When the news first broke that Vittorio Arrigoni, the Italian who had been volunteering in Gaza with the International Solidarity Movement, had been kidnapped and murdered, the response in the U.S. and international media was similar to this comment by Charles Glass in The National: “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?”
The New York Times commented: “(The murder) raised embarrassing questions for Hamas about the security it says it has restored…. It also raises the specter of a growing boldness on the part of more extreme, virulently anti-Western Islamic groups in Gaza, which would pose a challenge not only to Hamas but to foreign activists promoting the Palestinian cause.”
No wonder that both my sister and my daughter, who had come to support my increasingly frequent trips to Gaza, now are discouraging me from continuing my work there. “I have to admit that now, with things becoming more dangerous in Gaza every day (from all sides–for example, Vik being killed by the very people he was trying to help), I completely understand why your daughters would be hoping that you don’t go back,” wrote my sister. Another friend, who had visited Gaza with me on one of my first trips, put it even more bluntly: “I would never have thought that the people he was supporting and helping would turn on him.”
I am sure this reaction is exactly what Vik’s killers – whoever they are–had been hoping for.
Whether the murder was committed by collaborators with Israel or religious extremists who abhor Western influence and/or want to make Hamas look bad, the motive seemed to be – at least in part — to scare off other internationals who might think to come to Gaza, whether via the next flotilla (planned for late May) or other route. Although no one knows — and we may never know – the true motivation of Vik’s killers, Israel has certainly worked overtime in the last few months to stop the next flotilla from reaching the shores of Gaza. The newspaper Ha’aretz reported last month that Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi has threatened that if the boats try to reach Gaza, “forcing” the military to attack, “there may be no alternative to deploying snipers to minimize troop casualties.” Meanwhile, theJerusalem Post reported that the IDF will deploy attack dogs from its Oketz canine units. Likewise, Israel has not been shy about assassinating individuals it doesn’t like (the most recent example is the murder of Hamas official Mahmoud Mabhouh in Dubai).
However, whoever committed this gut-wrenching crime, and whatever their motivation, they are not Gaza (and the murderers of Juliano Mer-Khamis– the popular director of the Jenin Freedom Theater — are not the West Bank – or Palestine). After all, should Americans be judged by Timothy McVeigh, or the Unabomber? When word began spreading like wildfire that Vik had been murdered, my friends from Gaza – and many whom I barely knew, but were just connections on Facebook – messaged me to apologize on behalf of their entire people. One email I received was titled “WE ARE SO SORRY.”
Even those who didn’t know Vik felt the need to express their deep sorrow and shame; in fact, they were the majority of the individuals who reached out to me. Sameeha Elwan, a young blogger in Gaza, wrote: “All of us were agonized by the news of his abduction, spending the whole night anticipating and hoping that morning would bring us the news of his release…(But) morning brought us mourning. The first unconfirmed news of his death came at 2 a.m., leaving us all speechless and confused…’Did you know him personally?’many asked me today in the funeral that was held by Gazans in honor of Vittorio. In fact, I did not meet him in person, as was the case of so many Palestinians who were there…(But) to know how brave Vittorio was, I only had to look around, and see the agony and anger in the faces of hundreds of people…”
Vik’s death was considered a national tragedy in Gaza – indeed, throughout Palestine. I can’t help but compare this to how Americans would react if a foreigner in their midst –albeit one who was there in solidarity with them – was randomly slain. I doubt it would elicit the same outpouring of grief, or that Americans who didn’t even know him would feel a personal responsibility for the perpetrators. Even when my purse was apparently stolen one night by a coffeehouse, everyone I knew felt compelled to apologize – going out of their way to track it down.
This is the reason that in the eight months I lived in Gaza – five months in 2010 and three this year, coming home barely two weeks before Vik’s death – I felt safe and literally “embraced.” Crime can happen anywhere; yes, Gaza is a “hot spot,” and may be more dangerous than most, but not because of the Palestinians. I am not unlike the other international volunteers who are drawn to Gaza, or to Palestine in general. We know the spirit of the people there; we see inside their collective heart. And we agree with Sameeha when she writes, “No matter who was behind this vicious crime against humanity, he is not the least Palestinian.”
So to my friends and family who ask why I want to continue to return to the region, when “the people I help may turn on me,” I say no, they will never turn on me. And if I am ever in danger, they will have my back. They may not always be able to protect me from the criminal elements that are present everywhere, but I know they would lay down their lives for mine.
And to Vik’s killers, I say you will never win. Because we will keep coming back.
Pam Bailey is an American who has been on several of the Codepink delegations to Gaza. She then lived in Gaza for five months last year and three months this year. Vittorio Arrigoni was her friend.