Opinion |

When Hope Dies: Why So Many Young Palestinians in Gaza Are Committing Suicide

Nearly everyone I know in Gaza has contemplated suicide more than once. Despite the deep taboo, 2020 is heading toward a record spike in suicides, and most are young, unemployed and suffocated by despair

Muhammad Shehada
Muhammad Shehada
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Palestinians take part in a demonstration against Israel's West Bank annexation plans, in Gaza City on June 29, 2020.
Not waving but drowning: Palestinians take part in a demonstration against Israel's West Bank annexation plans, in Gaza City. June 29, 2020Credit: AFP
Muhammad Shehada
Muhammad Shehada

"This won't be a futile attempt. It’s an escape bid. Enough! Complaining to no one other than God is a humiliation…"

These were a young Gazan activist’s last written words. Suleiman Al-Ajouri posted them on Facebook a day before he shot himself in the head on the staircase of his home last week. He was 23.

Suleiman was a thoughtful and goodhearted young man. His only wish was to live the minimum of a normal and decent life. Yet, like the vast majority of Gaza’s highly-educated but besieged youth – amongst whom unemployment has reached a staggering 78 percent – life and opportunity have turned their backs on Suleiman and left him with nothing to lose.

Suleiman was one of the leading activists in the youth-led "We Want to Live" demonstrations that took to the street in March 2019 to protest the unlivable toxic slum that Gaza has become under Israel’s blockade and Hamas’ rule. The protests were violently dispersed by Hamas, whose internal security force – a clone of Israel’s Shin Bet – went on to occasionally harass and arbitrarily arrest Sulieman, including at his sister’s wedding.

What really broke Suleiman, according to his friends, was how he saw every path to escape the hellish dead-end of Gaza blocked, with no dignified way to leave other than taking his own life.

While he sat idle and penniless, he had hopelessly watched his friends one after the other selling everything they had to collect up the money necessary to obtain a tourist visa to Turkey, then undergo an unspeakable journey through Egypt to Istanbul, to wait there, destitute, for the unlikely chance to get into Europe.

He himself had tried to gather enough money together to make the trip to Turkey: he’d managed to pay for a visa application but withdrew it when he saw he had no chance of covering the cost of the trip itself.

Increasingly lonely, broke, and constantly harassed, Suleiman found a way out of the Gaza cage. But it was to his grave.

Most Gazans could easily relate to Suleiman’s experience. In fact, on the same day he took his own life, three other Gazans killed themselves. Ayman al-Ghoul, 24, threw himself from the fifth floor of his house. A 30-year-old woman hanged herself in her home, and Ibrahim Yassin, 21, died of his wounds a week after setting himself on fire.

Three Gazans also attempted suicide within 24 hours of Sulieman’s death. Ahmed al-Malahi swallowed 50 pills, a young teenager attempted to throw herself from a balcony, and an 18 year-old teenager swallowed tens of pills. Last Wednesday, another young Gazan attempted to throw himself off a balcony of the Ministry of Social Affairs after he was denied aid.

The background of all those cases is identical; young, unemployed, and futureless.

Every minute that passes while Gaza’s uninhabitability remains unaddressed, tens of lives are critically endangered. Gaza’s youth are dying. They’re dying a long drawn out death by suffocation and despair, or an accelerated death by their own hand.

They die inside every time they see people in the outside world traveling, pursuing a career or education while they remain caged in Israel’s giant prison. They die inside when they see people out in the world falling in love while they can never afford to start a family. They die inside when they see their dessication is justified by Israel as a security necessity, and the world buys it. And they die inside when they see their spoiled leaders childishly running away from responsibility while Gaza races towards the precipice.

A Palestinian woman walks with her son past a mural in protest of Israel's plan to annex parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip July 14, 2020.Credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

Since the beginning of this year, 17 Gazans took their own lives and hundreds have attempted suicide. These numbers indicate a frightening rise. Since 2015, Gaza has been witnessing at least one attempted suicide per day. In 2018, 20 Gazans committed suicide and 504 attempted suicide. In 2019, 22 Gazans committed suicide. So if the trend of the first six months of this year continue, there will have been an increase of nearly 80 percent in suicide cases in 2020 compared to 2019.

None of these figures include the hundreds of undocumented suicide attempts covered up by family members or local authorities to avoid controversy and shame, as suicide is an uniquely sensitive taboo in Islam and a Gazan society known for its exceptional sumud, or steadfastness.

Last Friday, Hamas’ security even arrested a young Gazan, Eyas Shehada, who threatened to commit suicide if his dire problems were ignored. He had gone door to door to ask for help from Hamas leaders, to no avail. Eyas was arrested while broadcasting live on his Facebook page about his destitution, homelessness and inability to provide for himself.

A prominent local journalist, Usama Al-Kahlout, was arrested on the same day for calling attention to Eyas’s suicide threat and asked people to help him. While Usama was later released on Monday afternoon after strong pressure from his collegues and friends, Eyas remains in prison.

A doctor at Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital told me that many suicide attempts are not registered as such. Instead, patients are given immediate care, then discharged, as Gaza’s compromised health sector is already overwhelmed with the injured from the Great Return March, and cannot cope with the population’s needs. Patients who have attempted suicide are often automatically categorized as mentally ill to provide a public excuse, and to avoid addressing the untreatable underlying roots of the problem.

A view of buildings in Gaza City. July 1, 2020Credit: AFP

Nearly everyone I know in Gaza has contemplated suicide more than once as a way out. Other escape routes, such as traveling, are inaccessible or unaffordable.

What deters more suicides and prevents these numbers from skyrocketing is the religious belief amongst Gaza’s predominantly Muslim population that committing suicide is an unforgivable sin that leads to eternity in hell.

And yet, it should be incredibly telling that tens of young Gazans who commit or attempt suicide have clearly been forced into concluding that God’s hell, no matter what, would be better than the hell Gaza now is after 13 years of draconian Israeli blockade, periodic wars and escalations, indefinite Hamas’s rule and intractable intra-Palestinian division.

Even though Hamas and Fatah announced earlier this month they would be resuming reconciliation and joining hands against Israel’s annexation plan, somehow deferring all points of contention between them, the speeches and photoshoots launching this old-new campaign inspired little hope amongst despairing and immiserated Palestinians.

A local poll found that 67 percent of Palestinians didn’t see the Hamas-Fatah announcement as a serious pathway to unity. Instead, these "reconciliation talks" are becoming an increasingly insensitive, repellent joke after 13 years of repeated futile attempts.

A Palestinian girl pauses at the entrance of her home at the al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on on July 9, 2020Credit: AFP

What Gazans need most urgently from their leadership is genuine unity concluded by national elections to choose a new representative leadership that mirror people’s will and see their problems and needs, not more photo ops.

The most essential move the international community can offer Gaza is to translate rhetoric into action, and meaningfully challenge Israel’s siege until its full removal. If no such minimal courage to fight a clear crime of collective punishment can be mustered, then the international community should instead show Gaza’s youth and people a glimmer of hope; to break their isolation, become more visible in their lives, rather than simply engaging in hidden diplomacy or signing paychecks behind closed doors.

Send more delegations to Gaza that meet people rather than pampered and alienated political leaders, designate special scholarships for people from Gaza, create remote employment opportunities, and demand from Israel to assume its responsibilities towards an occupied population.

Otherwise, we are all complicit in sentencing to death the young people who are the future of Gaza, whether at a grindingly slow pace - or more swiftly, at their own hands.

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2

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