Among them, one soldier is actually in favor of a Palestinian State. The two Israeli women interviewed in the last (short) chapter, defend Israeli military actions. However, these ladies are presented as superficial and somehow ignorant of the reality of the conflict. We can also regret the lack of mention on terrorism or violent actions from Palestinians – only mentioned by Israeli soldiers and Shin Bet officers as justifications. This put into silence the principal element of Israeli speeches, and, so, denies the adversarial principle of the legal approach.

To conclude, Palestine, although being an entertainment work, offers contributions for IHL because of its innovation of compelling law and art. Sacco’s process is generally rigorous with a quite complete justification of IHL application and with highly-detailed descriptions of Israeli abuses. However, Sacco’s clear stance leads to downgrade a bit his work, the adversarial dimension of the legal and scientific method being forgotten. In Chronics of Jerusalem, Guy Delisle favors humoristic approaches regarding this issue which would deserve to be analyzed.

Marie Robin est étudiante en Master à Sciences Po

[1] Prosecutor v. Du’ko Tadic, Decision on the Defence Motion for Interlocutory Appeal on Jurisdiction, Oct. 2, 1995, Case No. IT-94-1-AR72, ¶ 70.

[2] Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949. https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/ihl/385ec082b509e76c41256739003e636d/6756482d86146898c125641e004aa3c5

[3] For instance declares in its article 49: “The Occupying Power undertaking such transfers or evacuations shall ensure, to the greatest practicable extent, that proper accommodation is provided to receive the protected persons, that the removals are effected in satisfactory conditions of hygiene, health, safety and nutrition, and that members of the same family are not separated. […]The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

[4] Sacco also presents deportations as a main project of the Zionism formulated by Theodor Herzl: “We shall secretly deport the poor population to the other side of the border, by giving them jobs in the transitory countries and by denying them inside our country”.

[5] Except the Israeli soldier met in Silwan.

[6] Common article 3 stating that : “Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria”.

[7] Article 15 of the 1949 Geneva Convention IV provides:
Any Party to the conflict may, either direct or through a neutral State or some humanitarian organization, propose to the adverse Party to establish, in the regions where fighting is taking place, neutralized zones intended to shelter from the effects of war the following persons, without distinction:

  1. a) wounded and sick combatants or non-combatants;
  2. b) civilian persons who take no part in hostilities, and who, while they reside in the zones, perform no work of a military character.

[8] Common article 3 is applicable to non-international armed conflict. We voluntarily use NIAC legislation here because the classification of this conflict as non-international by Israel constitutes one of their arguments to deny several rights to Palestinians in Occupied Territories. More generally, we consider that two conflicts are intertwined in Israel and Palestine, one being governed by IAC legislation, the other one, by NIAC legislation.

[9] « Beaucoup d’adultes, me semble-t-il, tendent à associer la bande dessinée au frivole ou à l’éphémère ».


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