Al-Shati refugee camp is a miserable place: 90,000 Palestinians are packed into less than one-third of a square mile on the northern beach of Gaza City. The narrow, twisting alleys are littered with rubbish and adorned with graffiti and the laundry of the residents. Water and electricity supplies are intermittent at best.
Ihab Abu Nader was born into this crushing poverty on July 9, 1994, the second of six children. Ihab’s ambition was to finish school, get a job and save up enough money to buy a motorcycle.
He loved Real Madrid and dreamed of joining the thousands of Palestinians who have escaped the stifling poverty of Gaza to work abroad in one of the nearby Arab states.
But Ihab’s dreams came to a brutal end last week when, after an anguished telephone plea begging his mother for forgiveness, he doused himself in petrol in the middle of a Gaza street and set himself on fire.
Bystanders extinguished the flames with water and blankets and rushed him across the road to the city’s Shifa Hospital, but it was too late. Ihab died last Sunday morning after four days in a coma on life-support, succumbing to the crippling third-degree burns that covered 85 per cent of his body.
The Palestinians of Gaza are not strangers to death. On the day we visited Ihab’s grief-stricken family, three Palestinian militants were killed by Israeli forces as they tried to attach a bomb to the border fence.
We could hear the rattle of small-arms fire as we passed through the grim, barbed-wire corridors of the heavily fortified Erez border crossing, the only pedestrian access between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
The night before our arrival, three other Palestinians were killed by an Israeli air strike as they drove near the Al-Bureij refugee camp, apparently on their way to fire rockets at homes in southern Israel.
But even among the war-weary population of Gaza, the self-immolation of Ihab Abu Nader has triggered shockwaves of soul-searching.
Gazans wonder aloud whether Ihab’s suicide by fire, the first here, would have the same effect as the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia in December 2010 that triggered the Arab Spring.
In the week that followed Ihab’s death, two more Palestinians tried to set themselves on fire at anti-government demonstrations but were saved by passers-by.
‘It’s a huge tragedy which should really open the eyes of the rest of the world about the situation of Gaza under the blockade,’ said Karl Schembri of Oxfam’s Gaza office.
Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas-appointed prime minister of Gaza’s unofficial government and a resident of Al-Shati camp, came to pay his respects to Ihab’s father Sufian and mother Raeda Abu Nader, during the family’s three days of official mourning.
Haniyeh invited them to his home and promised them a small plot of land, a job for their oldest son, Mohammed, and a £1,200 grant.
Sufian told The Mail On Sunday: ‘I don’t believe my son wanted to kill himself. The people who tried to save him said he was screaming at them to put out the fire. I think it was a cry for help. I hope that other young people will take his suffering as a warning.’
He went on: ‘I don’t know what I will do without him. I feel as though I have lost my arms and my legs.
‘Haniyeh is the only Palestinian official who has given us any support, but it’s still not enough. I have £5,000 of debts. After I pay my rent and service the loans I have taken out, I have just £30 a month left for food and everything else. How will I manage?
‘If I could, I would leave here tomorrow. I am ready to take my family and go to any other country that will take us as refugees. I see no future here. There is no work. I don’t want to lose the rest of my children because of this terrible poverty.’
The main room of the Abu Nader home where his family received visitors last week has no windows or heating.
The only natural light creeps in through the wide gaps where the plastered cinder-block walls fail to meet the bare, corrugated iron roof, which leaks in the winter and bakes in the long hot summer.
One corner of the room is dominated by a water tank – empty because the pump that sucks up the water from the mains is broken.
There are only two bedrooms – one for Sufian, his wife and their nine-year-old twin boys Bassem and Bassam, and another which the family’s daughter, 14-year-old Samah, is forced to share with her two older brothers. The tiny kitchen is also the bathroom. There is no door to the toilet, just a flimsy curtain.
Ihab was doing well at school but decided to leave in the summer of 2011 and forego his final year of studies, hoping to find a job and help support his family. But there were no jobs to be had. Unemployment in Gaza is 38 per cent. The area used to export furniture, clothing and other goods to Israel, but trade crashed with the outbreak of the intifada uprising in 2000.
After the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006 and a 2007 coup in which Hamas seized control, Israel and Egypt clamped an economic embargo on Gaza. An Israeli invasion in 2008 put more pressure on the depressed economy.
Today, the blockade is easing and the economy is slowly expanding but the UN reported last week that gross domestic product per capita in Gaza in 2011 was still ten per cent below its 2005 level. Half of all Palestinians remain below the poverty line.
Three hundred trucks a day pour into Gaza from Israel carrying food, clothing, building and medical supplies and aid from foreign donors, but refugee families like the Abu Naders scrape by on minimum wages and handouts from the UN.
After he left school, Ihab eked out a few pennies by selling packets of crisps outside mosques every Friday, but he had no licence and was chased away by police. He ended up owing money to the wholesaler. During Ramadan, he secured a job earning £3.50 a day working 14 hours a day for two days a week making falafel, the fried chick-pea patties that are a Gaza fast-food staple.
‘Once he had a job, he woke up happy every morning. He loved to work,’ said his father.
But when Ramadan ended, so did the work. Realising he would never get a proper job, Ihab decided to go back to school, but the principal wouldn’t allow him to return.
Ihab’s mobile phone hinted at his despair. Its wallpaper portrayed a man holding his head in his hands with the title ‘Father of suffering.’ A caption read: ‘I swear to God: We’re sick, we’re bored.’
On Tuesday, August 28, he left home, saying he was trying once again to find work. He didn’t return by nightfall. His mother, who had given Ihab her phone so he could keep in touch, went to a neighbour to call and ask where he was.
‘I’m not in all of Gaza. I’m not in this world. In a couple of hours you will hear my news,’ he said ominously, using an Arabic phrase that refers to the report of someone’s death.
‘Forgive me, mother,’ he begged. ‘I am sick of life. There is no work. Forgive me.’
Ihab was in a park with a neighbour, Mohammed Jaber. ‘He was carrying a plastic bottle of petrol,’ said Mohammed. ‘I thought it must be for the generator. He distracted my attention and jumped in a taxi. I didn’t know where he had gone.’
The family scoured Gaza City all night trying to find him. The following morning, his mother and a neighbour went to the hospital, fearing he had been in an accident. Police there said a young man had tried to set himself on fire.
Sufian said: ‘I blame the Israeli occupation and the siege for our situation. I blame the divisions between the West Bank and Gaza.
‘But I say to young Palestinians: don’t do what Ihab did. It was a mistake. Keep looking, keep learning. Education is the only future.
‘We need more support for social clubs, for unemployment programmes and job opportunities that will give our young people hope.’