Vittorio Arrigoni's Gaza: Stay Human is a hard book to read, particularly for the faint of heart. A volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement, Arrigoni accompanied Palestinian Red Crescent ambulances during the late December 2008- January 2009 Israeli offensive in Gaza. As the bombs fell, the Italian freelance journalist typed this series of raw dispatches, updated and translated into English with a preface by Israeli historian Ilan Pappe.
Lasting three weeks, Cast Lead was a military operation responding to rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled territory after the expiration of a six-month truce. Immediately after Israel began launching air strikes against Palestinian infrastructure, Hamas intensified rocket attacks on southern Israel, using improved Qassam and factory-made rockets. Israel began a ground invasion on January 3, operating in densely populated urban areas. The war ended on January 18, when Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire. Twelve hours later, Hamas declared a one-week ceasefire. By the end of the offensive, more than 1,400 Palestinians had been killed, 85% of them civilians. Among the dead were approximately 300 children. 13 Israelis were killed.
The war-ravaged Gaza Arrigoni describes is a hellish place, where 1.5 million Palestinians are packed tightly into 140 square miles with nowhere to flee. Swerving through its streets in the back of an ambulance, Arrigoni witnesses injuries so gruesome and horrific one must steel oneself to read about them. He escorts to the hospital scores of terrified women giving birth to premature babies and wonders what kinds of adults they will grow up to be. He watches white phosphorus bombs--forbidden for use as incendiary weapons by the Geneva Treaty of 1980--being dropped by Israeli Apaches in an area he contends is likely to contain civilians. Alleged by Israel to transport Hamas militants, the Red Crescent ambulances themselves become targets. In one such incident, he receives the news that a tank shell has decapitated a wounded passenger and killed a friend of Arrigoni's, 35-year-old volunteer paramedic Arafa Abed Al-Dayem.
The book concludes with a postscript written six months after the offensive. As Arrigoni points out, the offensive greatly exacerbated an already dire humanitarian crisis. After Cast Lead, Gaza's unemployment rate rose from 60% to over 70%. Before the offensive, 80% of families were dependent upon humanitarian aid; afterward, that number grew to 88%. Meanwhile, the reconstruction effort has been greatly hampered by the blockade of Gaza, which prohibits the import of construction materials and most commercial goods.
Written nearly a year after the offensive, Pappe's vitriolic introduction labels the offensive "genocide." The humanitarian consequences of Cast Lead were clearly devastating, and the author's eyewitness report of grave breaches of international law coincides with other authoritative testimonies, notably the Goldstone Report. However, even accompanied by the war crimes Arrigoni and others allege, large-scale civilian casualties in war--as terrible as they are--should not be equated with the deliberate destruction of an ethnic group. Such hyperbolic rhetoric, along with Arrigoni's tendency to downplay the seriousness of Hamas terrorism, detracts from what is otherwise a very moving and powerful eyewitness account.
Amid the carnage that surrounds him, Arrigoni ends each missive with the plea, Stay Human. It is an invitation, he explains, to reject complicity in injustices against Palestinians and "remember our belonging to a sole community of living beings: the human family." It seems, though, that it is not just members of the international community whose humanity is at stake, but also the Israeli soldiers who participated in the offensive and the Palestinians who will bear the scars of this war for the rest of their lives.
--Review from Middle East Mirror