Why would anyone want to kill Vittorio Arrigoni?
Venetia Rainey reports on the brutal killing by Gaza extremists of a genuine friend of Palestinians
Hamas is fighting to convince the world that it is in control of Gaza after a pro-Palestinian activist from Italy, Vittorio Arrigoni, was found murdered today by Islamic extremists in the first kidnapping of a foreigner since the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston was taken hostage in 2007.
The kidnappers, who identified themselves as belonging to an unheard of Salafist group, hanged Arrigoni after posting a video yesterday that said: "The Italian hostage entered our land only to spread corruption".
The video shows Arrigoni, bloodied and blindfolded, being held up by the hair in front of a camera. An arm of one of the kidnappers is visible.
The extremists described Arrigoni as a "journalist who came to our country for nothing but to corrupt people - from Italy, the state of infidelity, whose armies are still in the Muslim countries".
In Italy, however, 36-year-old 'Vik' as friends called him was known as a pacifist and documentary film-maker who was a passionate advocate of the Palestinian cause, especially the children of Gaza. His mother is the mayor of Bulciago, a small town near Lake Como.
News of his death has provoked repulsion among Italians, with President Giorgio Napolitano calling the assassins "barbaric". A series of memorial rallies was swiftly organised across Italy.
The extremist group's name has been reported variously as Tawheed and Jihad and The Brigade of the Gallant Companion of the Prophet Mohammed bin Muslima. In the video, they demanded the release of their leader, Sheikh Hisham al-Suedani, who was imprisoned last month by Hamas, along with two other members of their group.
Efforts were made to track down Arrigoni the moment the video was first aired, but the group killed him before the given deadline of 5pm local time, possibly because they were scared of being caught. His hanged body was found in an empty building in Gaza City. He had apparently been subjected to torture.
Arrigoni was working with the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement (ISM). Today he was hailed as a "a compassionate, caring human, activist, and friend" in a tribute on ISM's website.
The West Bank's ruling organisation, the Palestinian Authority, said that his kidnapping "does not help the just cause of the Palestinian people. On the contrary, it harms it".
Hamas has worked hard to rid Gaza of ultra-extremist Islamic elements since it came to power in 2007. Government spokesman Ihab al-Ghoussein called the murder "a heinous crime which has nothing to do with our values, our religion, our customs and traditions". He promised that "the other members of the group will be hunted down and the law will be applied".
Fellow ISM volunteer, Inge Neefs, told The First Post today that Arrigoni’s kidnapping and murder came out of the blue. "There were no signs, no warnings, not a single signal that something like this would come up. In general, Palestinians are extremely welcoming. I've never felt any hostility here before."
Whether Hamas will have any success hunting down the killers is debatable. "I would guess that this is a small bunch of people, as such groups are not very popular in Gaza," Ghaffar Hussain, of the London–based think-tank Quillam told The First Post.
"They don't seem to be part of an organisation as such. They probably aspire to an al-Qaeda world view, and have committed this act to bring themselves to prominence and then made up a name."
Arrigoni's murder comes less than two weeks after the murder of Israeli activist and actor Juliano Mer-Khamis, who was shot dead outside his theatre for Palestinians in the northern West Bank city of Jenin.
"Perhaps this illustrates that al-Qaeda inspired groups are starting to infiltrate the Palestinian Territories," said Ghaffar Hussain. "They traditionally have very little support there, but it appears they're now getting more, or perhaps consolidating what little support they do have."
Although Hamas is internationally designated as a terrorist organisation, it is constantly fighting Salafist groups like this one who believe in a return to Islam as it was practised in the early days of the religion, and tend to be especially violent.
Such groups have consistently disrespected ceasefires with Israel, and were behind the 2007 kidnapping in Gaza of Alan Johnston. At the time, Hamas was quick to sever ties with this group and helped free Johnston after four months in captivity.
"Palestinians have been coming up to me all day to say that they are so ashamed that this has happened," said Inge Neefs of ISM. "They tell me that they loved him [Vittorio] and that this group's actions do not represent them at all."
Additional reporting by Andrea Vogt in Italy.