This article was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version can be found here.
"Gaza: Stay Human" , a book by Italian pacifist and solidarity activist Vittorio Arrigoni, was published by Kube Publishing Ltd. in Britain in 2010. The 152-page book reads like a small diary, providing a record of daily life in Gaza, Palestine.
Vittorio Arrigoni was a member of the International Solidarity Movement who often described himself as a "Gazan". Arrigoni left the warmth and tranquility of the Italian coastline for the battlefields of Gaza, where people live a life unlike that of other people around the world - a people looking for less suspense and more monotony.
He came to Gaza before Operation Cast Lead (the Israeli code name for Gaza War of 2008-2009), was deported by the Israeli authorities, and then immediately reentered, which left him place to document the onslaught.
His eyewitness accounts tell of a land that exploded like hellfire on a December day; of corpses covering the streets for 22 days - the duration of the war during which Israeli ‘lead' (bullets) were cast unto Gaza. "Stay Human" is Arrigoni's diary of the war, an attempt to shake the reader out of his or her complacency by forcing us to contemplate the fate of the Gazan people, a bid to restore our humanity by forcing us to identify with those who have been deprived of theirs.
Dozens of Palestinian and other Arab authors have contributed to the literature of Palestine since the Nakba of 1948, producing volumes upon volumes that narrate the story of the wars, sieges, forced displacements and assassinations which have tormented the lives of ordinary Palestinians for over sixty years. However, "Gaza: Stay Human" is a different contribution.
It is the testimony of a man from Europe who witnessed Israeli brutality. In this book, Arrigoni documents the suffering he himself endured as he became a de facto member of the Palestinian community, voluntarily engaging with the Palestinian cause as a human shield defending ambulances against Israeli attack and serving as an aid worker helping those wounded in Israeli bombings. The book is the testimony of a correspondent who sent almost daily accounts to Italy's Il Manifesto newspaper, bringing the war to the attention of the Italian street and bringing Italians to the street in solidarity with Palestine, to condemn Israeli killings and to demand that the international community intervene to stop the bloodshed.
The book is reminiscent of volumes authored by Palestinians, such as Bassam Abu Sharif's "September Papers", published in Beirut in 1978, which commemorates the events of Black September in Jordan in 1970; as well as the works of Rashad Abu Shawer, especially "God did not Rest on the Seventh Day", an account of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, including the three-month siege of Beirut that forced the Palestinian resistance to evacuate Lebanon, sending its members into yet another wave of forced displacement. Nonetheless, "Gaza: Stay Human" is different from both Abu Sharif's and Abu Shawer's books in that it departs from the literary narrative style which characterized those works and adopts a mixture of news reporting and figurative styles.
The book narrates the events of the three-week massacre (December 27, 2008-January 18, 2009), including the hypocrisy of the international community as official silence prevented an earlier resolution of the crisis and cessation of Israeli criminality, and the period following the cessation of hostilities on January 19. The author was an Italian who joined the first solidarity flotilla, aimed at challenging and breaking the siege imposed on the people of Gaza and at reviving the role of the International Solidarity Movement in defense of Palestinians' human rights.
Gazans first got to know Arrigoni and his colleagues when they served as human shields to prevent Israeli military forces from targeting impoverished fishermen plying their trade in Gazan waters. On one occasion, Arrigoni was injured during an Israeli raid on fishing boats, detained by the attackers, and held at Ramla Prison with three colleagues - including a teenage girl. During their imprisonment, the four activists went on a hunger strike to force Israel to return the boats to their rightful owners.
Arrigoni even gave in to the Israeli condition that he be deported back to Italy in exchange for the boats' being returned but soon made his way back to Gaza, just days before Operation Cast Lead began. As soon as the war started, Arrigoni and his colleagues volunteered as human shields to protect civilians: they escorted ambulances to prevent their targeting by Israeli aircraft and artillery, allowing medical crews to undertake their humanitarian tasks.
In an account entitled ‘Ghosts Demanding Justice', the author wrote that "we did not escape Gaza, as we had been instructed to by our consulates, because we were well aware that our contribution to resistance was by remaining in Gaza and acting as human shields in ambulances - a role which could be vital in saving lives." In another account, he wrote "we will not go anywhere because we believe that our presence is vital to provide an eyewitness account of the atrocities and crimes committed against unarmed civilians, hour by hour and minute by minute."
