Palestinian Factionalism and the Murders of Juliano Mer-Khamis and Vittorio Arrigoni

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Twice this month, members of extreme Palestinian factions murdered pro-Palestinian activists in Gaza.  The tragedy has once again put the spotlight on the fractiousness of the Palestinian political system as well as the increased challenges faced by the Hamas government in the Strip. As Lamis Andoni writes on Al Jazeera, “On April 4, masked gunmen shot Juliano [Mer-Khamis] in front of the Freedom Theatre he had founded in the Jenin refugee camp. Ten days later Vittorio [Arrigoni], an ISM activist, was abducted and later found strangled to death in an apartment in the Gaza Strip.…Our only consolation is that both Juliano and Vittorio were part of an active popular Palestinian resistance that will continue to grow and spread. Their cause remains alive. But Palestinians must now face the fact that these murders expose a societal deformity and distortion which may be slight in size but which is huge and highly destructive in its impact. It is not enough to capture the perpetrators. The challenge is bigger and harder. The challenge is now to make sure that Palestinian society and the individuals within it do not lose their humanity.”

Reflecting on the state of the Palestinian political arena, Wissam Abu Zeid is critical of Hamas, asserting on the Palestinian Maan News Agency, “This crime should raise awareness of the need to end Palestinian division. The “deposed government” in Gaza is responsible for this crime due to the environment it is creating, which allows the mushrooming of fundamental[ist] groups that carry out extremist and criminal acts. Instead of protecting their factional interests, they must stop all kinds of incitement in the Palestinian society. As a Palestinian I was shocked to hear that a Palestinian group kidnapped Arrigoni and demanded a ransom to set him free. Those who committed this crime are not Palestinians in patriotism or in traditions. They are strangers to our struggle and serve a non-Palestinian agenda.”

Ramzy Baroud in his column in the Arabic Media Internet Network draws attention to the senseless nature of the act committed by these extreme groups: “The group that murdered Arrigoni, like others of its kind, existed for one specific, violent episode before disappearing altogether. The mission in this case was to kill an International Solidarity Movement activist who dedicated years of his life to Palestine. Shortly before he was kidnapped, he wrote in this website of the ‘criminal’ Israeli siege on Gaza. He also mourned the four impoverished Palestinians who died in a tunnel under the Gaza-Egypt boarder while hauling food and other goods.”

The Palestinian Authority, Fatah, and Hamas for their parts have strongly condemned the murder of the two activists. The Hamas-supported Al Qassam website carried an article by Khalid Amayreh, who declared, referring to the murders, “True Muslims don’t do that,” and noted, “Ismael Haniya, the elected Prime Minister of Hamas called Arrigoni’s murder a ‘nefarious crime that goes against our religion, norms and traditions.’ A spokesman for the Gaza government described the perpetrators as ‘thugs and murderers of the lowest kind.’ One Islamist writer, Ibrahim Hamami, called the murderers, ‘the lowest of the low’…. Arrigoni didn’t come to Gaza as an aggressor or invader. He came to show solidarity with its wronged people and highlight the immense oppression meted out to people by the Nazis of our time, the Zionist Israelis. Hence, the claim that he came to the Land of Islam to spread corruption and disbelief should be treated with the utter contempt it deserves.”

As far as Fatah and the PA are concerned, Elior Levy of the Israeli Ynet reports, “The Palestinian Authority will award the ‘medal of Jerusalem’ to Vittorio Arrigoni, the pro-Palestinian Italian activist killed by Salafi extremist in the Gaza Strip, and Juliano Mer-Khamis, the Israeli-Arab theater director murdered in Jenin, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced on Sunday. Speaking at a Ramallah ceremony in memory of Arrigoni, Abbas said, ‘The Italian activist came to Palestine to show solidarity with our people, and dedicated his life to our people while living in tough conditions in Gaza…. He was murdered by a malicious hand that does not represent the tradition and values of the Palestinian people. This man, who came to us full of liveliness, returned to his family dead…. Abbas also condemned the murder of Mer-Khamis, who was shot to death by masked assailants at the beginning of April.”

But not all views expressed on the topic consider the murdered activists martyrs. In an article posted on the right-wing Israel National News, Fiamma Nirenstein, the vice-president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and chair of the Committee for the Inquiry into Antisemitism in the Italian Chamber of Deputies, is deeply critical of both Hamas and Mr. Arrigoni. “It has been repeated again and again that Hamas, with whom Arrigoni was on friendly terms, has condemned the crime. But in actual fact it doesn’t matter if the assassins are members of Hamas or not. They have been, they will be, they are all controlled by Hamas. Even Al Qaida, which has a presence in Gaza, is seen by Hamas in a better or worse light depending on the moment. But Hamas is always top dog in Gaza….Arrigoni was a fan of political Islamism because he was an enemy of the Jews, but this did not save him from a cruel execution in front of the camera, just [like] many other friends or enemies of Hamas or the Islamic Jihad.”

Benjamin Weinthal writing in the Jerusalem Post, cites Nirenstein’s comments and quotes others critical of Mr. Arrigoni’s mission and presence in Gaza. One of them, “Gerald Steinberg, head of NGO Monitor, a human-rights watchdog organization, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that ‘the ISM openly and directly supports ‘the Palestinian resistance’ – meaning terrorism and war crimes against Israelis. To refer to its members, including Vittorio Arrigoni – who are allied with Hamas – as ‘peace activists’ is a marketing triumph and moral travesty….In an e-mail to the Post on Thursday, Noah Pollak, executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, a Washington-based organization, wrote, ‘Arrigoni devoted himself to helping Hamas try to destroy Israel. He was a warmonger, an anti-Semite and a supporter of the repression of Palestinians under terrorist rule in Gaza. The attempt by anti-Israel activists to portray him as a crusader for peace or human rights is nothing less than Orwellian.’”

Another Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, draws attention to the dilemmas faced by Hamas in the aftermath of the murders. Carlo Strenger believes the developments in Gaza show “more than ever, that Hamas is running into insoluble problems….Research shows that the reality of Hamas is far more complex than allowed for in Israeli public discourse. Hamas has always had an identity problem…. It is not a monolithic organization; some of its wings are in favor of long-term truces with Israel, others even speak about actual peace. Some are in favor of reconciliation with Fatah; others believe that only the establishment of a Palestinian state under Shariah law west of the Jordan is an acceptable long-term goal. Hamas is now in a completely untenable situation: its control over the Gaza strip is becoming tenuous, and it doesn’t have full control over attacks against Israel. Its religious-nationalist definition is now coming apart at the seams for a number of reasons. It is losing its credentials as being the dominant hard-line rejectionist group against Israel, outflanked at the extremist edge by apocalyptic strands of Islam like Al-Qaeda that are gaining ground in Gaza.”



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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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