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Fathi Harb burnt himself to death in Gaza. Will the world notice?

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Fathi Harb should have had something to live for, not least the imminent arrival of a new baby. But last week the 21-year-old extinguished his life in an inferno of flames in central Gaza.

It is believed to be the first example of a public act of self-immolation in the enclave. Harb doused himself in petrol and set himself alight on a street in Gaza City shortly before dawn prayers during the holy month of Ramadan.

In part, Harb was driven to this terrible act of self-destruction out of despair.

After a savage, decade-long Israeli blockade by land, sea and air, Gaza is like a car running on fumes. The United Nations has repeatedly warned that the enclave will be uninhabitable within a few years.

Over that same decade, Israel has intermittently pounded Gaza into ruins, in line with the Israeli army’s Dahiya doctrine. The goal is to decimate the targeted area, turning life back to the Stone Age so that the population is too preoccupied with making ends meet to care about the struggle for freedom.

Both of these kinds of assault have had a devastating impact on inhabitants’ psychological health.

Harb would have barely remembered a time before Gaza was an open-air prison and one where a 1,000kg Israeli bomb might land near his home.

In an enclave where two-thirds of young men are unemployed, he had no hope of finding work. He could not afford a home for his young family and he was about to have another mouth to feed.

Doubtless, all of this contributed to his decision to burn himself to death.

But self-immolation is more than suicide. That can be done quietly, out of sight, less gruesomely. In fact, figures suggest that suicide rates in Gaza have rocketed in recent years.

But public self-immolation is associated with protest.

A Buddhist monk famously turned himself into a human fireball in Vietnam in 1963 in protest at the persecution of his co-religionists. Tibetans have used self-immolation to highlight Chinese oppression, Indians to decry the caste system, and Poles, Ukrainians and Czechs once used it to protest Soviet rule.

But more likely for Harb, the model was Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in late 2010 after officials humiliated him once too often. His public death triggered a wave of protests across the Middle East that became the Arab Spring.

Bouazizi’s self-immolation suggests its power to set our consciences on fire. It is the ultimate act of individual self-sacrifice, one that is entirely non-violent except to the victim himself, performed altruistically in a greater, collective cause.

Who did Harb hope to speak to with his shocking act?

In part, according to his family, he was angry with the Palestinian leadership. His family was trapped in the unresolved feud between Gaza’s rulers, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank. That dispute has led the PA to cut the salaries of its workers in Gaza, including Harb’s father.

But Harb undoubtedly had a larger audience in mind too.

Until a few years ago, Hamas regularly fired rockets out of the enclave in a struggle both to end Israel’s continuing colonisation of Palestinian land and to liberate the people of Gaza from their Israeli-made prison.

But the world rejected the Palestinians’ right to resist violently and condemned Hamas as “terrorists”. Israel’s series of military rampages in Gaza to silence Hamas were meekly criticised in the West as “disproportionate”.

The Palestinians of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where there is still direct contact with Israeli Jews, usually as settlers or soldiers, watched as Gaza’s armed resistance failed to prick the world’s conscience.

So some took up the struggle as individuals, targeting Israelis or soldiers at checkpoints. They grabbed a kitchen knife to attack Israelis or soldiers at checkpoints, or rammed them with a car, bus or bulldozer.

Again, the world sided with Israel. Resistance was not only futile, it was denounced as illegitimate.

Since late March, the struggle for liberation has shifted back to Gaza. Tens of thousands of unarmed Palestinians have massed weekly close to Israel’s fence encaging them.

The protests are intended as confrontational civil disobedience, a cry to the world for help and a reminder that Palestinians are being slowly choked to death.

Israel has responded repeatedly by spraying the demonstrators with live ammunition, seriously wounding many thousands and killing more than 100. Yet again, the world has remained largely impassive.

In fact, worse still, the demonstrators have been cast as Hamas stooges. The United States ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, blamed the victims under occupation, saying Israel had a right to “defend its border”, while the British government claimed the protests were “hijacked by terrorists”.

None of this can have passed Harb by.

When Palestinians are told they can “protest peacefully”, western governments mean quietly, in ways that Israel can ignore, in ways that will not trouble consciences or require any action.

In Gaza, the Israeli army is renewing the Dahiya doctrine, this time by shattering thousands of Palestinian bodies rather than infrastructure.

Harb understood only too well the West’s hypocrisy in denying Palestinians any right to meaningfully resist Israel’s campaign of destruction.

The flames that engulfed him were intended also to consume us with guilt and shame. And doubtless more in Gaza will follow his example.

Will Harb be proved right? Can the West be shamed into action?

Or will we continue blaming the victims to excuse our complicity in seven decades of outrages committed against the Palestinian people?

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.

