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Stay Human

By Ellen Cantarow

16 May, 2011

Vittorio Arrigoni's Gaza: Stay Human, with an introduction by Ilan Pappe (Kube Publishing Ltd.: Leicestershire, UK, 2010).

Between December 27, 2008, and January 18, 2009, Israel devastated Gaza's people and its infrastructure with bombs, white phosphorous, tank shells and sniper bullets. This massive act of state terror killed between 1,387 and 1,417 Gazans. According to the Israeli government there were four Israeli fatalities by Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks: three civilians and one soldier. In addition, nine Israeli soldiers were killed inside the Gaza strip, four by "friendly fire."

During the horror Israel nicknamed "Cast Lead," I watched Al-Jazeera, read the human rights reports that filtered into cyberspace, found interviews with the Norwegian physician, Mads Gilbert, who worked in Gaza's hospitals under fire. One day in January the following report, translated from Italian into English, arrived in my email:

"'Take some kittens, some tender little moggies [cats] in a box,' said Jamal, a surgeon at the Al Shifa, Gaza's main hospital, while a nurse actually placed a couple of blood-stained cardboard boxes in front of us. 'Seal up the box, then jump on it with all your weight and might, until you feel their little bones crunching, and you hear the last muffled little mew.' I stared at the boxes in astonishment, and the doctor continued: 'Try to imagine what would happen after such images were circulated. The righteous outrage of public opinion, the complaints of the animal rights organizations . . .' The doctor went on in this vein, and I was unable to take my eyes off those boxes, sitting at our feet. 'Israel trapped hundreds of civilians inside a school as if in a box, including many children, and then crushed them with all the might of its bombs. What were the world's reactions? Almost nothing. We would have been better off as animals rather than Palestinians, we would have been more protected.'

"At this point the doctor leans towards one of the boxes, and takes its lid off in front of me. Inside it are the amputated limbs, legs and arms, some from the knee down, others with the entire femur attached, amputated from the injured at the Al Fakhura United Nations school in Jabalia, which resulted in more than fifty casualties. Pretending to be taking an urgent call, I took my leave of Jamal, actually rushing to the bathroom to bend over and throw up."

I'd never heard about Vittorio Arrigoni before I read this. I never forgot him. What I've just quoted comes from one of the columns he dispatched from Gaza during Israel's assaults, for Italy's left-wing daily Il Manifesto. Some time later, I stumbled onto his Facebook page and initiated what became a brief e-mail exchange. Even that fleeting contact disclosed the warmth and humor for which Vittorio was loved by International Solidarity Movement (ISM) comrades and Gazans alike. Like so many others I was dumbstruck and horrified when he was murdered in Gaza City by Salafi extremists. (The murder took place less than two weeks after that of Jenin Freedom Theater leader Juliano Mer Khamis in the West Bank city of Jenin.)

What remains of Arrigoni in print is Gaza: Stay Human, a slender collection of 22 of his dispatches from Gaza during the assaults Israel ghoulishly called "Cast Lead." The passage I've just quoted is reprinted here in original context, the article "Slingshots vs White Phosphorous Bombs." Vittorio signed each of his dispatches with an injunction that seems to have been directed as much to himself as to readers: "Stay human." That is: in the face of barbarity, retain your humanity.

He wrote from the sides of the wounded he helped rescue, in the ambulances in which he accompanied them to hospitals. He described women who went into premature labor under shell-fire and bombs; paramedics who died; friends killed elsewhere in Gaza while he was on his urgent missions; he wrote about the ruins of Gaza's houses, its schools and mosques, and the rubble in Gaza City where he had an apartment facing the sea. At any time he himself could have died. What one mourns, reflecting on his murder, isn't only the tragic loss of a dedicated and humane activist, but the silencing of a fine writer-in-the-making. He had a flair for dramatic, even nuanced cadence, and for vivid, pictorial detail:

"My toothpaste, toothbrush, razors, and shaving foam. The clothes I'm wearing, the cough medicine I'm using to get rid of a persistent cough, the cigarettes I bought for Ahmed, and some tobacco for my arghile [water pipe] . . . All that's needed for a modest, yet dignified, existence in Gaza comes from Egypt, and arrives onto the shop shelves through the tunnels . . . the very same tunnels that the Israeli F-16s haven't stopped bombing heavily in the last 12 hours, destroying thousands of Rafah houses near the border." ("I won't leave my country," January 8, 2009, p. 39.)

