Outrage as first death of foreigner since militants seized power in 2007 underscores rise of destabilising 'outlaw' element
By Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem
Vittorio Arrigoni mans a boat during the 2008 protest against Israel's blockade of Gaza-bound ships
The Hamas Government in Gaza has vowed to track down those behind the abduction and murder of an Italian activist who had lived in the Palestinian territory on and off since 2008.
Confusion surrounded the identity of those responsible for the murder of Vittorio Arrigoni after the extremist Islamic group that had originally claimed to be holding him denied any involvement.
Arrigoni, 36, was the first foreigner to be killed in Gaza since Hamas seized control of the enclave in 2007. He was active with the International Solidarity Movement and the Free Gaza Group and a well-known commentator in Italy.
He was found hanged in a house in the Mashrou Amer neighbourhood of Gaza City hours after an unknown group calling itself The Brigade of the Gallant Companion of the Prophet Mohamed bin Muslima released a video of him bound and blindfolded. His abductors said he would be released in return for Sheikh Hisham Su'idani, leader of the extremist Salafist Tawhid wal Jihad group who was arrested by Hamas security in March.
"We kidnapped the Italian prisoner Vittorio and we call on the Haniyeh government... to release all our prisoners," the abductors said.
But when Hamas forces stormed the house owned by a member of the group in the early hours of yesterday, they found Arrigoni had already been killed more than 12 hours before a 5pm deadline set by the kidnappers.
"The investigation led to a member of the group who gave away the other members and showed the place where the activist was kept," Hamas interior ministry spokesman Ihab al-Ghussein said in a statement.
"The security services... found the body of the hostage, who had been killed several hours earlier in an awful way," he said, adding that two of the kidnappers had been arrested and a manhunt was under way for co-conspirators.
The Italian foreign ministry expressed "deep horror over the barbaric murder" and denounced "in the strongest manner the act of vile and senseless violence committed by extremists who are indifferent to the value of human life".
Arrigoni's murder highlights increasing concerns that Hamas's influence is crumbling, exacerbated by a violent and intractable split with the Fatah-dominated leadership of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. That fear was echoed by Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, who said the "goal of this depraved band of outlaws was to spread chaos and anarchy in the Gaza Strip, a desperate attempt to strike at the stable security situation".
Former Palestine Liberation Organisation negotiator Saeb Erekat said the kidnapping resulted from the "chaos and lawlessness" in Gaza. The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights issues regular reports condemning the chaos under Hamas rule. In recent weeks, Hamas has been unable or unwilling to stop extremist splinter groups from firing hundreds of rockets across the border into Israel, triggering deadly Israeli air strikes.
Latest polls indicate that Fatah would easily defeat Hamas in new elections, but Hamas will not allow them to be held even though they are overdue.
Mr Barhoum condemned the killing as "shameful" and said he suspected Israel might be responsible since the death appeared to be timed to deter foreign activists from joining a flotilla due to sail to Gaza in May to break Israel's naval blockade of the area. Arrigoni was aboard the first blockade-busting boat in August 2008, when he was arrested by the Israelis for providing a human shield to Gaza fishermen.
Tawhid wal Jihad, which claimed responsibility for a series of attacks including the 2006 bombing of hotels in Sinai, denied killing Arrigoni, but said the death was a direct result of Hamas policies against Islamic extremists.
In 2007, the Salafist Army of Islam kidnapped BBC reporter Alan Johnston and held him for four months. In August 2009, 24 people were killed when Hamas forces stormed a mosque in Rafah after a leader of Soldiers of the Partisans of God announced the creation of an Islamist state in Gaza.
"While we, Tawhid wal Jihad, had no role in this kidnapping, we affirm that what happened is the natural result of the repressive policy of Hamas and its government against the Salafists," said a statement from the group.