Ilan Pappé introduces the compilation of stories that Vittorio Arrigoni wrote during his time in Gaza, Gaza: Stay Human. While the book is only 118 pages long, with an additional 11 pages of background notes, it is not easy to go through. The book will frequently bring you to tears because of Arrigoni’s vivid and detailed descriptions of the Israeli attacks on Gaza in 2008-9, known as Operation Cast Lead.
Not many people would choose to work in a small strip of land where rockets rain from the sky, but human rights activist Arrigoni chose to volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement in Gaza.
Arrigoni’s book includes many of the articles that were published by Italian newspaper Il Manifesto. The title derives from the way he ended these articles: ‘Stay Human’. In the book Arrigoni explains these words were meant as an “invitation … to desist from the commission of criminal acts.”
The book features 22 chapters and most tell the story of Operation Cast Lead, which lasted for three weeks from 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009, from the perspective of someone on the ground in Gaza.
Writing during air raids and amidst the destruction, Arrigoni describes what life was like during the gruesome war. You will read about how pregnant women gave birth prematurely as a result of the fear the mothers lived in and about how individuals and entire families perish when deadly rockets hit their homes. The book describes how nothing was safe, not even the places of worship, the hospitals, or the ambulances and schools.
Throughout the book, Arrigoni describes his interviews with people he met. Particularly poignant is the analogy a doctor in Al-Shifa hospital uses to describe the response of the world to Operation Cast Lead: ‘if someone would fill a box with kittens and crush them, the world would condemn you but the world reaction for the killing of Palestinian civilians is “nothing.”’ In another chapter titled ‘I won’t leave my country,’ an eight year-old Palestinian girl explains why she is refusing to leave her country despite the rockets.
As if words are not enough to describe how humanity was crushed during this war, the book is scattered with black and white pictures showing the rubble, destruction and despair in people’s eyes.
The book shows the texts of leaflets dropped out of Israeli planes explaining to the people of Gaza that the war is not against them but against Hamas and urging them to evacuate their homes while Israel takes action against Hamas. It is one of the few factual reproductions of the leaflets that made their way to the outside world.
Arrigoni provides a firsthand eyewitness account and through all the people he meets and describes the book tells the story of every aspect of life during the war, whether through the personal tales of a child, an activist, a young married man, someone who lost their home or the toll the war took on the infrastructure and how the blockade impacted people’s lives.
In most of the chapters, Arrigoni keeps track of the death toll and the number of injured on both sides. These numbers alone tell a gruesome story.
Sadly, Arrigoni’s plea to stay human was not adhered to. Operation Cast Lead left over 1300 people dead and Arrigoni was murdered by an extremist Islamist group on 15 April 2011 in Gaza. His murder has been strongly condemned by many groups inside and outside Gaza.