Jonathan Cook

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His new website is

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11 Responses

  1. Kay24 on May 30, 2018, 11:01 am

    Apparently he had blamed Hamas before he unfortunately decided to end his life. It is obvious that Hamas and other factions within Gaza are to be blamed for much that goes on there, and it seems they have lost their purpose, playing their own political games, depriving the majority of people of having the sympathy of the world, for their plight. It is time they were made to get their act together, and had a united front.

    The occupier uses Hamas as the tool to justify the occupation, land grabs, and massacres. Without Hamas they have no excuses.

    • Mayhem on June 2, 2018, 1:51 am

      @Kay24, great ‘shoot your own foot’ comment at the end. Take out the double negative and you have “With Hamas they have an excuse” or in other words Israel is justified because Hamas is to blame.

  2. Kathleen on May 30, 2018, 11:13 am

    “Over that same decade, Israel has intermittently pounded Gaza into ruins, in line with the Israeli army’s Dahiya doctrine”

    Guess the U.S. has been following some form of the “Dahiya Doctrine” (Securing the realm or the PNAC doctrines) in Iraq, Libya, Syria.

    “Can the West be shamed into action?”

    Clearly no. Americans do not even want to know about the lives that U.S. foreign policy/military decisions have destroyed in Iraq, Libya, Syria let alone the lives the U.S. has helped Israel destroy.

    At this point seems like it is up to the international community. Even though we have witnessed growth in the Pro Palestinian…Anti apartheid in Israel movement especially in the Jewish community over the last 10 years clearly the situation has gotten worse for Palestinians. Unless that old saying that things have to “get worse before the get better” is in gear. More than likely just a dull acceptance by the masses of the brutality that has and continues to go on. The shameful “new normal”

  3. Kathleen on May 30, 2018, 11:20 am

    Many of us remember when this was all over the news. How shocked and moved so many of us were

    This is the only place I have read Fathi Harb’s radical decision even mentioned. And I am a news junkie.

    Not a whisper on MSNBC, CNN, Huff Po, etc etc

    Not a picture of Fathi Harb’s self immolation. Without images how could such a radical action even have an effect?

    Just googled “Fathi Harb self immolation” Cook’s piece at top of list.…2794.13980.0.17328.…1.1.64.psy-ab..2.24.2706…0j0i131k1j0i10k1j33i160k1j0i13k1j33i21k1.0.NIQMLiA8axw

  4. Kathleen on May 30, 2018, 11:31 am

    Listen to the voice and music in the background in this video partially about Fathi Harb. 23 views.

  5. just on May 30, 2018, 11:37 am

    RIP Fathi Harb~ I can certainly ‘hear’ you. This is an enormous tragedy that has been years in the making. The reality that Palestinians face every day must be soul- crushing to many of them. The “world” (through Israel) is responsible for their despair and for Fathi’s final and tragic act of “non-violent” protest.

    I very much appreciate this article, Jonathan. As you point out so clearly, no matter what the Palestinians do they are dismissed and attacked while Israel is supported. “Resistance was not only futile, it was denounced as illegitimate” leads directly to Fathi’s choice. Gaza remains in ruins, and nobody really seems to care. I have not read an update from the most recent bombing by Israel, but it can’t be good. It’s maddening to hear Westerners say that the Palestinians must choose non- violence while they themselves have access to all the electricity, clean water, freedom of movement, FREEDOM, etc. that Palestinians only dream of. The Palestinian people have been, and are, peaceful.

    Israel hates non- violent protests so it brings snipers to The Great March and murders and maims innocents at will. But when a few flaming kites make it over the wall, Israel and the West call foul and ‘Israel’s right to defend itself and its security’ above all, and they continue to murder and maim. Never mind that it was and is Israel that incited and provoked ~ again and again.

    There are so many examples of peaceful protesters that it would be impossible to list them all here, but just think of the relatively high profile Issa Amro, Ayman Odeh, Haneen Zoabi (not even in Gaza!!!) and remember what has happened to them during their non- violent protests. Israel cannot abide them.

    Hell, Palestinians are shot for being Palestinian……….. and detained, abducted, beaten, tortured, imprisoned, etc.

    Thanks, Jonathan. I’m not sure that the West can be shamed into action, but hope springs eternal as I bear witness to the Sumud and endurance of the Palestinians. So much has been demanded of and taken from them in return for nothing.

    The West is guilty, guilty, guilty.

  6. DaBakr on May 31, 2018, 5:08 am

    Not a single critical word about the brutally oppressive ruling regime in Gaza, the Hamas, takes any credibility this author had as an informed commenter and not a paid Palestinian/hamas propagandist and flushes it. Hamas took this boys opportunities for a decent life away, not the zionist entity. If not so…please explain the extremely lavish pallotzos lining the beaches in wealthy areas of Gaza, the luxury hotels and fully stocked super markets. Explain the ratio per population of luxury automobiles in Gaza and explain how the vast and massive tunnel system underneath Gaza operates if Israel is depriving Gaza of cement. Y’all can ask the other easier questions like why not spend on housing, infrastructure and schools instead of tunnels, rockets, missiles and other assorted arms large and small. The poor guy was surely despondent but he might have thought in his misery that attacking Hamas might have made more sense

  7. just on May 31, 2018, 12:09 pm

    “Can the West be shamed into action?”

