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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

A self-immolation shines light on Gaza’s despair

The suicide echoes that of the Tunisian fruit seller who ignited the Arab Spring in 2010

Palestinians overlook the Shejaiya neighbourhood of Gaza City, Gaza, where unemployment is at 44 per cent. Heidi Levine / Sipa Press
Palestinians overlook the Shejaiya neighbourhood of Gaza City, Gaza, where unemployment is at 44 per cent. Heidi Levine / Sipa Press

The shaky video is shot from the front seat of a car at about 3am local time. Men rush towards a raging orange fireball in the darkness of Al Jalaa Street in Gaza City. They beat the blaze with rugs while others pour on water in panic. On the ground, engulfed in flames is a man: 21-year-old Fathi Harb.

Early on Sunday, the Palestinian sat in the road, poured gasoline over his body and lit himself on fire. By the time onlookers extinguished the flames, his clothes were stuck to his burned flesh.

He died in hospital on Wednesday.

Also on Wednesday, his pregnant 25-year-old wife Doaa was admitted to the same hospital. There she is expected to give birth to their son, who is now without a father.

The video footage is believed to show the first self-immolation publicly recorded in the enclave, and Fathi's case has underlined the desperation that is turning young Gazans to self-harm. Doctors and officials say such cases are on the rise amid worsening conditions.

Fathi took his life because of Gaza’s economic hardship and his inability to provide for his loved ones, according to his family. "My nephew suffered economic problems, which put a lot of pressure on him," Ahmed Harb, Fathi's 45-year-old uncle, said. "He and his wife lived with his parents and eight siblings in one home and he was unemployed."

The enclave has been subjected to an 11-year blockade by Israel, which maintains control of Gaza’s land, sea and air. Egypt also restricts access. Doctors say the siege has subjected the youth to unparalleled misery.

“This depression is hidden,” Dr Samir Zaqout, a social worker at the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, told The National. “We found that the guy took the decision to put an end to his life because his life [to him] was meaningless, this guy found himself living under a tough siege and couldn't secure food for his family".

In a further twist of fate, doctors say they could not save Fathi because the treatment he needed was not available in Gaza’s crumbling hospitals. His family were going to bring his papers for transfer to the West Bank for medical treatment on Wednesday, but he died before it could be approved.

The National visited Fathi in an intensive care unit of Al Shifa Hospital before he died. He lay comatose, his entire body covered in bandages. Fifty-five per cent of his body was subjected to severe burns, his nurse said.

Fathi's case is not the first self-immolation in Gaza. Several have taken place since 2012, most recently in January 2017, when 20-year-old Islam Al Maquisi set himself on fire in Al Bureij refugee camp, sustaining moderate injuries.

But Fathi’s self-immolation bears comparisons to the cases of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller who set himself on fire in 2010, igniting the Arab Spring, and the dozens of Tibetans who have used the method to protest Chinese rule. But while most suicides have taken place out of sight in Gaza, Fathi ensured his was a public affair.

Daily life is a living nightmare for many here. Unemployment is at 44 per cent, electricity is limited to four hours a day, and Israel limits imports and exports. The territory is still reeling from three wars with Israel since 2008. The Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank made matters worse earlier this month by reducing its workers’ salaries in the territory. The UN says the territory will be “uninhabitable” by 2020.

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But suicide is a sensitive subject to broach in Gaza. Numbers and accounts are hard to come by. Gaza's health ministry said it does not comment on suicide cases.The family of one 17-year-old who killed himself at his home in March 2017 declined to speak when contacted by The National.

Suicide is viewed as ignoble in Islamic societies. Hamas has tried to minimise the scale of the issue by characterising the causes as personal or financial troubles. Some in Gaza are believed to have disguised their attempts as accidents. Other cases have been documented in greater detail, such as 22-year-old Gazan writer Mohanned Younis, who died in his bedroom in August last year.

All parties in the conflict – Israel, the PA and Gaza’s rulers Hamas – have played their role in crippling Gaza. Fathi’s protest was as much against them as it was against his own situation.

"Fathi wanted to show his suicide attempt and make it a public case and send a message to the leaders of Palestine and for those who control Gaza, that 'you make my life valueless'," said Dr Zaqout.

His father, a PA employee, was the family’s sole provider. After President Mahmoud Abbas cut their salaries in an ongoing dispute with Hamas, he received just 70 per cent of his salary, according to his brother Ahmed.

The cuts and the crippling blockade have led to greater misery in the blockade than was previously imaginable. Suicide rates tripled between 2015 and 2016, health officials have said, and since Mr Abbas cut salaries, hospitals have been receiving "seven cases of suicide attempts daily," according to Dr Zaqout.

By comparison, Israel – which has four times the population of Gaza – experiences just over one suicide on average a day.

"There are many suicide attempts in Gaza, some of them succeed and some don't,” Ayman Al Batneiji, the police spokesman in Gaza, said. Three suicides have taken place since the start of the year in Gaza, he said, with many more attempts.

"The current situation of Gaza, which is not normal, is the main reason behind suicide".

Gaza’s hellish status quo is likely to remain for the foreseeable future. United States President Donald Trump has moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, Israel has killed more than 100 protesters in successive protests since March and Israeli-Palestinian peace hopes are at their lowest level ever.

The plight of Gaza’s youth now threatens a new crisis for the enclave.

“With a situation like Gaza, what [Fathi] did is expected, and as the situation continues like that, many like Fathi will do the same," said Mazen Darabeh, a 46-year-old family friend.

Tapping on her belly at Al Shifa, looking dazed and almost too exhausted to speak, Doaa talked of the moment she heard about her husband’s act of despair. “It felt like part of me splintered, and more of me broke when I realised that he tried to put an end to his life by himself," she said.

For Doaa, the optimism handed to the couple by the prospect of their new baby has been swept away like the dreams and hopes of her husband.

"We decided to call our baby Wattan," meaning 'homeland,' she said. "Now I am supposed to do that alone".

Weeping, she continued: “I am wondering how I am supposed to move forward in life."