Friday 15 April 2010 - Gaza outraged at Italian brother’s murder

Gaza outraged at Italian brother’s murderGaza woke up shell-shocked on Friday when 36-year-old Italian activist and writer, Vittorio Arrigoni, was found murdered hours after he was kidnapped by a radical Salafist group.

The brutal assassination of a man loved by many Palestinians as one of their own shocked the blockaded enclave. Not only because no foreigner had been kidnapped since 2007, and no abducted foreigners were ever killed before on Palestinian territory, but especially because Vittorio exceptionally embodied the commitment to the Palestinian cause through peaceful resistance.

Since he reached the coastal strip on board the Free Gaza boat in August 2008, Arrigoni has been living and working with farmers, fishermen, rubble workers and young people as a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement.

His charismatic presence – always wearing black, a captain’s hat and carrying a pipe with “Al Muqawama” (the resistance) tattooed in incisive Arabic script on his muscular arms – was a reference point to locals and foreigners alike living under the Israeli siege. Whether discussing tactics and strategies with comrades, dancing late at night with friends or facing the full might of Israel’s military power with farmers on their land or at sea, Vittorio was the man who would unquestioningly stand side by side with his Palestinian brothers.

Besides writing regular reports and blogging from Gaza, Vittorio wrote a book of his first hand testimony of the Israeli 22-day assault on the strip called ‘Operation Cast Lead’. At that time, Vittorio volunteered with ambulances to rescue thousands of civilians who were targeted by the Israeli military with indiscriminate bombing and use of white phosphorus that killed 1,400 Palestinians.

Vittorio would bravely board the ambulances as they zig-zagged through the bombs falling down all over Gaza, witnessing all sorts of casualties and even targeting of paramedics he worked with.

His graphic diary entries of those days, dispatched to newspapers and through his own blog, always ended with his trademark call that ended up becoming the title of his book, touching on the common denominator that transcends race, religion, politics and culture: “Let’s stay human”.

Human, fearless and free perhaps best describe Vittorio, the son of anti-Fascist Italian partisans with a committed love to life, Gaza and the sea. The very qualities he shared with the Palestinians he lived with in Gaza, who greeted him at the harbour two and a half years ago, and every morning ever since.

This is not Afghanistan
When on Thursday evening, rumours of his kidnapping started trickling in, the initial reaction was that this was either a sick joke or some misunderstanding. Hamas would not comment on his abduction even after a group calling itself “The Brigade of the Gallant Companion of the Prophet Mohammed bin Muslima” posted a video clip on youtube threatening to kill Vittorio unless Hamas released Salafist prisoners by 5pm Friday.

Vittorio looked in bad shape in that video clip. His face looks bruised – suggesting he was either beaten or else he tried resisting his abductors when they assaulted him. In any case, I told my journalist friend with whom I was trying to figure out what was going on, this could all be the clichéd theatrics which Islamist kidnappers are so fond of – put your hostage in a humiliating position in front of a camera, show he’s shaken, up the stakes, etc etc.

Every Palestinian I spoke to was sure he would be released unharmed by Friday. “This is not Iraq or Afghanistan,” was the line we all wanted to believe. We’ve all seen this before, although nobody dared touch a foreigner since BBC journalist Alan Johnston was kidnapped, and released after four months, in 2007.

“Look, what these guys did is crazy,” Sami, a journalist friend told me late Thursday night. “Kidnapping a foreigner after Johnston is a no-go area. You’d be inviting total war with Hamas. Hamas is not going to tolerate any messing around. These must have been Hamas defectors who joined the Salafists and want to highly embarrass the movement. To kidnap a foreigner is crazy – they would only do it because they were close to Hamas and are seriously pissed off at what they believe is the movement’s sell-out on the resistance and Islam.”

