Psychologist believes suicide bids reflect the hopelessness felt by some Gazans about their situation and their lack of prospects.
Self-immolations are 'cry for help from those without hope'
GAZA CITY // When he doused himself in petrol at his ramshackle home and flicked a cheap cigarette lighter in September, Mohammed Abu Fuul said he wasn't thinking of the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation is linked to the start of the Arab Spring.
What he did wasn't political. It was personal. He wasn't thinking of the tenets of Islam, which condemns suicide. He was just lost in his pain. And how he wanted it to stop. Permanently.
Mr Abu Fuul, 25, who struggled to make money selling gas, lives in a four-bedroom apartment with two dozen family members in Gaza's claustrophobic Al Shati refugee camp. He was the second of at least three people to set themselves on fire in the Palestinian enclave since August.
Desperation is nothing new for Gaza's 1.6 million residents, who suffer from an Israeli blockade, perpetual war and a bitterly divided Palestinian leadership that has resulted in five years of one-party rule under the Islamist group, Hamas.
These factors have contributed to a dire economic situation - nearly half of Gazans in their 20s are unemployed, according to United Nations statistics. The lack of hope is palpable - many young Gaza men take a cheap, highly addictive pain killer known as Tramadol to take the edge off reality.
Although the actions of Mr Abu Fuul and those of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation led to the toppling of the Tunisian regime in January last year, were separated by thousands of kilometres and nearly two years, they were both demonstrations of the same sense of shame mixed with despair that can overwhelm the impoverished young men of the region.
"When a young man burns himself because of his suffering and poverty ... it means we have ticking bombs needing to be defused," said Rami Saleh, 23, a law student.
Bouazizi was allegedly slapped in the face by a city official inspecting his fruit cart after suffering years of harassment by government authorities.
Mr Abu Fuul, too, said he knew how it felt to suffer indignity - mocked for being unable to repay money he borrowed from neighbours for his wedding last January.
"I was humiliated and when two of them came to my home in one day, I couldn't take it," said Mr Abu Fuul. He spoke from his living room while wrapped in bandages covering third-degree burns over his torso and right arm.
"I just wanted to kill myself."
Officials from Hamas have dismissed the acts of self-immolations as those of the "mentally ill". Others, however, say the phenomenon signals something different - and far more alarming.
"It's a message to the community. It's a cry for help. It's a sign of total helplessness," said Hasan Zeyada, a psychologist and director of the Gaza community centre, which provides psychological support for Gazans.
For years, his organisation has monitored the traumatic effects of the two intifadas: Israel's devastating 2008-2009 assault on the enclave, and Palestinian infighting. The primary symptoms - clinical depression, spousal abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder - affect broad cross sections of society, he said.
While self-immolation could be rooted in such issues as worsening depression rates, he speculates that suicidal urges could have been intensified by the lofty hopes of the Arab Spring uprisings that have crashed back down on to Gaza's bleak reality.
Gazans never experienced a political watershed from the actions of Bouazizi. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank staged large rallies in March last year to call on the Hamas leadership in Gaza and its estranged Fatah rivals to reconcile. But the factions seem as divided as ever.
"We tried and we have basically failed," said Mohammed Youssef, 24, who helped organise the demonstrations in favour of mending the political divide that split open when Hamas took control of Gaza from Fatah forces in 2007.
"People are only concerned with the price of food, petrol, electricity," he said.
A United Nations report released in August stated that the Gaza population was expected to grow by another half-million in the next eight years.
Furthermore, annual per-capita income stood at about US$2,500 (Dh9,200) just over a decade ago but has since fallen to about $900 (Dh3,300).
"If you're an unemployed 25-year-old and you believe you can't get a job in the next 10 years, then life becomes worthless," said Hosam Abu Sitta, a sociologist who volunteers as a youth therapist in Gaza City. "And if it becomes worthless, you're not afraid of losing it."
Mr Abu Fuul agrees.
Although earning less than Dh480 a month, he took out Dh31,000 in loans from neighbours to pay for his wedding. When he struggled to pay them back, his lenders returned to his home on September 4, shouting insults. They also called the police. Minutes later, Mr Abu Fuul lay down next to the petrol-run electricity generator in his living room. He covered his torso and right arm in fuel and ignited his body with a lighter.
Two of his brothers smothered him with a blanket as he ran into the street screaming in pain.
He didn't think to write a suicide note.
''I just wanted to die,'' he said, adding all that he had asked of life was to "live in dignity and be happy with my wife" who is now pregnant.
Gaza's health ministry spokesperson, Ashraf Al Qidra, insisted Mr Abu Fuul's burns were an accident.
He spent 15 days in hospital. When he returned home, Hamas policemen threatened to fine Mr Abu Fuul for trying to commit suicide, he said.
Mahmoud Zahar, co-founder of Hamas, dismissed Mr Abu Fuul's actions as an "individual matter" and something "not related to politics". Islam, he noted, forbids suicide.
For Sufian Abu Nada, 40, both Hamas and Fatah are to blame for the death two months ago of his 18-year-old son, Ehab, the first of the recent three immolations. After quitting school Ehab tried to help his father, who earns about $220 a month, and five siblings by selling potato crisps in the street.
The young man told his mother before leaving their seaside slum apartment that he was going to find work. Instead, he set himself on fire beside the morgue at Gaza City's Shifa Hospital. He died a day later.
"I don't encourage people to burn themselves, but at least what Ehab did turned peoples' attention to a terrible situation that thousands of families here face everyday," Mr Abu Nada said. He said he appealed to both governments, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank to help his family, but received no response.
"We have no hope".