Stabbed twice in the back and once in the throat, a 24-year-old Roman student, Angelo Frammartino, was killed in the old city of Jerusalem in August. Ten days later Israeli police told the media that his self-confessed killer, Ashraf Abdel Hanaisha, a Palestinian of the same age, had struck as a vendetta against the wrongs suffered by his people. He wanted to kill a Jew, they added, but had mistaken Frammartino for an Israeli settler. He had acted on his own.

Frammartino, from Monterotondo, a town to the north-east of the capital, was on his third yearly trip to a summer camp in the old city where he was to teach Palestinian youths basketball in what he always referred to as the dialogue of peace. The trips supporters judged the camp to be safe. There had never been even a hint of danger there, said the mayor of Monterotondo, Mario Lupi, whose council had contributed e1,000 to the journey. But two friends of Frammartino, who had meant to go with him to Jerusalem, had pulled out at the last minute after the outbreak of the Lebanon crisis.

Frammartino was one of the thousands of Italians doing voluntary service overseas. Of these, 3,000 are doing national civil service (servizio civile nazionale) under a 2001 law anticipating the 2005 abolition of Italys compulsory military service in which civil service, mainly for conscientious objectors, was the alternative to serving in the armed forces.

In February this year the service was reorganised on a regional basis. The Lazio region defined civil service in a leaflet as an instrument for helping the weaker strata of society to take part in the social, cultural and economic growth of their local community. The driving force behind the idea was active citizenship and an education in peace and non-violence. The aim was to promote solidarity and cooperation both at home and abroad.

Open to young people of both sexes aged from 18 to 28, the volunteers about 45,000 throughout Italy are not meant to do it all for nothing. They sign on for 12 months and are paid e433 a month for 30 hours a week (with an extra allowance if abroad) according to Giulio Ernesto Russo, president of the Lazio volunteer service centre. In a big and busy office near Stazione Termini, he explained: If we had more funds, we could absorb three times that figure.

What kind of young people applied for the service?

On the whole, theyre left-leaning, those who join the peace demos, but we have many Catholics as well, plus boy-scouts and quite a few youd be surprised from well-to-do bourgeois families.

But why did they sign on? Well, its obviously a tempting proposal among the young unemployed. The figures tell it all. Out of 100 openings in the Venice area, for example, there will be only 40 applications; for 100 offers in Lazio and southern Italy, where the unemployment rate runs at some 30 per cent, there will be 300.

Getting on the list takes more than a phone call. Candidates first have to root around in the jungle of the thousands of non-profit making associations or social co-operatives in Italy to find one that has not only promoted a social project but also gets the green light, and money, from the Lazio region. The associations themselves then have to decide whether the applicant is the type of person they are looking for. The openings range from those offered by the countrys civil protection service, which is often the first on the scene in Italys frequent natural catastrophes such as earthquakes and floods to those in the so-called new poverty areas (which include immigration and environmental issues).

Russo said the Stazione Termini office alone was now handling over 500 projects, one of them helping Rom women to discover new skills. In one camp, theyve opened a dressmaking workshop that actually sells its creations, he explained. Others include teaching families how to deal with the disabled, as well as counteracting the spread of male and female prostitution on the streets.

How could this writer get to talk to some of the volunteers? He was directed to a cramped and dingy social rights centre opposite the traffic-tunnel under the Stazione Termini railway lines. It was crammed with attention-seeking immigrants and two post-university girls, Elvira and Cecilia, who were manning the counter, both with the civil service, who acknowledged that the money was a welcome support in their lives. Cecilia from Bari reflected: The difference between theory and the reality of it all can get through to you sometimes here. Anxiously pressing against the counter were illegal immigrants from all corners of the globe from Ethiopia, Somalia, eastern Europe, Iraq and even Argentina. Most of them simply have nowhere to sleep, added Elvira, from Rome. What is so difficult is getting your approach right. If you stumble over it, they never come back.