That seemed pretty rational at the time. These guys crossed a red line, but it wouldn’t take long until Hamas will force them back to their place. They would release Vittorio and then make a show out of these rebels. Like they did in Rafah in the summer of 2009 when the sheikh of the Jihadi-Salafist group Jund Ansar Allah declared, in an explosives-laden mosque, that Gaza was an Islamic caliphate, effectively challenging Hamas’s rule on the territory. Hamas responded with a bloody raid that ended up in a full-blown battle with more than 20 killed.

The only other little tremors happened last year when some fringe elements among the militants targeted an International Red Cross convoy with an improvised explosive device, resulting in minor damage to the jeeps and a short period of panic among the international agencies operating in the Gaza Strip.

Nevertheless, it was always clearly understood that foreigners were mere instruments at the Jihadi-Salafis’ disposal that could only be used sparingly and lightly. Their final target was Hamas.

While since it has taken full control of the strip Hamas has always clamped down heavily on the Jihadi-Salaifsts with its Kalashnikovs and hand grenades, the movement has also been trying to appease the hard-liners – including some of its own – by adopting sometimes bizarre laws in the name of Islam, tradition and morality, and some embarrassing U-turns. Deep down, Hamas classifies the Jihadi-Salafist presence in Gaza as its biggest existential threat – way above Israel and Fatah. It knows that, given the radicals’ stubbornness and uncompromising stand, it can never reach political agreement with elements who are not interested in a political solution. Jihad is their only agenda, against Israel, the Jews and the infidels – Al Qaeda style but lacking the global attention and sophistication. In fact, much as they are literally dying to be endorsed by Al Qaeda, they remain too parochial for the global Jihadist cause, and too amateurish in their tactics. Gaza’s Jihadi-Salafists are to Al Qaeda the equivalent of the drop-out seminarian posing as chaplain on an uninhabited island.

The Israeli establishment knows this too – particularly the military and intelligence – and has only recently started acknowledging Hamas’s genuine efforts at clamping down on the Jihadi-Salafist threat. In the wake of the latest escalation last week, the army’ top southern command officer said publicly that Hamas was split between the political moderates who wanted to restore calm, and its militant commanders who are bent on resuming attacks.

"The diplomatic leadership wants to stop the fire, while the military commanders seek to send out attacks and stir things up,” GOC Southern Command Tal Russo said.

Israel has traditionally blamed Hamas as one bloc for all the woes, and has repeatedly assassinated political leaders who were known to be pragmatic and somewhat flexible. In distinguishing between the currents that are for a truce against those that aren't it will be hard for them to justify the killing of political figures, and might pave the way for some working relationship between Hamas and Israel.

Vittorio’s last march

The question as to why Vittorio was targeted could be possibly answered in the fact that, unlike the hundreds of foreigners working in Gaza with humanitarian agencies, he moved and walked freely alone at all times without any security arrangements. While abroad this might sound risky given Gaza’s wild image, international agencies in Gaza themselves acknowledge that internal security was never an issue bar for the exceptional week when some individuals bomb a cafeteria or scratch a Red Cross land rover.

According to testimonies relayed to me second-hand by reliable sources, Vittorio’s last known location was Wednesday night at the Dugmush Gym in Tel Al Hawa, where he used to work out regularly.

At around 10.30pm, he was meant to meet friends at the Gallery Cafe, nearby – Vittorio’s favourite hangout with friends and comrades. He would have walked in the dark-lit dirt roads, or in complete darkness if it was blackout night depending on the power plant’s rationalisation of fuel schedule.

He never turned up for the meeting. From then onwards, his mobile was switched off.
In their video clip, the abductors said they were giving Hamas a 30-hour deadline starting from 11am on Thursday.

Italians were meanwhile contacted by their embassy and advised to leave Gaza.

Still, the conviction that Vittorio would be released unharmed carried over till the early hours of Friday, until that fateful phone call to journalists from the internal affairs ministry at 3am. It was urgent. A press conference.

