GAZA (Reuters) - Hamas found the body Friday of a pro-Palestinian Italian activist who was killed by al Qaeda sympathizers in the Gaza Strip, raising questions about Hamas’s control over the beleaguered enclave. Two men were arrested and others were being sought for the abduction and killing of Vittorio Arrigoni, 36, who was found strangled in an abandoned house Friday, Hamas officials said.
A group of strict Islamists aligned with al Qaeda, known as Salafists, had threatened Thursday to execute Arrigoni unless their leader, detained by Hamas last month, was freed.
It was an unprecedented challenge for Hamas, an Islamist group whose diehard hostility to Israel has deepened the isolation and poverty of Gaza, home to 1.5 million Palestinians.
“Gaza is safe and I want to assure all visitors to Gaza that they are safe and secure,” Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, told a French journalist.
“The crime that took place was an isolated incident ... and we will enforce the law against the perpetrators.”
Hamas vehemently opposes the Salafists who espouse a more extreme form of Islam and appear to be attracting recruits — including from among its own ranks.
Salafists see Hamas as insufficiently zealous, have attacked Internet cafes and want Christians expelled. They deplore Hamas for considering ceasefires with Israel and exploring political accommodation with secular Palestinian rivals.
Saeb Erekat, an aide to U.S.-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah faction was driven out of Gaza by Hamas in 2007, called the killing “a dark page in Palestinian history” and appealed for national reconciliation.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum denounced the kidnapping as an attempt “to harm international solidarity with besieged Gaza and to damage the image of the Palestinian people.”
There was also a shiver of fear that radicals who want Gaza to be an Islamic theocracy are bold enough to challenge Hamas over what they consider its lack of religious fervor. There was clear outrage among ordinary people in Gaza over the killing of the Italian activist who had helped local fishermen and farmers.
Arrigoni had lived in Gaza since arriving aboard a humanitarian aid boat that Israel had admitted despite imposing a blockade on the tiny coastal territory.
“Vittorio was here for the Palestinian people, and they killed somebody who was here for them,” fellow Gaza activist Silvia Todeschini, also from Italy, told Reuters.
“They will not kick us out. We will stay.”
In Arrigoni’s home town of Bugliasco in northern Italy, hundreds of people gathered in silence outside a school to call for peace in the Middle East and remember their local hero.
“Let’s remember Vik, stay human,” said Raffaella Porricelli, a town councilor. The town square was decked in Palestinian flags and red and white candles, while photos of Arrigoni and his fellow activists were projected on a white panel.
Palestinians liaising with Italian diplomats said Arrigoni’s body would be repatriated via Israel Sunday.
Ehab Al-Ghssain, spokesman for the Hamas Interior Ministry, told a news conference the arrest and questioning of one of the group had led to the discovery of where Arrigoni was being held.
“The forces moved quickly and wisely to the place but found that the abducted man was killed hours earlier in an ugly manner,” Ghssain said. He said the kidnappers had rented the hideout and used someone else’s car to conceal their identities.
“Their intention from the very beginning was to kill their victim, because the crime took place after a short period.”
In a YouTube clip posted earlier by his abductors, Arrigoni was shown blindfolded with blood around his right eye. A hand was seen pulling his head up by his hair to face the camera.
“The Italian hostage entered our land only to spread corruption,” an accompanying Arabic text said, describing Italy as “the infidel state.” It named the captors’ leader as Hesham al-Sa’eedni and demanded he be released from a Hamas prison.
Gazan sources had previously identified Sa’eedni as a senior member of the radical Islamist group Tawheed and Jihad. That faction said Friday it had no connection to Arrigoni’s death, but it stepped up threats against Hamas saying it would act to free its jailed members “by all possible means.”
Arrigoni was the first foreigner to be abducted in Gaza since BBC journalist Alan Johnston, who was held for 114 days by another al Qaeda-inspired group. He was released in 2007.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah, James Mackenzie in Rome and Antonella Cianco in Bugliasco; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Peter Graff