Arrigoni's accounts had a big impact on readers as they conveyed victims' voices without any filtration. Consequently, thousands took to the streets of Italy and other European countries, raising the slogan "Stay Human" to urge others to express solidarity with the plight of the Palestinian people, and in condemnation of the massacres committed by Israeli forces during the war.
In addition to 20 journalistic accounts of the war in Gaza, the book also includes an introduction by dissident Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, author of "The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine". Arrigoni's account, Pappe writes, "come directly from the killing fields in Gaza and are therefore free of any misrepresentation or manipulation by the media." Pappe then narrates the history of a "the dummy city" built by the Israeli Army in the winter of 2006.
The mock-up was designed to resemble the streets and buildings of Gaza City, providing Israeli soldiers ‘were preparing for the scenario that will unfold in the dense neighbourhood of Gaza City' as the then-Israeli chief of staff, Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, put it. This demonstrates that Operation Cast Lead was indeed pre-planned and was merely awaiting a suitable pretext, although Israel does not always wait for an excuse to wage wars and commit war crimes.
Arrigoni does not stand equidistant from victim and victimizer in covering the event. Instead, he is biased in favor of the Palestinians after having witnessed the truth for himself, including the lies of the Israelis, whose war on so-called "terror" in Gaza destroyed hospitals, homes and civilian infrastructure. He also witnessed the Palestinian response, home-made rockets with which the resistance tried to fend off Israeli aggression despite the crude weapons' being more like fireworks: they almost never inflicted casualties and yet reflected the spirit of resistance and Palestinians' will.
In his introduction, titled "For the Reader: a Warning and Instructions for Use", the author instructs his audience to "store this volume somewhere safe, within the reach of the young, so that they may immediately learn of a world not so far from them, where indifference and racism tears their peers to little bits as if they were mere rag dolls."
In his first account - titled "Guernica in Gaza", a reference to the deadly and indiscriminate 1937 bombing of a Basque town by Germany's Condor Legion and Italy's Aviazione Legionaria, in an operation called Operation Rügen during the Spanish Civil War to rescue Franco regime - Arrigoni starts his narrative of the initial Israeli attack which began on the morning of December 27, 2008, with a massacre that claimed more than 200 lives.
Upon visiting Gaza's main Al-Shifa Hospital, the author noted that "terrorists" were conspicuously absent among both the wounded who were lined up to seek medical care and the corpses which crammed the hospital's corridors. Instead, Arrigoni saw the bodies of youngsters on the streets because their primary school, which lies in the vicinity of the main police station in the Al-Abbas neighborhood, had been targeted in the very first raid. Of course, Israeli media alleged that the raid targeted the "dens of Hamas terrorists" with surgical precision, and Western media blindly echoed these claims.
The third day of the war was characterized by the foul smell of white phosphorous, whose use was to become a regular feature of the conflict. This day also saw the repeated targeting of clinics, hospitals, and pharmaceutical warehouses. The number of civilian casualties - dead and wounded - increased dramatically after a mosque was targeted and a number of nearby homes sustained severe damage. According to Arrigoni's account, the people of Gaza were waiting for a vocal reaction from the international community in condemnation of the massacre. In the meantime, a Free Gaza flotilla departed from the Cypriot port of Larnaca with large quantities of medical supplies and a number of international solidarity activists.
"The Angel Factories", the title of Arrigoni's third account, refers to the opening days of the Israeli offensive, which saw hospitals and morgues transformed into non-stop production lines whose main output was dead bodies. On December 30, 2008, air strikes laid waste to the seaport and inflicted "collateral damage" on residential areas in the suburbs of Gaza City. Already by this point, the carnage had united the Palestinians, renewing a sense of common cause among partisans of the various warring factions. The number of corpses and body parts scattered around the city continued to grow, with many of the dead so badly disfigured that their remains could not be identified by loved ones. Despite all this, the international community remained silent, turning a deaf ear to the screams of agony from Palestine.
