Media in Gaza reported on Friday that a Palestinian fell to his death from the sixth floor of a building in Rafah in the southern Strip. Less than 24 hours later, reports emerged to the effect that the man, who was in his 20s, had committed suicide.
A week earlier, a 33-year-old Palestinian, a resident of Bani Suhaila, near Khan Younis, doused himself with flammable liquid and set himself on fire. At first it was reported that he had done so because of a financial dispute with his father. His parents denied this.
A few days before that, there were reports of another young Palestinian man, from the center of the Gaza Strip, found dead in a field. The circumstances of his death were not immediately clear.
Is this a coincidental accumulation of suicides by young males with mental issues, or are we looking at a rise in suicides stemming from the dreadful economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza?
Websites associated with Fatah claim that the worrying trend indeed stems from the dire reality in the Hamas-run Strip. These sites counted seven suicides over the past month, and more than 20 attempted suicides. And this in a society that is for the most part religious and conservative, and considers suicide to be forbidden.
While Fatah is likely trying to inflate the phenomenon, it may be that there is something deeper at work.
The despair in the Strip, as opposed perhaps to the West Bank, shows no sign of abating. “The humanitarian situation in the Strip is the worst that it has been in the past nine years,” says Y., an old friend. “There is no hope, only despair. Young people look around and they see nothing. Gaza is like a large prison. You cannot leave. But those who stay have no future.”
Y. goes on to say that every year some 20,000 students finish their undergraduate studies. “What do you think they can do? Nothing. There is no work. The unemployment level here is horrific. Poverty levels are unprecedented. Every year is a new low. There is no electricity and no drinkable water in the taps.”
The ramifications of the hardship in Gaza, as in the past, do not stop at the border. It is precisely the humanitarian crisis there that could bring Gazans to pressure Hamas. and especially its military wing, to attack Israel — perhaps in the hope of improving the economic situation. That was precisely what happened on the eve of the 2014 war there, when Hamas failed to pay its men and expected a war to bring about a lifting or easing of the Israeli security blockade.
Many in Gaza claim that the “street” in the Strip does not seek an escalation. They may be right. Yet anyone who has been listening in recent weeks to the voices coming out of Gaza has heard a significant number of people clamoring for war.
It seems the humanitarian situation is so bad that the public is willing to endure another war for the small chance of breaking the blockade.
One of the main catalysts of the sense of siege is the intensive Egyptian activity targeting smuggling tunnels in the Rafah area, between the Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. Hundreds of tunnels facilitated the passage of hundreds of millions of dollars into Hamas coffers monthly. Not any more. Now, only a few tunnels remain.
Some 40,000 people depended on the tunnels — directly or indirectly — for their livelihoods. They are now unemployed.
The closure of the tunnels has prevented the smuggling of weapons to Hamas from Sinai, as well as reducing the volume of drugs being smuggled into the Strip. Thus, for example, a pack of 20 Tramadol capsules — a sedative that used to be widely available in the Strip — once cost only NIS 20 ($5). These days, due to the shortage, the price has gone up tenfold or more. Still, despite the rocketing cost, there are many young people who use the drug to get high and escape the grim reality.
The closure of the tunnels has also led to a dramatic fall in Hamas income, which relied heavily on the tunnel economy. Unemployment has consequently risen to 38%. Over 100,000 people are still homeless in the wake of the 2014 war. One can easily imagine how desperate life is, and the past winter has only exacerbated this.
Many houses only get 3-4 hours of power a day, so they cannot use electricity to keep warm. Gas would be an option, except it too is in short supply.
“People have begun to burn wood inside their houses,” says A., who is originally from Jabaliya. “But it is also almost impossible to get your hands on wood — because Israel prevents its delivery” — due to the fear that it will be used for tunnel construction. “What exactly can people use to warm their homes?”
A. goes on to say that the economic situation has led to a rise in the number of woman turning to prostitution — some of them married.
“Young people know that one of the best places to find a job in Gaza these days is in Hamas’s military wing,” A. continues. “They have over 2,000 people, and they take big risks, but the pay is relatively good (more than $400 a month).”
Every activist in the military wing, as opposed to officials in the Hamas government, receives three meals a day and is always paid on time.
One good example is the tunnel builders, who recently came to prominence again when Hamas made them the subject of a PR campaign geared to boost morale among the Gaza citizenry — in part to deflect attention from the multitude of recent tunnel collapses.
Hamas presented these diggers as members of an elite unit that would enable it to hit Israel hard in the next war. More than 1,000 diggers are employed by Hamas, six days a week, at a reasonable salary — by Gazan standards — with regular meals… and 24-hour power inside the tunnels.
Egypt’s closing of the smuggling tunnels, on the one hand, and the cessation of most of the support once provided by Iran, have caused grave shortfalls for Hamas. Hence the decision to levy more and more taxes on residents of the Strip. Over the course of less than a year, revenue to Hamas from monthly taxes has soared, from NIS 80 million ($20 million) to NIS 140 million ($35 million).
There is a tax on cigarettes — NIS 5 ($1.28) per pack. And most men in Gaza smoke. Hamas is also levying taxes on event halls and restaurants: First it told the public it can no longer hold parties in the street, in the name of public order. And then it began taxing the venues where celebrations are allowed. The list of taxes also includes NIS 10 ($2.56) on electrical appliances and 25% VAT on new vehicles.
Still, while one occasionally comes across criticism of Hamas, especially online, via bloggers and Facebook, the Islamist group continues to exhibit a strong capacity to rule and enforce law and order.
There are no political opponents on the horizon. The Salifists are being closely monitored. Fatah has almost no presence on the street, save maybe in the form of [Mahmoud Abbas rival] Mohammad Dahlan’s men. Dahlan’s wife visits the Strip once every few weeks armed with lots of cash, which she distributes among various charities.
Despite their mounting despair, residents do not seem to yearn for new leaders. Many in Gaza still recall the chaotic days of Palestinian Authority rule, and cannot muster any nostalgia for that period. For the foreseeable future, despite the hardships, Hamas isn’t going anywhere.