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Interview. With a ceremony at the port of Gaza today, hundreds of Palestinians and foreigners will remember the Italian activist murdered six years ago. We spoke with his friend Khalil Shahin, deputy director of the Center for Human Rights.

Remembering Vik, a sincere friend of Gaza

On Saturday, a group will gather at the port of Gaza City to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the kidnapping and murder of Vittorio (Vik) Arrigoni. Fishermen, farmers, friends, acquaintances, and the kids who attend the Italian cultural exchange center that bears his name. It will be a simple ceremony to say that his memory remains intact.

This young man, who came from Italy, was able to tell Gaza’s story so well, both in the tragedy of war and in its daily life. Vittorio with his social posts and his articles, many of which were written for il manifesto, gave dignity and beauty to the population of the Gaza Strip, in contrast to the dehumanization of the Palestinians by the media and certain political organizations. A few foreigners will attend the commemorations.

The tension that reigns in the streets of Gaza after the recent murder of a Hamas military commander, Abbas Fuqha — attributed by the Palestinians to Israel — the resulting security measures taken by the Islamic movement and the fear of a new war, have led several foreigners to stay away from Gaza. Among these, there are the 30 Italian educators of the “Freestyle festival” who were forced to postpone their arrival until next Aug. 20.

Vittorio Arrigoni was kidnapped in Gaza City by the Al Qaeda cell Tawhid wal Jihad group, a rival of Hamas, on the evening of April 13, 2011. The group’s leader, Abdel Rahman Breizat, thought to exchange the Italian with Hisham al Saidni, a theoretician of jihadi Salafism held in Gaza. The following day, the police located the house where Vik was held hostage and capture two members of the cell, Tamer Hasasnah and Khader Jram. Before the Hamas agents burst into the apartment located in northern Gaza, the kidnappers killed Vittorio and fled.

Breizat and his right hand man, Bilal Omari, identified in a house in Nusseirat, were killed two days later by Hamas special forces. Another member of the cell, Mahmoud Salfiti, was wounded and arrested together with a supporter, Amr al Ghoula. They were all sentenced to life imprisonment at first instance (except by Ghoula and Jram). In the appeal, their sentences were considerably shortened.

Out of the four detainees, only two remain alive today, Hasasnah and Jram, and they are no longer in prison. Al Ghoula and Salfiti, taking advantage of a permit granted by the authorities, fled from Gaza and may have died in Syria fighting for the jihadists. Jram, after serving his five-year sentence, left Gaza and disappeared without trace. Hasasnah is free too, back to a “normal life.”

We interviewed Khalil Shahin about those days six years ago and the situation in Gaza. He is the deputy director of the Center for Human Rights (PCHR) and one of Vittorio Arrigoni’s closest friends.

What remains of Vittorio in Gaza?

A lot. Vik’s assassination has left a deep wound in many of us. Vittorio had done a lot of work to get the cry of our people heard to in Italy. His name was known; many were able to see him in action in defense of the peasants in the countryside close to the border with Israel, fired upon by careless soldiers. And no one forgets when he went out to sea with the fishermen hoping to protect with his presence the Palestinian fishing boats that went beyond the fishing limit [set by Israel]. Vittorio was a close friend with whom I spent many evenings debating about politics, society, literature. He was learned and had a thirst for knowledge. Gaza has lost an intelligent young man, as well as a sincere and passionate friend. I remember it like it was yesterday when, during the “Cast Lead” Israeli operation against Gaza [late 2008-early 2009], Vittorio jumped on the ambulances en route to the riskiest areas to help rescue wounded civilians.

What climate reigns in Gaza now? The blockade implemented by Israel and Egypt is so rigid.

Gaza is a prison. The entries and exits are limited and this affects the weakest sectors of our population, such as the sick. For its part, Egypt keeps the Rafah crossing closed. Added to this are the economic crisis, unemployment and the destruction caused by Israeli bombing in 2014. The reconstruction is slow because of the existing restrictions to bring construction materials into Gaza, and many families are still living in makeshift shelters. It is very hard to face the electricity and drinking water shortages. And the climate is weighed down even further by the policies and pressure by the Hamas government and security.

What is the relationship between the Islamic movement in power and the population in Gaza?

Even though it is true that the main problem is the blockade implemented in Israel, it is equally true that disappointment grows among the people. The authorities respond to this usually with even more stringent measures that the population can hardly bear. After Faqha Mazen’s assassination, the checkpoints have multiplied and this weighs on daily living, which is already hard enough. Furthermore, it has worsened the situation of human rights. Freedom of thought is not always guaranteed, and there have been more cases of journalists and bloggers detained for criticizing the government. The progressive cultural institutions are subject to intimidation. Not surprisingly, young people try to leave Gaza. Many have already done it, including some of Vittorio’s friends in struggle.

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