One could no longer recognize the streets of Gaza because you could no longer tell whether you were walking on what used to be a house, a hospital or a mosque. The city's landmarks had all perished, as if it had been hit by a devastating earthquake, as Arrigoni described the situation in one of his accounts, "The Unnatural Catastrophe." In the meantime, solidarity activists addressed their first press conference from Gaza, on January 1, 2009, to the Israeli authorities. Their message was an announcement that they would be in every ambulance, hoping that their presence as foreigners in these vehicles would deter Israeli forces from targeting emergency crews.
As Arrigoni was writing his "Ghosts Demanding Justice" account on January 3, 2009, Israeli tanks began the ground assault. With the continued aerial and seaborne attacks on Gaza, Palestinians were longing for someone to achieve justice. Meanwhile, Arab satellite channels broadcast images of US President Barak Obama playing golf, a contrast that only exacerbated the feeling of isolation: Gaza was dressed in black, mourning its dead. Most foreigners had left the Gaza Strip, but solidarity activists decided to remain.
While Israel repeatedly declared that its war was directed against Hamas rather than civilians, by January 5, 2009 the number of mosques destroyed in the bombardment had risen to 15, along with large numbers of homes, hospitals, schools and universities. The number of victims had reached 548 by the time Arrigoni was authoring his latest account, "Doctors with Wings: Arafa Abed Al-Dayem". The account highlights the role of medics, including Abdel Dayem, a friend of the author's who was killed in an attack on his ambulance by an Israeli tank.
The Nakba of 1948 was being replayed before the eyes of the author as he witnessed processions of Palestinians walking aimlessly in search of a safe haven. In an account titled "Al Nakba", Arrigoni writes that on comparing black and white photos he had taken of these processions with images from 1948, he was struck by the stark similarity between the two exoduses. In the meantime, mercenary journalists continued to regurgitate the Israeli narrative of a "war on terror", ignoring photographs and footage documenting the massacre - and the 650 victims who had lost their lives as residential neighborhoods were being bombed.
In "Slingshots versus White Phosphorous Bombs", Arrigoni notes that, in addition to white phosphorous, ultra-advanced Israeli Apache helicopters were using internationally banned cluster munitions, while Palestinians used stones launched from slingshots to resist the invasion.
He also notes that the number of Israeli fatalities since the beginning of the assault had yet to rise above four. Nonetheless, despite the lopsidedness of the conflict, even the children were refusing to leave Gaza, a fact Arrigoni addresses in an account called "I will not leave my homeland!" This resilience continued despite great deprivation and the hardships required to obtain basic necessities, many of which could only reach Gaza through underground tunnels - which were the target of Israeli air strikes on January 8, 2009, an attempt to deprive Gazans of the already insufficient basics smuggled in these tunnels. The intention was to starve the people of Gaza into submission in hopes of inciting them against Hamas - the main target of the war.
The author returns to the suffering of medical teams in "Killing Hippocrates", an account in which he explains how Israeli hit teams disregarded the sanctity of Hippocrates, aimed their guns at him and shot him dead. For, whereas ambulances are generally not attacked during wars, Israel announced that it would target ambulances, accusing "terrorists" of using them to move around and transport equipment - a claim categorically denied by the author, who escorted emergency vehicles throughout the war.
For Arrigoni, Israeli propaganda flyers dropped onto Gaza City conveyed a clear message: Israel was determined to inflict total destruction upon the Gaza Strip and its people. In his account, "Total Destruction: Work in Progress", authored on January 10, 2009, the author provides translations of some of these flyers, which warned Gazans to evacuate their city before its bombardment. He compares the rubble and shell-holes with the fictional devastation of science fiction movies depicting asteroids striking the Earth.
He also bears witness and provides an account on the use of Dense Inert Metal Explosive (DIME) bombs, an experimental weapon that is manufactured by producing a homogeneous mixture of an explosive material (such as nitroamine high explosive) and small particles of a chemically inert material such as tungsten. DIME bombs are specifically designed for urban warfare as they inflict maximum damage within a small blast radius.
