GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Gaza's Hamas rulers launched a manhunt Friday for al-Qaida-inspired Islamic militants believed to have killed an Italian activist, in a slaying that underscored the difficulties Hamas faces controlling even more radical factions in the blockaded strip.
Hamas police stormed an apartment in Gaza City where Vittorio Arrigoni, 36, was being held by members of a small extremist group that kidnapped him on Thursday. They found his body, and the apartment was otherwise empty. A statement by police said his body had "signs of strangulation and hanging around his neck," as well as marks of handcuffs on his hands and marks of beating on his face.
It was the first such kidnap-slaying of a foreigner in the Gaza Strip since the militant group Hamas took power in the tiny Mediterranean coastal territory in 2007. It highlighted the challenge that Iran-backed Hamas – a group with a militant Islamist ideology that is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Israel – faces from smaller factions in Gaza that see it as too pragmatic.
They are mostly part of the Salafi movement has grown across the Middle East, preaching ultraconservative Islam that strictly segregates the sexes and vehemently reject anything but a strict, hard-line interpretation of Islamic Shariah law. Some, including the group apparently behind Arrigoni's abduction, are inspired by al-Qaida and call for actively waging jihad, or holy war, against those perceived as Islam's enemies.
They oppose Hamas for not enforcing strict Islamic law and for adhering even in part to cease-fires with Israel.
Ibrahim Ahmed, professor of political science at Gaza University, and an expert on Islamic groups, told the Associated Press that Salafis in Gaza list only a few hundred members but still pose a threat to Hamas.
"The problem with these groups is that they recruit young people who see Hamas as compromising with Israel," Ahmed said. "They are a relatively new phenomena that emerged in Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal in 2005." He said the only way for Hamas to reverse the tide was to brave criticism, put radicals on trial and "re-educate" recruits.
Militants saying they represented a group called Monotheism and Holy War on Thursday released a video of Arrigoni, with cuts on his face and a fist gripping his hair. They demanded Hamas free the group's leader and two other jailed members, threatening to execute the captive.
Despite the video, the group released a statement on Friday denying it was responsible for Arrigoni's death.
A pro-Palestinian activist, Arrigoni was a well-known figure in Gaza, frequently clenching a pipe between his teeth and wearing a beret emblazoned with a likeness of Che Guevara, as well as bracelets in the red, black, green and white colors of the Palestinian flag.
According to a press release from his organization, the International Solidarity Movement, he had been "monitoring human rights violations by Israel, supporting the Palestinian popular resistance against the Israeli occupation and disseminating information about the situation in Gaza to his home country of Italy."
In Rome, the Italian Foreign Ministry called the killing a "barbaric murder" and a "vile and irrational gesture of violence on the part of extremists indifferent to the value of a human life."
Hamas said two people were arrested in another location in connection with the killing, and a third was being sought.
A Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, said Arrigoni and other foreign activists were "our friends" and promised that the perpetrators would be punished.
Journalists were not allowed to see the body in the morgue and could not independently confirm the cause of death given by Hamas. An Italian doctor was on his way from Israel to examine the body, a Hamas official said.
Since his arrival in 2008, Arrigoni was an outspoken critic of Israel, but in an interview with The Associated Press in 2008 he also criticized Muslim extremists for trying to impose a hardline version of Islam in Gaza. He said he hoped the presence of Western volunteers like him would help liberalize Gazan society.
Hamas has said it does not want to impose its strict Islamic views on the entire Gaza Strip, which also includes a small community of about 2,000 Christians. It also says that its suicide bombings and missile attacks are against Israel and not the Western world while the Salafi groups preach global jihad.
In 2009, more than a dozen people were killed in shootout at a mosque in Gaza between Hamas and an al Qaida-inspired group called Jund Ansar Allah, or the Soldiers of the Companions of God. The violence began when the leader of the group defied Hamas by declaring in a Friday prayer sermon that the territory was an Islamic emirate.
Earlier that year the group sent explosives-laden horses toward an Israeli border post, but the attack was foiled and four of its fighters were killed. Gaza Salafi groups are suspected to be behind a series of bombings of Internet cafes and music stores in Gaza, which they view as purveyors of vice.
In 2007, Salafi militants from the "Army of Islam" kidnapped BBC reporter Alan Johnston and held him for a few months.
The same group were involved in the abduction of an Israeli soldier, Sgt. Gilad Schalit, in a cross-border raid in 2006. Hamas still holds Schalit, demanding the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including many convicted of murdering Israeli civilians, in exchange for his freedom. Hamas have banned the Red Cross from seeing Schalit and little is known about his condition.
Gaza militants fired a rocket into Israel on Friday evening after 5 days of quiet that followed a flare up in violence between Hamas and Israel, the Israeli military said. The rocket exploded in open field causing no injuries or damage. It was not immediately clear if Israel would respond to the attack.
Ian Deitch and Matti Friedman in Jerusalem, Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy, and Diaa Hadid in Cairo contributed to this report.