Palestinian Publicly Sets Himself on Fire in Gaza

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — A 20-year-old Palestinian is in critical condition Sunday after publicly setting himself on fire but his motives remain unclear with family believing he was despairing over Gaza’s dire living conditions and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules the territory, alleging personal problems.

Suicide is strictly forbidden in Islam and cases are rare in conservative Gaza but dozens were reported last year. Several cases of self-immolation have also been reported in Gaza over the past years. This was the first time, however, that one was filmed and posted online.

In the brief nighttime clip, Fathi Harb is already ablaze in front of a residential building. Onlookers rush to put out the fire with rugs and water.

Majda, the young man’s mother, told The Associated Press Sunday that a day earlier her eldest son had said he was going to collect a payment. But half an hour later police came to her home saying he was in hospital after having set himself ablaze.

On Sunday, Fathi was unconscious and connected to breathing tubes at the intensive care unit of Gaza city’s Shifa hospital.

Majda said she doesn’t know for sure what led Fathi to hurt himself. She said he was expecting his first child soon and felt helpless due to the harsh economic situation in Gaza.

“What can a man do when his wife is giving birth and he has no money for a doctor, diapers and milk?” she said.

Fathi was a laborer who sought any job that paid, his mother said. He had worked as a waiter at a wedding and was on his way to collect his wages, about $14, when he set himself on fire.

The head of the hospital’s burn unit, Nafez Abu Shaban, said Fathi has second and third-degree burns over almost half of his body and has also suffered serious injuries from smoke inhalation.

“He is in a very risky, critical condition,” said Abu Shaban.

Gaza has been under blockade by Israel and Egypt since Hamas took over the territory in 2007. The blockade has devastated Gaza’s economy, made it virtually impossible for people to enter and exit the territory, and left residents with just a few hours of electricity a day. Moreover, the tap water is undrinkable and rising unemployment is at 45 percent.

Israel says the restrictions are crucial to prevent Hamas, a militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction, from acquiring weapons. Critics say the blockade is tantamount to collective punishment of Gaza’s 2 million people.

Hamas, which rules Gaza with a tight fist, has mostly denied political or economic motivation behind recent suicides. Hamas police were quoted in Palestinian media blaming “internal family problems” for the incident.

Furthering the misery is the internal Palestinian feud between President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas. Palestinians have been split since the Hamas takeover, with Hamas ruling Gaza and Abbas governing parts of the West Bank. Repeated reconciliation attempts have failed.

Abbas has tried to squeeze Hamas financially hoping to force it to cede power. Measures have including cutting salaries of his employees there.

One of those affected is Walid, Fathi’s father.

Earlier this week, Majda, Fathi’s mother, went to the bank hoping to withdraw money from her husband’s account. “It was in the minus. I found out we owe money to the bank,” she said.

Meanwhile, Walid, was able to make a rare crossing into Egypt to accompany another son, 14-year-old Arafat, who is seeking treatment there for wounds sustained by Israeli fire in recent violence along the Gaza border.

The mass border rallies are aimed in part at breaking the blockade.

Fathi’s grandfather, Said, blamed the blockade and also the Palestinian divide for “killing the dreams of youths like Fathi.”