It is manufactured by producing a homogeneous mixture of an explosive material
As Arrigoni prepared another account, "Vultures and Bounty Hunters", on January 13, 2009, the death toll stood at 923, with more than 4,150 wounded. Palestinians were looking for any sign of hope after every inch of their land had been violated, and even funerals had been transformed into targets as Israeli pilots acted like eagles violating the corpses of victims previously killed by their colleagues. Many Gazans longed for safe passage out of their living hell, an escape route which the Free Gaza Movement's Spirit of Humanity flotilla sought to open up by delivering tons of medical supplies and transporting a 40-strong team of nurses, paramedics, journalists, members of the European Parliament and human rights activists from seventeen different countries.
In the meantime, the Reuters and Maan news agencies reported that the United States was about to send a 300-ton shipment of arms to Israel from Greece. Simultaneously, an American website quoted Israel Defense Forces (IDF) sources as saying that their forces would target members of the International Solidarity Movement - including the author, Vittorio Arrigoni - for "helping Hamas". The IDF distributed photos of Arrigoni alongside phone numbers to report his whereabouts.
Another account by Arrigoni - "Children of a Lesser God", whose title was borrowed from an American play - focuses on the plight of Palestinian children. By the time the author wrote this account on January 14, 2009, the death toll included 255 children. He also discusses the international outcry against crimes perpetrated by the Israelis. Alongside protests, a number of campaigns had become more internationally vocal, including calls for a boycott of Israel inspired by Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein, who wrote in the London-based Guardian newspaper under the headline "Enough! It's time for a boycott".
Her article called for a boycott of Israel as a means of ending its occupation of Palestinian lands in the way that an international campaign had brought an end to the apartheid regime in South Africa. Meanwhile, as Israeli warplanes bombed mosques with no response from the international community, the author imagined what the reaction would have been had a Qassam rocket landed on a church: the entire world would have been witnessing an outcry against Islam.
In "Jabalia's Circles of Inferno", Arrigoni writes that Jabalia - and particularly its hospitals - appear as though a curse had befallen them. The title of his account draws on Dante's 14th-century "Divine Comedy", which envisaged a number of layers, or levels, of punishment in Hell characterized by the nine concentric circles conceptualized by the classical Roman poet Virgil. The concentric circles indicate gradients of evil and hellfire and are centered around the Earth's inner core.
Each of these circles is customized, providing sinners with punishment commensurate with their sins and crimes. The author is convinced that Israel's hellish punishment of Gaza is centered on Jabalia. Collective punishment is imposed on Gazans for their democratic choice of Hamas in free and fair elections monitored by international organizations - an assertion made by the dissident American linguist Noam Chomsky, and repeated in a number of his articles on Palestine and the Middle East.
What characterized the 21st day of the war, January 16, 2009, was that the city's "Turning Geography on its Head". Residents could no longer find their way back home if they left their homes as the city's landscape had vanished. Destruction and devastation spread everywhere, preventing ambulances from reaching their destinations to save the wounded or evacuate the dead. The satellite images of Gaza City on that day would turn out significantly different from images taken a month before. Israeli soldiers not only killed civilians and destroyed Gaza but also appeared to be looting homes and shops in a show of cowardice. Israeli snipers, on the other hand, were complementing tanks and warplanes in hunting down Palestinians as they fled their homes in horror to escape artillery bombardments and air strikes.
In the midst of all the killing going on in Gaza and as he stands amid the rubble and destruction left behind by the Israeli war machine, Arrigoni does not forget to talk of love. In his account, "Love under the Bombs", he narrates the story of people making love under the bombs - including a couple in the middle of a gentle, passionate moment when a bullet hits the headboard just inches from their heads. After all, the Palestinians - whose reproduction rate troubles Israel and threatens the Jewish state with the so-called "demographic bomb" - cannot find a peaceful moment of passion and love to unite them with their partners in the hell that Gaza had become.
In contrast to their Israeli counterparts, who spend extended honeymoons on the beach, newly married Palestinian couples in Gaza cannot even make love in their own bedrooms. In the meantime, the number of those wounded in the war had risen to 5,320, whereas hospitals - or what remained of them - had a significantly reduced capacity of just 1,500 beds.
