Mohammed Suliman
March 4, 2013 - 1:00am

On Feb. 21, Mohammed al-Namrouti, a 43-year-old resident of the Gaza Strip, set himself on fire inside the headquarters of the Gaza Ministry of Social Affairs in Jabaliya, north of Gaza City.

Local news agencies reported that Namrouti had gone to the office to obtain food assistance during which an argument ensued between him and officials and ended in Namrouti setting fire to himself.

According to medical sources, Namrouti remains in critical condition after being transferred to al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City with severe burns covering his body. Four other individuals — three ministry workers and an elderly person — sustained moderate and serious burns from the incident.

Umm Saher al-Namrouti, Mohammed’s wife said that the “intolerable economic situation” that her family lives in is what pushed her husband to commit such an act, which is socially and religiously condemned.

Their suffering, she said, started when her husband was diagnosed with a prolapsed disc six years ago and was unable to  work. Despite their evident need, the family, primarily dependent on food aid like most Palestinian families in Gaza, had not received food coupons for the last two years, further exacerbating the family’s already dire situation. 

“In the past, we used to receive some financial aid from the Ministry of Social Affairs, which helped us greatly manage our household affairs.” Namrouti’s wife said.

“We have tried several times and sent requests for the Ministry of Social Affairs to help us. They did nothing for us, however. We’ve moved from one house to another for six years because we cannot afford to pay our rent. We’ve been kicked out of houses more than ten times. How can we possibly afford to pay 900 NIS [approximately $250] a month?” the distraught woman implored.

Namrouti’s is not the first case of self-immolation in the Gaza Strip. In August 2012, Mohammed Abu Nada, 18, walked into the morgue at al-Shifa Hospital and set himself ablaze. He succumbed to his wounds a few days later, becoming the first recorded fatality of self-immolation in the coastal enclave.

The occasional incidents of self-immolation in Gaza crack open for viewing the distressing economic situation of the local population, who are in their sixth straight year of life under Israeli blockade.

More than 80% of families in the Gaza Strip are dependent on humanitarian assistance, provided primarily by UN agencies as well as international non-governmental organizations. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 34% of Gaza’s workforce, including more than half its youth, is unemployed, and 44% is food insecure.

These statistics offer only a glimpse of the larger picture of the Palestinians' distress, which has reached a level leading to a number of self-immolations as a protest by desperate people expressing their frustration or trying to escape unbearable misery.

Gazan authorities' reactions to the self-immolations have taken a religious bent, rather than seeking to grapple with the motives behind these acts. Muslims still widely consider self-immolation to be religiously prohibited. While some acknowledge the impetus behind such incidents, others believe that self-immolation can never be justified, regardless of the reason behind it.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Gaza’s Deputy Minister of Social Affairs Mustafa al-Sawwaf claims that it is erroneous to connect such incidents to the economic situation, including the issues of poverty, unemployment and social repression. Rather, he charged, it is moral and rational poverty — “poverty of the mind and soul”— not actual “material poverty” that has resulted in these tragic events.

“Namrouti’s case has nothing to do with economic difficulties or social repression,” said Sawwaf. “In fact he has committed a terrible crime by setting himself on fire and harming four other innocent people. Namrouti, and others like him who set themselves on fire, is not the worst-off person in Gaza. There is a large segment of people who are in need and extremely poverty stricken. Poverty, however, is no reason to behave in this way.”

In a similar vein, Eyad al-Buzm, director of the media office in the Ministry of the Interior, described the act, among other things, as “objectionable.”

Speaking generally of self-immolation, Buzm emphatically stated, “Under no circumstances can self-immolation be justified despite that some have always tried to provide it with a facade of rationality.”

Buzm added that although cases of self-immolation are generally attributed to economic grievances and deprivation, most are, instead, socially motivated. He claimed that their causes are more specific, having mostly to do with an unstable family lives and social problems within the family itself.

This line of argument, however, seems implausible since economic and social conditions in Gaza are inextricably entwined. Unstable family life and social problems are largely a result of the troubling economic situation of Palestinian families.

In addition, according to Buzm, although the people of Gaza have been living in dire economic conditions for several years, it is unlikely to generate protests against the Hamas government like those witnessed in the West Bank in 2012 against the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Last September, thousands of Palestinians took part in protests against the high cost of living and worsening economic conditions throughout the West Bank and demanded the resignation of PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

“Any people who live under occupation and blockade will be deprived of their freedom, security and economic independence, and the people in Gaza are aware that the Israeli occupation is to blame for the suffering on all fronts. They are also aware of the government’s efforts to mitigate their distress and do everything it can to enhance the quality of life in Gaza. We do not expect any protests against the government here, and all protests will be directed against the Israeli occupation,” Buzm said.

Although the Hamas government is seemingly confident that it has the support of the majority of Gazans, in spite of the particularity of the situation, recent protests in the West Bank and the Arab world in general should serve as a warning to the Islamist leadership.

An increasing number of self-immolations in Gaza should not be discredited as mere acts of irrationality inconsistent with Islamic teachings. It, if anything, should serve as an indicator of the extremely perilous situation on the ground, manifestly characterized by the anger and frustration of a significant portion of the local population.


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