GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – The death of a young Gaza man who set himself on fire because he could not find a job has sent shockwaves through this conservative territory and underscored growing despair among Palestinian youth.
The self-immolation of 21-year-old Ihab Abu Nada was the first in Gaza, after a series of copycat deaths in the Middle East since a Tunisian youth set himself on fire in December 2010. That case triggered protests and revolutions that have swept across the Arab world, toppling dictatorships and touching off a civil war in Syria.
Gaza, a crowded strip of land between Israel and Egypt, has never been wealthy. Unemployment has usually been over 20 percent. Since the militant Hamas took over the territory in 2007, the economy has steadily worsened under an Israeli blockade.
Youth unemployment hovers around 50 percent, and a lack of hope is palpable — many young Gaza men take cheap, powerful pain killers to take the edge of reality.
Abu Nada's father, Sufian, 54, said the family has been struggling to get by on his civil servant's salary of about $220 a month. On Saturday night, Sufian Abu Nada said he was pleading and arguing with his son to try find work.
"He told his mother: 'Tell my father I'm going to find work,'" a sobbing Abu Nada told a Gaza radio station on Monday. "My eye is broken, my heart is broken, my love."
Shortly after, the young man set himself on fire beside the morgue at Gaza City's Shifa Hospital. On Sunday afternoon, he died of his wounds.
In the radio interview, Abu Nada described his son as "like all the other youth of Gaza."
News of the young man's death spread quickly through Gaza, and residents emailed each other a voice recording of Abu Nada's father sobbing on the radio.
"When a young man burns himself because of his suffering and poverty...it means we have ticking bombs needing to be defused," said a young law student Rami Saleh, 23.
The family lived in a crowded seaside slum in Gaza City. Of four children, two worked part time as cleaners. The father told Palestinian news service Maan that his son sold bags of potato chips on the street sometimes, but he was frequently harassed by Hamas police.
After rent and utility bills, the father said he $50 for food, barely enough to stretch through the month. He spoke of shame going through the markets, unsure what he could afford.
Most of Gaza's people rely on U.N. assistance to get by, their poverty deepened by the international isolation and the Israeli blockade imposed after Hamas seized power in 2007, pushing out forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The blockade was meant to weaken the Islamic militant group, dedicated to Israel's destruction, and try to prevent the militants from getting weapons.
Although Israel eased the blockade in 2010 under international pressure, imports and exports are still restricted, stifling the private sector, meaning there are few jobs in the territory.
Young Gazans have suffered additional disappointments. Repeated reconciliation attempts by Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement have failed. The election of Egypt's Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, has not brought about changes on the ground.
The father blamed Palestinian infighting for their family's woes. He said he appealed to both governments, Hamas and Abbas' Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, to help his family, but received no response.
Hamas government officials would not comment on the man's death. Palestinian Authority officials were not immediately available for a response. Neither of their government media sites carried news of the young man's death.
Abu Nada said he wished officials from either government had visited them, or paid attention to his despairing son.
"My son burnt himself to express his opinions," he said. "To protest the pressure we are living under."
With additional reporting by Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, West Bank. Follow Hadid on twitter.com/diaahadid