On the morning of January 17, an Israeli tank attacked yet another school - this time, an UNRWA facility at Beit Lahia, in the north of the Gaza Strip, killing two students and wounding fourteen others. Meanwhile, Israel continued to threaten residents, ordering them to abandon their homes before they were bombed, while extremist voices emerged arguing that Israel should use nuclear weapons on Gaza, much like the United States had done towards the end of World War II, forcing Japan to surrender with the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On that night, as talk of a ceasefire was gaining momentum internationally, 60 Palestinians were killed. Palestinians also had another concern: calls for a ceasefire did not include the opening of Gaza's border crossings. For Gazans, this threatened to transform them into prisoners in the world's largest open-air prison; a concern shared by humanitarian and solidarity movements.
Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire on January 18, with Hamas following suit about 12 hours later. In his next account, "The Living and the Dead", Arrigoni writes that only the dead have seen an end to the war, whereas the living continue to experience an endless struggle for survival. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's visit to Gaza the following day, January 20, was preceded by large numbers of accounts and reports awaiting his review.
Following raids on two United Nations schools, the killing of four UNRWA employees and the attack on UNRWA headquarters in Gaza City, burying large amounts of food and medical supplies under a pile of rubble, the director of UNRWA activities in Gaza, John Ging, had compiled a large amount of testimonies to convey to Ban.
Relative normality returned to the Gaza Strip as Gazans struggled to pretend that the situation was normal, although their faces conveyed a different message as each of them had had his or her share of the catastrophe. Corpses and body parts continued to emerge from Gaza's endless piles of rubble. And, unsurprisingly, Israel breached the truce that night, January 18. Although no Palestinian rockets were launched, a child was killed in an air raid, while a Chinook showered white phosphorous onto a residential neighborhood in the east of Gaza City. The same happened in Jabalia. The following day, January 19, an Israeli warship attacked a coastal plain, but no one was hurt.
Journalists were shocked by what they found as they travelled around the strip examining the magnitude of the war damage following the truce. One BBC correspondent asked in amazement: "How did [the Israelis] mistake so many residential buildings for terrorist dens?" This only demonstrates the extent to which Western journalists were under the influence of Israel's lies about hunting down "terrorists" with "surgical precision". As for the European Union, it continues to adopt a policy of collective punishment by denying reconstruction projects the necessary funding under the pretext that Gaza continues to be ruled by Hamas.
The declared truce was little more than an opportunity to count the victims and to document the massacres that had not been announced previously due to limited mobility within the Gaza Strip. It was therefore a "Truces of Death", as Arrigoni referred to it. Death did not stop, despite the truce. Arrigoni toured the devastated Gaza Strip, as did journalists, to reveal the reality which ran contrary to Israel's lies and alleged "evidence" that its forces had only attacked dens of the "terrorist" Hamas movement.
White phosphorous - the centerpiece of Operation Cast Lead - along with depleted uranium became yet more internationally banned weapons which Israel has experimented with and used against Palestinians. Aside from Israel's lies, these weapons continue to amaze the world with their devastating impacts - some of which we already know, while others are to be witnessed in the future, whether in the form of cancerous tumors, genetic mutations or birth defects. Arrigoni notices the impact of the white phosphorous on a muezzin who raises the once-formidable azan from atop one of Gaza's few remaining minarets - only to find that severe coughs, perhaps the result of exposure to white phosphorous, interrupt his call to prayer.
"What her tears have seen?" is Arrigoni's account of a blind woman, Naima, from whose rooftop the author witnessed the stark contrast between the endless plains of greenery, extending into Israel and dotted by the kibbutzim, and the barren lands, deprived of water and life, inside the Gaza Strip. Naima's home is the last remaining house in her village which was bulldozed by Israeli forces during the war. Israeli troops had decided not to demolish this single home in order to use it as an outpost because it was elevated enough to allow surveillance of the plains surrounding it. For a period of two weeks, Naima's home had been occupied by Israeli troops.
For eleven days, Naima was detained with four female co-villagers, one of whom is an elderly woman as well as a handicapped elderly man, during which time they were treated with extreme brutality by the invaders. The detainees were not allowed to leave their "prison" to use the toilet, were denied access to water and were forced to eat leftovers after the soldiers had had their meals.