Full statement by the (Hamas) Ministry of Interior Affairs and National Security – Friday 15 April 2010, 3am, on the abduction of Vittorio Arrigoni

Since the first news of the abduction of the Italian solidarity activist Vittorio Arrigoni, the security apparatus acted quickly toward conducting a full search and investigation. They identified and arrested one of the criminals, who admitted to being involved in the kidnapping. This individual informed the police about the hideout of the abducted solidarity activist. Police moved in a wise and quick manner toward the place and found that Mr. Arrigoni had been killed.

According to the forensic report, he had been killed hours before the police raid on the location. In light of this situation, the Ministry affirms the following:

First: The Palestinian Government sends its condolences to the family of the innocent Italian martyr, to the Italian Government, and to all the Italian people. We grieve for the loss of such an honorable man, who stood steadfast and in solidarity with the Palestinian people, braving the conditions imposed upon the besieged Strip and the violent campaign waged by the Apartheid Entity.

Second: The Palestinian Government condemns in the strongest terms the heinous crime carried out by the criminals and confirms that it will hunt down the remaining members of the gang so that justice can be served and the violators punished. The actions taken by these criminals do not reflect Palestinian values, customs and traditions, or religion

Third: The Ministry emphasizes that this crime does not reflect the true state of security and order in the Gaza Strip. This hideous crime also does not imply a retreat from security and safety. The Government is keen to promote stability, security and safety, as this incident is the first of its kind in years. Security and safety will always remain stable and firm.

Fourth: The initial findings of the investigation indicate that the intention of the kidnappers was to murder in the first place, and that it was carried out shortly after the abduction.

Fifth: The motives behind this outrageous crime demonstrate and indicate that some hands and minds are still plotting against the Palestinian people in Gaza, and want to undermine the security and steadfastness of the Palestinians and their supporters; and, to spread a state of terror and intimidation among the worldwide solidarity movement with the Gaza Strip.

The Apartheid Zionist Entity is looking at ways to hinder and prevent the upcoming freedom flotilla from reaching the Gaza Strip, particularly after the great momentum gained from the solidarity activists such as Mr. Arrigoni aiming to loosen and end the unjust and criminal siege imposed on Gaza. The Ministry of Interior Affairs and National Security and all Palestinians highly appreciate the efforts of all foreign friends. We assure the internationals living in and those heading to Gaza that it is safe for all and will always be their second home. It is together that the Palestinians and the solidarity activists worldwide will carve from the mountains of despair, a stone of hope so that justice may be preserved and injustice overturned.

We are all Vittorio

The incredulity and the outrage was immediately clear on the streets of Gaza City on Friday, when after midday prayers, a symbolic funeral march paraded across the city centre to the Square of the Unknown Soldier. Young people, farmers, fishermen and many of Arrigoni’s friends marched together denouncing the brutal murder in the most categorical of terms, followed by condemnations from all Palestinian factions.

“Terrorism belongs to no religion,” they chanted, urging the murderers to get out of the woodwork and face Palestinians’ popular outrage.

“We are all Vittorio,” they said. “From Gaza to Jenin, Victor’s a son of Palestine.”

A night vigil, more marches on Saturday, the end of the traditional three-day mourning on Sunday, a visit to his flat overlooking the breezy Mediterranean Sea that he loved – Vittorio will be sorely missed as a great friend to all Palestinians.

On Friday, Vittorio’s closest Palestinian friends were in tears, apologetic to foreigners, feeling almost guilty that one who loved Gaza so openly could suffer such a tragic fate in their midst.

That someone dared touched him while in Gaza is incredible enough for his hundreds of immediate friends here. That he was beaten and killed even before their own deadline just condemns his killers in the court of public opinion to a unilateral guilty verdict with the harshest possible sentence. Other Salafist groups have already disowned the arrested suspects, claiming what they did went against Islam

Gaza – where rumours shape daily reality and old mukhtars mediate in bloody family disputes – remains the land of the old adage of “an eye for an eye”. When the entire strip is mourning its beloved adopted son, murdered barbarically, no mukhtar would bother intervening on behalf of the suspects.

The challenge, at this point, is to keep Vittorio’s spirit alive. To stay human.

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