Are four suicides in one week in the Gaza Strip – bringing the total to 12 since the beginning of the year – a coincidence or part of a phenomenon? In Gaza this is a political question, and the answers one hears are divided according to party affiliation and the split in Palestinian self-rule.
To Hamas, the claim that it’s a phenomenon and that it’s on the increase sounds like vilification by its rivals and ill-wishers, particularly Fatah – an attempt to undeservingly pin the blame on it. Meanwhile Hamas’ critics and opponents, even if they agree that the root of the problem lies with Israel’s military and bureaucratic measures, which have strangled Gaza’s economy and turned the Strip into a huge prison, cut off from the world, nevertheless believe that Hamas, having been in power for 13 years and often boasting of its achievements, shares part of the blame for the fact that young people have lost their taste for life.
During the first two weeks of July, the suicides were still the main topic of conversation in the street and on social networks. The trigger was the suicide of Suleiman al-Ajouri, 23, who shot himself on July 3. His tragic death drew more attention than that of another young man in the Shati refugee camp who jumped from the fifth floor of a building that same day. And more than the death of a teacher employed by UNRWA, the United Nations refugee agency, who died of his wounds that day, a week after he set himself on fire, and of a woman in Rafah who hanged herself, also on July 3.
The focus on Ajouri was natural – he was one of the activists who founded the We Want to Live movement more than a year ago. The movement, which protested against the grim economic and employment situation in the Gaza Strip, was brutally crushed by Hamas. Every protest movement that seeks social change bears a message of hope and empowerment. The suicide of a key figure in such a movement is perceived as the opposite message: loss of all hope, and helplessness.
Pouring fuel on the fire, on July 4, the day of Ajouri’s funeral, the Hamas authorities arrested nine people in three different incidents. The Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights reports that three of the nine were arrested as soon as they left the cemetery where Ajouri was buried; two journalists who reported on the suicide were also arrested that day; and four of Ajouri’s friends were taken into custody in the home of the deceased, where they were paying their condolences.
Reports in social media indicate that the last four – at least – are Fatah activists and that some of them took part in the We Want to Live demonstrations. All the detainees were interrogated and released shortly afterward, but according to Al Mezan, they were later summoned for more questioning. The aim of arbitrary arrests like these is clear: to frighten and silence people, and deter them and others from expressing their opinions.
Violent, unnatural, premature death is unrelenting in the densely populated Gaza Strip. Last Monday, a 34-year-old woman from Rafah died from wounds she suffered during Israeli shelling in 2014. Her name joins the list of victims of that war: The physical devastation was rehabilitated, but the psychic traumas and the suffering of the wounded and of the thousands of bereaved families has not been erased, nor has the suffering, bereavement and traumas from earlier Israeli military assaults.
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The wars, the Israeli siege and the political schism all seemingly normalized death, says Samah Jaber, director of the mental health unit in the Palestinian Health Ministry. Death has become so natural in the eyes of many that it’s now worth more than life itself, which has lost all value, Jaber said in an Al Jazeera report on July 9 about the spate of suicides.
The normalization of death can also be seen in three other recent events. Last Sunday, a released prisoner – a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and a retired Palestinian Authority police officer – was murdered in Rafah. It’s thought that he was killed in revenge for his involvement in the murder of people suspected of collaborating with the Israeli Shin Bet security service in the first intifada. The Hamas police, anxious to put the lid on a potential blood feud before it erupts, were quick to publish photographs of those suspected in the deed.
On the same Sunday, a court in Deir al-Balah sentenced to death two brothers convicted of murder. This is the sixth time the death penalty has been imposed in Gaza since the beginning of the year. And the Thursday before that, in eastern Gaza City, a father beat his daughter to death because she wanted to visit her divorced mother. (The father was arrested.)
Because of its small size and dense population, the Strip is an echo chamber for every such event, and the social networks act like high-powered amplifiers. For the same reason, one hot topic of conversation quickly morphs into another, and the urgency with which the suicides were discussed until around 10 days ago has faded.
But Hamas’ concern about more suicides is seen in the arrest, about a week ago, of a journalist who acceded to a young man’s request to photograph him pouring gasoline on himself. The would-be suicide was also taken into custody. The police explained that the reporter was detained because he did not try to prevent the attempted suicide and in fact encouraged it. The reporter – who was wounded in the leg by Israeli gunfire when he was photographing the March of Return demonstrations on the border and who has also been arrested by Hamas in the past, during the period of the We Want to Live protests – denied the accusations. He was released following the intervention of fellow journalists.
The fear of a wave of copycat suicides has a solid foundation. Following Ajouri’s death, 40-year-old Haitham Arafat announced on social media that he intended to kill himself. A survivor of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut, he is, according to an Al Jazeera report, the last surviving member of his family. He was adopted by Yasser Arafat and arrived with him in the Gaza Strip in 1994. He was on salary from the Palestinian Authority, but in 2014 lost all his savings when an Israel shell struck a truck that was carrying ornamental fish and birds that he had imported to the Strip.