As she told Arrigoni her story, Naima struggled to hide her tears behind her dark glasses. Indeed, what Naima "saw" was far more than what a 26-year-old like herself could possibly handle - unless she was unfortunate enough to have been born in this tormented strip of land.
Five months after the war, on June 29, 2009, Arrigoni wrote an account entitled "The Epicenter of the Catastrophe Continues". In it he notes that the catastrophe was not just the humanitarian one left by the devastation of Gaza during the war, nor was it confined to the battle itself. In fact, much like an earthquake, Gaza's catastrophe has a never-ending epicenter: the siege, which, according to John Ging, is "at the core of deprivation; the center of human suffering; the heart of destitution and hopelessness." The siege had been tightened, ensuring that neither the basic necessities for reconstruction, nor spare parts, commercial and food products, could reach Gaza.
Conditions and restrictions on the entry of people and goods into Gaza changed on a daily basis - more restrictions were introduced every day, and none were alleviated or eased. In a nutshell, almost everything was banned from reaching Gaza. Ironically, however, Italian pasta was finally allowed to enter Gaza after US Senator John Kerry, who visited the strip in February, expressed his "concern" that pasta was barred. Of course, Israel persistently declared that no humanitarian crisis was taking place in Gaza, whereas the number of Gazans depending on humanitarian aid had reached 85 percent.
Arrigoni concludes his book with two journalistic accounts. The first, entitled "War Crimes in Gaza", examines the impact of the war on international public opinion and the reactions of international organizations and committees formed to investigate the crimes committed against Gazans as well as the types of internationally banned weapons used by the Israeli military. Arrigoni also discusses the Israeli investigation panel, which found the Israeli military innocent of any substantial war crimes - a result which was, of course, categorically rejected by human rights organizations.
He also discusses the Goldstone Committee, which the United National Human Rights Council formed to investigate violations during the war. Along with all of this, the article also addresses reports issued by human rights organizations worldwide and increasingly vocal calls for the detention and trial of top Israeli political and military leaders before international tribunals specializing in war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The second article, "Let them come to Gaza", deals with Israeli politicians' exploitation of the war on Gaza for electoral purposes. He also highlights the continued raids and attacks on Gaza despite end to battles, according to Israel's account, and notes that the reaction of Europe and the "civilized world" towards Israeli aggression has not changed. The author then draws a parallel with John F. Kennedy's speech in West Berlin in 1963, in which the then-US president called upon the world to "come to Berlin to see the fruits of capitalism" and an Italian blogger's calls for world leaders who continue to doubt the criminality of the Israeli war to go and see the reality for themselves in Palestine and witness Israeli aggression for themselves.
On the Palestinian soil which he loved, and in Gaza, where he lived as one of its citizens and suffered the war as one of the city's inhabitants, Arrigoni was killed - allegedly by Salafi hands, possibly by Israeli ones. Not much of a difference since the victim was a friend of Palestine and a steadfast witness of Israel's aggression who refused to leave the Gaza Strip during the war. What kind of hateful, unjust and blind murderer takes the life of a man who abandoned his own family and people and gave up the comforts and luxuries of his home country to defend the children of Gaza from Israel's "cast lead"? Indeed, the only beneficiary from Vittorio's murder is Israel: her enemy has been killed and future enemies, solidarity activists, have been deterred from visiting an "unsafe Gaza".
Deporting solidarity activists might now became an easier task, and future solidarity campaigns are likely to cease, much as freedom flotillas have stopped since Israel's raid on the Mavi Marmara. Gazans, who held a candle-light vigil for Vittorio Arrigoni after he was found dead, may indeed no longer find anyone to express solidarity with their cause; they may run out of activists willing to defend ambulances with their own lives; or honest eyewitnesses to tell the world about the facts as they are. Arrigoni has been killed, leaving behind him innocent children slinging stones towards the heavens, trying to deter the warplanes that have jeopardized their lives for so long.
-  Vittorio Arrigoni; Gaza: Stay Human, trans. Daniela Filippin (Leicestershire
United Kingdom: Kube Publishing Ltd, 2010).