x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Gaza mourns murdered Italian peace activist

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, called Vittorio Arrigoni's death a "despicable and ugly crime".

GAZA // The people of Gaza were in mourning yesterday for a pro-Palestinian peace activist found hanged a day after he was abducted, apparently by Islamist militants inspired by al Qa'eda.

Hamas police discovered the body of Vittorio Arrigoni, 36, an Italian member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), when they raided an apartment in Gaza City where he was being held. The apartment was otherwise empty. Two people have been arrested in connection with the murder and a third is being sought, Hamas officials said yesterday.

In Rome, the Italian foreign ministry condemned what it called a "barbaric murder" and a "vile and irrational gesture of violence on the part of extremists indifferent to the value of a human life".

Salama Marouf, a Hamas government spokesman, said the killing was "against the humanity and against the custom and tradition of the Palestinian people".

Huweida Arraf of the ISM said: "Vittorio was really loved in Gaza. I didn't think there was even a one per cent chance they would kill him. It was a complete shock."

The kidnappers, who called their group Tawhid and Jihad, released a video on Thursday of the activist being held in front of the camera by a fist gripping his hair.

The video, posted on YouTube, showed a bruised and bloodied Arrigoni, his eyes apparently covered with black duct tape and his hands bound behind his back.

The group demanded that Hamas release "all our prisoners", naming in particular an imprisoned jihadi leader called Hisham al Saedini, and threatened to kill Arrigoni.

The abduction highlights challenges that Hamas has faced from smaller Islamist factions in Gaza. Some of these, including the one apparently behind the dead man's abduction, are inspired by al Qa'eda and the world jihad movement.

Arrigoni had come to Gaza as a pro-Palestinian activist in 2008. The ISM said he had spent several years "monitoring human rights violations by Israel, supporting the Palestinian popular resistance against the Israeli occupation and disseminating information about the situation in Gaza to his home country of Italy".

Groups such as the one that appear to be behind the murder have occasionally clashed with Hamas in the past. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report last month that these groups follow a "strict interpretation of Islamic law and see themselves not as liberators of Palestine but as part of a global movement of armed fighters defending Muslims against non-Muslim enemies".

Hamas's relations with the jihadi groups, according to the same report, have "shifted from co-operation to antagonism".

Hamas's rivals from the Palestinian Authority also condemned the killing. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, called Arrigoni's death a "despicable and ugly crime".

He attributed it to a "situation of chaos and lawlessness" in Gaza under Hamas rule, and urged the Islamist group to end its rift with the Palestinian Authority.

Arrigoni was a well-known figure in Gaza, frequently clenching a pipe between his teeth and wearing a beret in imitation of the 1960s Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, as well as bracelets in the red, black, green and white colours of the Palestinian flag.

He was an outspoken critic of Israel, but in an interview in 2008 he also criticised extremists for trying to impose a hardline version of Islam in Gaza. In late 2008, he was arrested by Israeli troops while accompanying Palestinian fishermen off Gaza's coast, and was deported. He later returned and had been living in Gaza City. Arrigoni, who had been an ISM member since at least 2004, was in Gaza during Israel's devastating December 2008-January 2009 Operation Cast Lead and wrote a book about his time there.

In 2003, an American ISM activist was crushed by an Israeli military bulldozer in a combat zone in southern Gaza while trying to block its path. A British activist with the group was fatally shot by an Israeli soldier in the same area that year. A third ISM activist, a Palestinian, was shot and killed by Palestinian militants in the West Bank town of Jenin in 2007.

The ISM has no immediate plans to pull its volunteers out of Gaza, Ms Arraf said. She said the murder had dismayed even the Hamas government. "They were just as distraught as us when he was kidnapped, and promised that they would mobilise all their resources to find him," she said.

Ms Arraf and other members of Gaza's volunteer community mourned the loss of Arrigoni's "dynamic, humanitarian personality".

"I spent the night crying. Just thinking of the video of the last moments of his life, in Gaza which he loved so much, that those were his last moments, was just really hard to swallow."

* With reporting by Associated Press and Agence France-Presse