Global Dialogues

On the Assassination of Vittorio Arrigoni: We Remain Human

Vittorio Arrigoni, an Italian peace activist, was abducted in Gaza City yesterday, and then killed, apparently by a Salafist group opposed to Hamas. The news already has shaken Italy and Europe, and it will also make for some somber headlines here in the USA.

Arrigoni arrived in Gaza three years ago as part of the International Solidarity Movement, a network of foreign activists who deliberately choose to live in the heart of the occupied territories to bear witness to the continuing harassment of the Palestinian population at the hands of the Israeli occupier (be they military or of the radical settler movements). Some of these activists live in remote villages, some accompany ambulances through checkpoints. Often IDF soldiers let the vehicles through simply because there is a ‘white’ person onboard. Others organize protests around Israel’s Separation Wall or in Palestinian villages, such as Budrus, Ni’lin, non-violently protesting. All confront the apartheid nature of the occupation. For this reason, Israel tries to prevent them from entering its territories, attempting to silence these annoying witnesses.

Arrigoni was such a witness-activist. Choosing Gaza as the place of his activism, he was one of the very few non-diplomat foreigners present during the Operation Cast Lead (Dec. 2008-January 2009). His blogs and reports were published on the Italian leftist daily Il Manifesto for which he kept sending reports.

Gaza has been off limits to most foreigners and at times fully inaccessible to journalists and even ambassadors. Israel controls all of the borders around the Palestinian territories. Based on his experience in the 2008-2009 war, Arrigoni published a poignant book entitled Restiamo Umani, which can be translated in the affirmative as “We Remain Human” or in the imperative form as “Let Us Stay Human.” Giving a human face to the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza was Arrigoni’s mission. His was an urgent sense of witnessing the ordeal of ordinary Palestinians.

But why would a Palestinian group execute him? The official line is that a radical Salafist group, opposed to Hamas, had captured him hoping to exchange his release for the release of one of their leaders arrested by Hamas. It could well be that a small group of Palestinian extremists carried out the operation and lost control, leading to this tragic ending. Yet, the motives and timing of this killing remain unclear and pose many further questions.

Paola Caridi, an Italian journalist-scholar questions the motive of this killing in her latest blog posting. She provides excellent coverage of the Arab Middle East and has written a very detailed book on Hamas (in Italian and now available in English), based on serious fieldwork, which included direct contact with the Islamist movement. Here are some of her questions, coupled with my concerns, as to cui prodest, who profits from the crime.

The fact that Vittorio Arrigoni’s murder comes just a few days after the execution by masked gunmen of another peace activist, Juliano Mer-Khamis, in Jenin, is in itself very disturbing. This strongly contrasts with the pattern of peaceful popular revolts throughout the Arab world (except for what has become a civil war in Libya). Moreover, the name of the Salafist group involved in Arrigoni’s killing (Tawhid and Jihad), though known in the Iraqi context, is literally unheard of in the Gaza Strip, colleagues there tell me. And when previous radical Islamist groups have taken hostages (remember BBC correspondent Alan Johnston abducted for four months back in 2007), the ultimatum has always been respected. Finally, when these peace activists were seen to become too critical of their peers, they received other types of warnings, not death threats. (I cited an episode of intimidation that Juliano Mer-Khamis and his theater faced in 2009 in the introduction of a working paper on civil society and conflict transformation). The hasty execution of Arrigoni, again, does not fit the rather rare pattern of abduction-negotiation that has taken place in the Gaza Strip.

Unfortunately raising such questions will not bring Vittorio back to life. But they must be posed, especially in the light of an ongoing escalation of violence around Gaza. Hamas must investigate why nothing could be done to prevent this tragedy, and why the response to Arrigoni’s abduction was so slow. Certainly, there will be commentators and political actors in the region who will argue that the opponents to Arab autocracy are bloodthirsty and violent murderers and that stability, opposed to democratic change, is in the interest of all influential actors in the region. But this would not do justice to the nature of the Arab revolts nor to Arrigoni’s efforts to show the Gazans under a more humane face. Restiamo umani.

  • chiara

    beautiful piece, benoit. arrigoni’s invitation to “remain human” is a stark reminder that we live in an epoch where “humanity” is not a “given”, but something that one can have or not according the circumstances. yet: the salafist group explanation does not convince me at all. why would they be interested in eliminating him? i do not see any plausible reason for them to do so. as kant remind us, human beings are not devils: to kill a pacifist you need a deep reason, one so strong that you are ready to give up your humanity in its name. so the question should be: who could have possibly had such a strong interest in eliminating him? what was he saying or doing that could not be tolerated and by whom?

  • atef

    to kill you do not need a reason you need to lose one. the killer can be salafist as benoit refered. though most of the people here wish they are not palestinians. Vittorio was a good friend to most of the people around mainly the fishemen. this morning in my way to university, the taxi driver happened to be freind of him was telling me of his memory witnh him sadly.

  • inggaw

    this is an Israel move.