The spectacle of a European or North American hostage – shackled and blindfolded – has been a recurring sight in the Middle East since kidnapping became a political weapon in Lebanon in 1982. More often than not, the culprits claimed their captives were spies, soldiers or agents of foreign powers. That was usually, though not always, a lie.
The reason most foreigners within the grasp of, say, Hizbollah in Lebanon or extremists in Gaza, remained in the danger zone was to help the victims of occupation. Their own humanity was their undoing.
Thirty-six year old Italian Vittorio Arrigoni is the latest victim of the victims, kidnapped and murdered by violent young men demanding the release of their leader from a Hamas prison. Mr Arrigoni, a lifelong pacifist, described his arrival in Gaza on August 23, 2008, by sea with the Free Gaza Movement as the happiest day in his life.
He and his colleagues revived the International Solidarity Movement, a group of foreign volunteers that had been moribund since Israeli soldiers killed American Rachel Corrie and British journalist Tom Hurndall in 2003. The ISM acted as a buffer between the Israeli occupiers and the local population, and Mr Arrigoni often went into the fields with farmers near Gaza’s border with Israel.
He also ventured out in tiny fishing boats to bear witness to Israeli treatment of Gaza’s fishermen, who are routinely forced back to shore. It was while accompanying fishermen in 2008 that an Israeli naval patrol injured and arrested him.
Asked in a videotaped interview why he worked in Gaza, Mr. Arrigoni answered: “I come from a family of partisans.” The partisans, partigiani, were the Italian resistance to German occupation during the Second World War. “My grandfathers fought and died struggling against an occupation, another occupation. For this reason, in my DNA, blood, there are particles that push me to struggle.”
Mr. Arrigoni lived in a small flat from which he could see Gaza’s ancient fishing port, and he appeared to be unafraid for his safety. His mother, who was mayor of their hometown near Lake Como, received telephone calls from him every Sunday. He was a muscular, tattooed young man, well liked by other foreign volunteers and many Gazans.
During the Israeli assault on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009 that killed more than 1,300 people, Mr Arrigoni wrote eyewitness accounts. His report of January 3, 2009 indicates that he could have been a first-rate journalist.
After spending all night at the Al Awda Hospital in Gaza’s Jabalia Refugee Camp, he wrote: “We watched as the tiny bodies of six little sisters were pulled out of the rubble – five are dead, one is in a life-threatening condition. They laid the little girls out on the blackened asphalt, and they looked like broken dolls disposed of as if they were no longer usable.” He went to the morgue, where, “a nurse told me that after hours of searching, a Palestinian woman recognized her husband from his amputated hand.”
This spring, Mr. Arrigoni was preparing to attend a memorial in Italy for Peppino Impasato, who was murdered for his active opposition to the Mafia in 1978. Before he could leave Gaza, kidnappers abducted him early on Thursday morning.
Within hours, they released a videotape of him in which they demanded the release from Hamas custody of Sheikh Abu Walid al Maqdasi, leader of the radical and obscure Tawhid Wal-Jihad group. If he was not released within 30 hours, the kidnappers said, they would kill their captive. Hamas moved swiftly, arresting a suspect upon whom it undoubtedly used severe pressure to lead them to the house where Mr. Arrigoni was held. There, they found two kidnappers and Mr Arrigoni’s dead body suspended by the neck.
It was an amateurish kidnapping, a botched operation by youngsters raised in the abnormal circumstances of occupation and siege, lacking contact with the rest of the world and feeding on one another’s fantasies of liberation through religious sacrifice.
When BBC correspondent Alan Johnson was kidnapped in Gaza in 2007 for 114 days, Hamas found him alive and sent him home. The people who held him were apparently a family with grievances against Hamas, but their professional criminality (which understands that a hostage constitutes wealth) probably saved him.
After Mr. Arrigoni’s death, his mother, Egidia Beretta Arrigoni, wrote that her son feared the Israelis, not Palestinians:
“I remember him at Christmas 2005, when he was imprisoned at Ben Gurion airport, the scars of the handcuffs which had cut off his pulse, then denied contacts to the consulate, the mockery trial,” she wrote. “And Easter of the same year, when he was stopped by the Israeli police at the Jordanian border, directly behind Allenby Bridge, to prevent him from entering Israel, when he was loaded onto a bus and seven of them, one of them a policewoman, beat him with art, without leaving external signs, true professionals that they are, they threw him on the ground facedown, and as a last devilry tore out his hair with their potent boots.”
When Mr. Arrigoni’s body was found, a young Palestinian man was recorded on video close to tears and saying: “Why? What did he do? He came from across the world. Left his country and family and his entire life to break the siege. And we kill him? What is the reason?”
Thanks to the stupidity and brutality of the men who kidnapped Mr. Arrigoni, the world – and the people of Gaza – have one witness less to proclaim their plight. After what happened to this brave young man, how many others will volunteer to take his place – when it may mean death to those who love them?
Mr. Charles Glass is the author of several books on the Middle East, including Tribes with Flags and The Northern Front: An Iraq War Diary. He is also a publisher under the London imprint Charles Glass Books