    Good opinion piece by Nabil Sha’ath pointing out the disgraceful hypocrisy of some in the EU:

    “In the EU’s Fantasy of ‘Shared Values’ With Israel, the Palestinians Don’t Exist …

    “We [the EU and Israel] share the same values. We believe in democracy, the rule of law and human rights. There are fundamental values that we share.”

    That was the peak of the recent interview in Haaretz with the EU Representative to Israel, Mr. Emmanuel Giaufet.

    The message delivered by the Italian-born European diplomat was simple and consistent: Europe builds a relationship with Israel regardless of the systematic Israeli violations against the Palestinian people. In other words: carte blanche for Israel. …

    Evidently when any Palestinian hears an international representative praising Israel for its support for “human rights” or “the rule of law” could only believe that this representative has preferred to ignore the situation of the Palestinian people. Put it in simple terms: Palestinian human rights don’t count. The grave Israeli violations of International Humanitarian Law become, according to the EU representative, “limited diplomatic disagreements,” that, as stated in the Haaretz report, “are insignificant compared to the cooperation away from the spotlights.”

    I’m aware the views expressed by Mr. Giaufet don’t represent those of all European countries or leaders. I’ve met responsible European diplomats who have done their best in order to balance between their relationships with Israel and the realities of Israel’s behavior on the ground.

    His statements also contrast with the work of several European diplomats in Palestine that continue to report on the situation on the ground. Whoever reads the annual Heads of Missions Report on Jerusalem, a pure European document, understands that there are grave Israeli violations of International Humanitarian Law taking place. But Brussels has consistently ignored the recommendations of the report and people like Mr. Giaufet are keen to tell Israel that no action will ever be taken.

    The online interview with the EU representative showed pictures from social media where Mr. Giaufet proudly thanks and appreciates meetings with the crème of the crème of Israeli extremists: From people who have called for ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, reposted calls for the genocide of Palestinian women, the annexation of occupied territory, the change of the status quo in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound. Needless to say, settlers appear within this “select group.” …

    As Mr. Giaufet is proud of providing cooperation to ministers that have clear agendas to pulverize the rights of the Palestinian people, it is becoming clear that the European policies of “differentiation” between Israel and the territory it occupies since 1967 are ineffective. No matter how extremist the Israeli government might be, Mr. Giaufet has been clear: The EU won’t lay down any red lines, but rather will see “the need to adapt to the current situation.”

    Here’s a reminder: Colonial settlements don’t grow alone. They’re the outcome of the policies pushed by the same decision makers that the European Union have been “adapting to.” It goes from PM Netanyahu to Naftali Bennet, Uri Ariel, Ayelet Shaked, Yisrael Katz, Ofer Akunis and even Mr. Steinitz, who just sent the European Union to “a thousand hells” for an extremely diplomatic European statement on Israel’s persecution of civil society organizations and human rights’ defenders. …

    We would have expected that at a moment where President Donald Trump’s administration is encouraging Israeli crimes and violations, the European Union, and its member states, would respond by recognizing the State of Palestine on the 1967 borders and taking concrete steps in order to implement their own policies when it comes to Israel and its colonial-settlement enterprise.

    All that Palestine asks from Europe is to be consistent with its policies and values when it comes to Israel and its colonial-settlement enterprise.

    But there you go. The EU Representative thinks that Israel and the EU share the values of human rights and the rule of law. His message to the Palestinian people could not be clearer: No matter the amount of Israeli violations of international law, Israel will continue to be granted carte blanche.

    We refuse to believe that this is the European Union’ official position, and we expect a clear response from Brussels.”

    more @

    • Sibiriak on May 31, 2018, 12:34 pm

      Britain turns to Israeli tech to form new air-defense system

      UK arms sales to Israel hit peak, as Prince William plans visit to Jerusalem

      British defense companies made a record amount of money from selling weapons and military hardware to Israel, anti-arms campaigners’ data shows. New figures were revealed ahead of the royal trip to the country in June.

      According to Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), defense contractors made at least £221 million ($294 million) last year from deals with Tel Aviv. That is a significant increase compared to £86 million ($114 million) in 2016. Export licenses to Israel issued by the UK government and tracked down by CAAT cover a wide range of military equipment, ranging from missile components and explosives to body armor and weapon sights.

      The news emerges just days after Prince William announced the date of his forthcoming trip to Israel and Palestine.

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