"When that mule-drawn cart got close enough, we approached . . . and beheld its macabre cargo with horror. A child was lying with his skull cracked open, his eyeballs literally hanging out of their sockets, swaying onto his face like those at the end of crab's stalks. When we picked him up, he was still breathing. His little brother had a disemboweled chest . . . you could distinctly count his white ribs through the tatters of his torn flesh." (p. 25)

Vittorio arrived in Gaza in 2008 on one of the first boats attempting to break the siege Israel imposed in 2006 when, in free elections, Gazans brought Hamas to power. ("Democracy" is sanctioned by Palestine's Israeli-US masters only when it doesn't threaten their hegemony.) His grandparents had fought in Italy's legendary Communist-led resistance -- the partigiani (partisans) -- against Mussolini's fascists. He himself chose to participate in the non-violent International Solidarity Movement (ISM). He accompanied Gaza's sailors on their boats, and protected farmers tending their land close to the barriers with which Israel has sealed the tiny region. Like other ISM activists he did time in Israeli jails; sustained injury; was once deported to Italy but made his way back to Gaza. He adopted Palestine as his country and married a Palestinian. He was known for his warmth, ebullience, and compassion; the children he played with, tossed into the air, hugged and gladdened, loved him. So did his ISM comrades. When, this past April, he was murdered by religious extremists in Gaza, there was an international outpouring of disbelief, outrage, and grief.

At the end of one of his columns Arrigoni writes of women who gave birth during "Cast Lead": "These brave mothers sadly give birth to creatures who take in nothing but the military green of tanks and jeeps or the blinking flashes that precede an explosion. What kind of adults will they grow up to be?"

That was a flash of bleak insight. By the time Arrigoni arrived in Gaza the region was already lacerated by mass trauma. On February 17, 2007, the article "The Psychosocial Causes for the Palestinian Factional War" by the renowned Gaza psychiatrist Dr. Eyyad Sarraj appeared. In particular he noted that torture had been taken up by the Palestinian National Authority from Israel. Often, the PNA torturer, he noted, had himself been tortured by his Israeli jailers. "[O]ngoing armed conflicts," wrote Sarraj, "result in what is known as chronic social toxication which makes people and children less sensitive and more ruthless, less rational and more impulsive, less conversant and more violent. More significantly, new groups are formed of individuals who are alien to the family system and to the social fabric…powerful and violent enough to be capable of heinous killing." He noted in particular "a new form of identity provided by Islamic organizations and armed militias . . . [supplanting] national and filial belonging . . . ."

These are the real circumstances out of which the murder of Vittorio erupted. Recently, in an obituary for both Juliano Mer Khamis and Vittorio Arrigoni, the Palestinian-American journalist Lamis Andoni wrote, "The deaths of the two activists reveal a small but hugely destructive deformity in Palestinian society . . . . The challenge is now to make sure that Palestinian society and the individuals within it do not lose their humanity."

With the exception of a preface by Ilan Pappe, don't expect Gaza: Stay Human to supply you with background history. Its singularity is in having been written from within the inferno that "Cast Lead" created in Gaza. Full of urgency, it is a series of communications to the world outside, written under dangerous, traumatic circumstances. The translation is into British English with occasional (for Americans, at least), odd usages ("moggies" for cats, for instance). At times a footnote could have been added ("narghile," for instance, has to be looked up by the reader who doesn't know what it is). But Gaza: Stay Human will take its place on my shelves next to a very short, unique collection of eye-witness communiqués. (I will place it beside a much older cousin, a collection of personal testimonies from Israel's 1982 war on Lebanon edited by the late, brilliant writer Livia Rokach. By sheer coincidence "Israele nel libano testimonianze del genocidio" -- "Israel in Lebanon: testimonies of genocide" -- is in Italian, published in Milan, 1983. It has never been translated.)

The Free Gaza movement has named the next boat to Gaza "Freedom Flotilla: Stay Human." Vittorio's mother, Egidia Arrigoni, mayor of Bulciago, a small town near Milan where he was born, told Italian Vanity Fair that Vittorio was killed only days before a scheduled return to Italy. Would he have stayed there? "No. By that time Vittorio was from Palestine. Gaza was in his blood. He was coming home only to leave again. To be with 'his people,' his farmers, his fishermen, and his children." (Translation mine.)

Ellen Cantarow is a Boston-based journalist who has been writing about Israel and Palestine for the past 30 years. Over the years her articles have appeared in publications including Grand Street, The Village Voice, Mother Jones, Journal of Palestine Studies, ZNet, Tom Dispatch, and Counterpunch.


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