Vittorio Arrigoni, killed Friday, April 15 is the first international activist killed by Palestinian kidnappers in living memory of the conflict. Mystery surrounding his kidnapping and death leaves significant questions about the those allegedly responsible, the investigation, and the future of the region.
I didn’t know Vittorio Arrigoni, the 36 year-old Italian ISM activist killed on Friday, allegedly by a Salafi resistance group in Gaza. The day he was killed, I put his picture as my Facebook profile, alongside a quote by him from two years prior. The week before, I had the picture of Juliano Mer-Khamis up there, with the following words: “To be free is to be free first of all of the chains of tradition, religion, nationalism” – Juliano Mer Khamis, 1959 – 2011. How long is long enough to keep their pictures a Facebook profile? If these types of killings are becoming a trend, the answer may be – until the next one is killed.
The reasons for the two men’s deaths are very different and the people who killed them very likely did it for very different reasons, but their proximity cannot be ignored. More importantly, the shroud of mystery surrounding their deaths and the impact they will have on the tiny community of Israelis and internationals working and volunteering in the Palestinian territories greys further the ever- present clouds on the horizon.
“Do you think there’ll be another war?” I ask an Israeli activist at a Jaffa vigil for Arrigoni. “The question is not whether, the question is when,” she answers, a common Israeli response. Arrigoni’s kidnapping is the first since Hamas took control of Gaza. His death marks the first time a Palestinian kidnapping turned fatal, and some are saying this changes the rules of the game.
Those who knew Vittorio Arrigoni called him Vik and all say he was a passionate man and a courageous activist. “[He] was truly a person greater than life. He was so filled with energy, a mixture of joy, camaraderie and impatience,” wrote Jeff Halper. “You cannot connect the dots, and that’s the problem,” tells me F., an aid worker from Gaza who knew Arrigoni. “If it were to happen to anyone else, you know, knowing Vik and knowing how much he was dedicated to Gaza and Palestinians, it happening to him in this way, it just doesn’t match.” Adding in response to the charge his killers raised of him bringing “corruption” to the Gaza strip, F. says, “He didn’t have money! ISM doesn’t have money! Corruption? It’s just ridiculous!”
Most of Vittorio’s work was in journalism. For years he wrote for the Italian daily Il Manifesto and wrote a daily blog called Gorilla Radio. He also accompanied Palestinian farmers and fishermen as they attempted to make a living off their land and sea amid sporadic and often indiscriminate Israeli army fire. Clearly he wasn’t afraid of bullets and was one of the only internationals to remain in Gaza during Israel’s bombardment two years ago in Operation Cast Lead. During the attacks he was one of the only voices reaching an international audience from inside Gaza.
“My ears are now deaf to the explosions while my eyes are all out of tears from all the corpses,” he wrote a week after the bombardment began. “We watched as the tiny bodies of six little sisters were pulled out of the rubble – five are dead, one is in life-threatening conditions. They laid the little girls out on the blackened asphalt, and they looked like broken dolls, disposed of as they were no longer usable.”
As always with these incidents, everyone close to its center becomes a detective. Sources in the Italian foreign ministry allege he was targeted personally. They complain their government is doing next to nothing to get to the truth. “They wouldn’t even help get his body out through the Rafah crossing,” one ministry worker, S., tells me. She recounts how when Vittorio was arrested for his activism by the Israeli authorities, all the Italian embassy was willing to do in his defense was provide him with two articles of clothing, “and they attached the receipt!”
One of his friends says he was targeted because he had a large audience in Italy and his death would therefore make an impact. F. on the other hand, who knew Vittorio peripherally, guesses he trusted the wrong people and that they betrayed him. All however agree that the kidnappers wanted to kill him from the start. “With Hamas’ tight control over the strip, you’ve got nowhere to go,” F. says. As many answers and suspicions as I receive, I’m left only with more and more questions.
Questions such as – If he did know the people who kidnapped him, why did he order food from a restaurant shortly before being kidnapped but fail to pick it up? If the kidnappers were Salafi, did they come from the south to Gaza city especially for the operation? If Vittorio disappeared on Thursday, as Hamas alleges, why did he, a man who updated his Facebook status every few hours, stop on Wednesday night at 8:12pm? And in my mind, the most important question remains – what happened in the hours between when Vittorio went missing and when the world found out about him being gone?
(If in those hours the kidnappers negotiated with Hamas for his release, did Hamas wrongly calculate its security forces’ abilities in an effort to prevent this clear political challenge from becoming known?)
With the medical report unavailable to the public and the Italian foreign ministry abiding by its non-association policy with Hamas, very little is clear. Sources in the Al Shifa hospital where his body was brought say he was tortured, even that one of his eyes was removed. He was found hanging bloodied and cuffed on Friday afternoon, hours before the kidnappers’ own deadline was set to expire.
At the Jaffa vigil, south of Tel Aviv I spoke to his close friend and fellow Italian activist Emilia Sorrentino. Surrounded by long candles and friends with photographs of Arrigoni, she says, “The worst part is that we will never know the truth. Hamas will arrest a few people, hang them, but we will never know what really happened.” Indeed, Hamas arrested four suspects. As Ma’an news reports, “The other members of the group will be hunted down and the law will be applied,” [Hamas government spokesman Ihab] Al-Ghoussein said on Friday.”
But despite Hamas’ swift response in locating the site of Vittorio’s capture and in conducting arrests, his brutal death “changes the rules of the game,” as F. predicts. A seasoned NGO worker both in other crisis areas and in Gaza, he says this incident will make working in his field much, much harder. “The ice has broken,” he says. Added to his NGO already substantial security measures, he intends on adding further security protocols and costs. But his NGO can afford it, what about those, like ISM, who can’t? “When you raise the security you make those who can’t afford it into easier targets.”
“You have to be jaded,” a Tel Aviv friend says as I stare out the kitchen window imagining Vittorio’s last moments. “To survive the reality of living here, you have to be jaded”. But Vittorio’s message, both in the title of his book and to friends has been “stay human.” These two words are now adopted into name of the coming May Freedom Flotilla, which will attempt to break the siege on Gaza for the tenth time.
Those who were closest to him are not allowing themselves to be jaded. As I obsessively read anything I can find about his life and work, his writings and the circumstances of his death, I try to emulate this message. His friends and family, like those of Juliano, are left with nothing but questions and broken hearts. But they are choosing to keep closer to heart the messages these men left behind them, than the pain they’re engulfed in.
And the times we are entering in this little part of the world need it more than ever. The peace talks are officially over and have led to nothing but more of Israel’s presence in the West Bank. The PA is catching up with Hamas in Gaza in forming a tight-fisted police state in the West Bank. In the eyes of many Gazans, Hamas’ now expired ceasefire with Israel yielded nothing; neither is the siege lifted nor are international relations with Hamas normalized. Indeed, newly released WikiLeaks talk about a coming war with Lebanon, which Israeli security officials say will see far worse consequences for Israelis. At the same time, Hamas’ crackdown on Salafi and democracy groups in Gaza alongside the recent (and increasing) Israeli bombardments of the strip may lead to Hamas’ popularity waning.
Keeping all this in mind, I look to the words of Vik’ friend and fellow ISM activist, Eva Bartlett. “Above all, what shone, aside from his intelligible English and random Italian curses, was his humanism.”
Lia Tarachansky (email@example.com) is an Israeli-Canadian journalist and the Middle East correspondent for The Real News Network. She is also the director of the upcoming documentary, Seven Deadly Myths. All her work is available at www.liatarachansky.com