Like thousands of other PA public sector employees, who by a 2007 order of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stopped working yet kept receiving their salaries, the Ramallah government sent him into early retirement: instead of the 2,600 shekels (about $575) a month he used to get, he’s been receiving 1,400 shekels. In recent years, he said, even that allowance was stopped and he piled up large debts.
In the past few weeks, several people who had attempted suicide in the past told journalists about their motives: economic difficulties caused by the loss of regular income, accumulating debts, liens and even arrest for falling behind on bank payments.
The World Bank forecasts that it will result in 64 percent of Gaza families living below the poverty line (compared to 53 percent before the pandemic). Unemployment (42 percent in the enclave at the end of 2019) is also expected to rise. Among the youth, it has long since crossed the 50 percent mark.
In an interview on one of Hamas’ news sites, Al-Risala, Ajouri’s brother said that the family is not suffering from economic hardship and objects to the cheap exploitation of the tragedy to foment strife. Hamas prefers to view the suicides as private cases of people with mental and family problems.
Some of the nongovernmental organizations working in the health sector in Gaza opted not to get involved in the recent discussion about the suicides, so as not to contribute to the impression that there has indeed been a significant increase in their number. Suicide is still considered taboo and socially disgraceful in Palestinian Muslim society, and the number of suicides is low compared to other societies, a medical source told Haaretz. At the same time, he finds it hard to believe that the published data is accurate. Because of the social stigma, families can persuade the police to record a different cause of death, or in the event of hospitalization after an attempted suicide, to conceal the backstory.
According to 2016 World Health Organization data, the average number of suicides per 100,000 people worldwide was 10.5. The average in the Middle East was 3.9 (the highest was 8.5, in Yemen); in Europe it was 15.4 (Russia: 31) and in Southeast Asia it was 13.2 (3.4 in Muslim Indonesia). Thus, the suicide rate in the Gaza Strip is about 2 per 100,000.
Various news sites published statistics for suicides and attempted suicides in the Gaza Strip in recent years. According to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, in 2015, of 553 attempted suicides, 10 ended in death; in 2016, it was 16 out of 626 attempts. The figures for 2017 were 566 and 23; for 2018, it was 504 and 20; and in 2019 there were 133 attempts, of which 22 “succeeded.” As already noted, in the first seven months of this year, 12 Palestinians in the Strip killed themselves, and 87 percent were of them were under the age of 30. Slightly more than half of the suicide attempts were by women, but of people who did kill themselves, men are in the majority.
Two examples show how difficult it is to rely on the semi-official statistics that reach the public through the media. The Hamas police spokesman, Ayman al-Batniji, told Al Jazeera that there is no need to exaggerate the significance of the recent suicides, or to view them as an increase. The proof, he said, was that last year there were 32 cases of suicide – in contrast to the figure of 22 published by Al-Araby Al-Jadeed and other media outlets.
There is a particularly conspicuous difference between the sources in regard to 2017, as arises from a report on the independent Lebanese news site Daraj. Mustafa Ibrahim, a veteran researcher for one of the Gazan human rights organizations, writes in Daraj that in 2017 there were 759 attempted suicides, of which 37 ended in death. Which is to say, more than in previous years and the years that followed.
The following year the March of Return protests began, and the thousands of unarmed young people took part in them were not deterred – possibly the opposite – by the deadly Israeli gunfire that targeted them from the very first demonstration. From March 2018 until the end of 2019, 214 Palestinians, including 46 children, were killed by Israeli snipers along the security fence; 8,000 were wounded by live gunfire, and many of those now suffer from a lifelong disability.
On the margins of the official goals of the March of Return, it was concluded that many demonstrators were fed up with life because they couldn’t cope with all the economic, social and psychic difficulties engendered by the life sentence they are condemned to in the Gaza Strip. In the same breath, it could be said that by protesting, they were looking to give their life meaning. The conclusion that at least some of the participants used the demonstrations as a tool for suicide (“suicide by soldier”) is very difficult to digest in a society where the ethos and practice of liberation struggle are standard fare.
“Suleiman chose the silence of eternity to block the unending pain,” Mustafa Ibrahim wrote. Like others who wrote about the subject – and contrary to the stance of Hamas – he definitively links the suicides to the desperate economic situation of most of Gaza’s inhabitants, to the political divide and to the despair that stems from Gaza’s severance from the rest of the country. Despite their principled opposition to suicide, some clerics were also quoted as showing understanding for those trying to kill themselves. The managing editor of Al-Hadaf, the mouthpiece of the PFLP, wrote, “Does it make sense that a sated senior figure should demand of his people to bear the hunger patiently?”
However few and hushed up they may be, the suicides are also an expression of a lack of confidence about the rule of Hamas.