Suicide in Gaza: “A message of anger”

Jameela Abu Arabiya holds up a photo of her son Hosni, 25, who died by suicide in Gaza in July 2022.

Ahmed Al-Sammak

Hosni Abu Arabiya, 25, was unemployed and in debt. On 22 July, when the landlord came by the family home in Gaza’s Beach refugee camp, Hosni pleaded with him for more time to come up with rent.

But the landlord refused.

“He told us that if we hadn’t paid the rent by 30 July, he would force us to leave the house,” Hosni’s mother Jameela, 55, said.

Hosni owed money to another landlord as well, and Jameela estimated that he owed around $1,500 in total, an amount that would have seemed impossible to Hosni to pay. When working, he would typically earn between $4 and $11 a week, either as a plasterer or as a worker at a poultry slaughterhouse.

Not 15 minutes after the landlord had left, Jameela heard screams from the next room.

“I still don’t know where he bought a liter of gasoline,” she said. “He poured it on himself and on the ground and lit it. Fire spread all over his body. He started shouting and I rushed to hug him to extinguish the fire. The neighbors also came to put out the fire and they called the ambulance.”

Hosni and his mother rode in the ambulance together. She said he was crying for her forgiveness because of the burns covering her body as well as his.

“He said he didn’t intend to burn himself or me, I swear he didn’t,” she said. “He did that out of oppression and poverty.”

Once they reached the hospital, Hosni was sent to the intensive care unit. Jameela had first and second degree burns on her hands, legs and head.

Several hours later, she left the hospital, but her son died the next morning due to the severity of his burns.

“He lived and died oppressed,” Jameela said, noting that Hosni had to leave school at the age of 10 to work at the poultry slaughterhouse due to his father’s kidney issues.

“All he wanted was a house and a stable source of income,” she said. “Not one of the officials called us to know why Hosni burned himself. Should we burn ourselves to get governmental aid? No one cares about us, no one.”

Message of anger

During the the first half of 2020, the Independent Commission for Human Rights – based in the West Bank city of Ramallah – documented a total of 12 suicides in the Gaza Strip, in addition to three to five attempts daily.

According to Mostafa Ibrahim, an advocacy coordinator at the commission, the commission documented 15 suicides in 2018 and 373 attempts.

That year, 87 percent of those individuals were less than 30 years old, he said.

And these are only the documented suicides. Due to stigma surrounding death by suicide, many attempts likely go unreported.

Yasser Abu Jame, the director general of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, said that the reasons for suicide in Gaza range from social to economic.

The 15-year Israeli siege and the numerous wars on the Gaza Strip have only deepened the sense of isolation and despair among Gaza’s youths, he said, not to mention the material fact of poverty.

In 2020, more than 1 million Palestinians in Gaza lived beneath the poverty line – a poverty rate of 56 percent – due to the siege. As of March 2022, unemployment stood at 75 percent among college graduates aged 19 to 29.

“Burning oneself is a message of anger from youths to shed light on the hardships they face in their lives,” Abu Jame said.

The outlook for future generations of Palestinians living in Gaza is equally dire. According to a June 2022 report from Save the Children, four out of five children report living with “depression, grief and fear.”

“An Israeli bullet turned my life into hell”

“I lost hope in life,” Rami, 37, said.

Rami, who requested to be identified by a pseudonym, used to own a marble workshop that employed 16 workers. He earned a relatively comfortable monthly income of $800 to $1,000.

Yet, because of the Israeli blockade, which has inflicted huge damage to Gaza’s economy, his business flopped.

“I started selling my machines and tools to provide for my five-member family,” he said. “Then I had to close the workshop in May 2018.”

His circumstances further deteriorated three months later, in August 2018, when an Israeli sniper shot him in his right leg during the Great March of Return.

During these marches, Palestinians in Gaza peacefully sought to claim their right to return to their homeland.

But from March 2018 to July 2019, Israel killed at least 311 Palestinians, including 44 children. More than 34,000 people were injured during that time.

Rami’s injury was so severe that doctors recommended amputation. But he refused, instead seeking treatment locally and in Egypt.

“The shock was when an Egyptian medical delegate in Gaza told me that I had chronic necrotizing inflammation, which exacerbated my wound,” he said. “After the first surgery, I got my leg amputated three times in three years.”

After the last surgery, in June 2020 in Gaza, Rami wasn’t prepared for the mental impact of the amputation.

“When my children were allowed to see me the next day, they burst into tears and asked me: ‘Dad, where is your leg?’”

A rush of negative thoughts streamed into his head. “I will be powerless, unemployed and a burden to society for all my life,” he thought.

He overdosed on a prescribed medication and woke up from a coma after two weeks in intensive care.

When he returned home a week later, his family asked him why he tried to end his life, but he could not answer them.

Speaking to The Electronic Intifada from his home in Gaza, Rami wore a black jalabiya and spoke of the past two years with a heavy sorrow in his voice.

Since recovering from his overdose, life has not gotten easier. He has been diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure and, in 2021, he had to undergo a cardiac catheterization.

“An Israeli bullet turned my life into hell,” he said.

Currently, his sole source of income is $175 a month, paid by the Ministry of Social Development in Gaza.

“Do you have a shekel in your pocket?”

In Yasser Abu Jame’s work as a psychiatrist, he has observed an uptick in discussions of death among youths in Gaza. Many of them see no point in living and, when faced with yet another setback in a life that is full of setbacks, it is difficult to cope.

Khaled, 23, for instance, who requested to be identified by a pseudonym, was hopeful for his future.

Throughout 2018 and 2019, he was working for his family’s profitable currency exchange business. Yet, in 2019, their business could not withstand the pressure of the Israeli blockade and collapsed.

The family lost an estimated $400,000 in savings.

“Then I had to work as a vendor in public markets, earning 20 shekels [almost $6] or less for 12 hours of work,” he said, even though he has a college degree in business administration.

Even amid these difficulties, Khaled found love. And the feeling was reciprocated.

But, when, in June 2021, another man asked for his girlfriend’s hand in marriage, Khaled lost all hope.

“My girlfriend refused, but her mother forced her to agree to him [the other man],” he said. “I told my father to ask for her hand for me, but he refused and asked me: ‘Do you have a shekel in your pocket?’ So, he didn’t stand with me.”

Khaled jumped out a third-story window.

“I fell on a chicken coop and then fainted,” he said. “Luckily, I only had some scratches on my body and none of my bones were broken. I left the hospital after three days.”

Khaled wishes he could emigrate but he lacks the funds to do so.

“If there wasn’t an occupation or a siege,” he said, “we could build up our business again.”

Until then, Khaled continues to work long hours for low wages.

“The available work for Gaza youths is slavery,” he said. “I usually think of ending my life sometimes, but my religious thoughts ban me.”

Ahmed Al-Sammak is a journalist based in Gaza. Aya Emad is a humanitarian worker and features writer from Gaza.