Monday,20 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)
Monday,20 August, 2018
Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Naming and shaming in Yarmouk

Many are responsible for the humanitarian crisis in the Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee Camp in Syria, which is a badge of shame for the international community, writes Ramzy Baroud

Al-Ahram Weekly

The story of the population of the Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee Camp in Syria, which once exceeded 250,000, dwindling throughout the Syrian Civil War to 18,000, is a microcosm of the story of a whole nation, whose perpetual pain shames us all.

Refugees who have escaped the war or are displaced in Syria itself are now experiencing the cruel reality of the inhospitable terrain and the policies of the Arab regimes. Many of those who remained in Yarmouk have been torn to shreds by the barrel bombs of the Syrian army or victimised by the violent groups that control the camp, including the Al-Nusra Front and more recently Islamic State (IS).

Those who have somehow managed to escape bodily injury are starving. The starvation in Yarmouk is the responsibility of all the parties involved, and the inhumane conditions under which the camp’s population subsists is a badge of shame for the international community in general and the Arab League in particular.

Some of the culprits for the suffering in Yarmouk are listed below.

Israel bears direct responsibility for the plight of the refugees in Yarmouk. The refugees are mostly the descendants of Palestinian refugees from historical Palestine, especially the northern towns like Safad that are now inside Israel.

The camp was established in 1957, nearly a decade after the Nakba, the “catastrophe” of 1948, which saw the expulsion of nearly a million refugees from Palestine. It was meant to be a temporary shelter, but it soon became a permanent home. Its residents never abandoned their right of return to Palestine, however, a right enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 194.

Israel knows that the memory of the refugees is its greatest enemy, so when the Palestinian leadership requested that Israel allow the Yarmouk refugees to move to the West Bank, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu made this conditional on their renouncing their right of return.

The Palestinians refused. History has shown that the Palestinians will endure untold suffering if they are not asked to abandon their rights in Palestine. The fact that Netanyahu placed such a condition is not just testimony of Israel’s fear of Palestinian memory, but of the political opportunism and sheer ruthlessness of the Israeli government.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) also shares in the responsibility.

The PA was established in 1994 and was based on a clear charter under which a small group of Palestinians “returned” to the Occupied Territories, set up a few institutions, and siphoned off billions of dollars in international aid in exchange for abandoning the right of return of the Palestinian refugees and ceding any claim on genuine Palestinian sovereignty and nationhood.

When the civil war in Syria began to engulf the refugees, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’ Authority did little, as if the matter had no bearing on the Palestinian people as a whole. Abbas made a few statements calling on the Syrians to spare the refugees in what was essentially a Syrian struggle, but he did not do much more.

When IS took over the camp recently, Abbas dispatched Labour Minister Ahmad Majdalani, to Syria. The latter made a statement to the effect that the Palestinian factions and the Syrian regime would unite against IS, which, if true, is likely to ensure the demise of hundreds more people.

If Abbas had invested 10 per cent of the energy he has spent on his government’s media battle against Hamas, or a tiny share of his investment in the frivolous Peace Process, in the plight of the Yarmouk refugees, he could at least have garnered the international attention and backing needed to treat the plight of the Palestinian refugees with a degree of urgency.

Instead, they were left to die alone.

The Syrian regime is also culpable.

When the Syrian opposition seized Yarmouk in December 2012, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces shelled the camp even though the Syrian media has never ceased to speak about “liberating Jerusalem.” The contradiction between words and deeds when it comes to Palestine is part of a syndrome that has afflicted every Arab government since Palestine became the “Palestine Question” and the Palestinians the “refugee problem” some 60 years ago.

Syria is no exception to this rule, but Bashar Al-Assad, like his father Hafez Al-Assad before him, is particularly savvy in utilising Palestine as a rallying cry aimed solely at legitimising his regime while posing as a revolutionary force fighting colonialism and imperialism.

The Palestinians will never forget the siege and massacre of Tel Al-Zaatar, where Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were besieged, butchered and starved as a result of a siege and massacre carried out by right-wing Lebanese militias and the Syrian army in 1976, as they will never forget what is taking place in Yarmouk today.

Many of Yarmouk’s homes were turned to rubble because of Al-Assad’s barrel bombs, shells and airstrikes.

Moreover, the Syrian opposition has been responsible for much of the suffering in Yarmouk.

The so-called Free Syria Army (FSA) should never have entered Yarmouk, no matter how desperate its fighters were for advantage in the war against Al-Assad. It was a criminally irresponsible more considering the fact that, unlike the Syrian refugees, the Palestinians had nowhere to go and no one to turn to.

The FSA invited the wrath of the regime and could not control the camp, which fell into the hands of various militias plotting and bargaining among themselves to defeat their enemies who could become their allies in the next street battles for control of the camp.

The access that IS recently gained in Yarmouk was reportedly facilitated by the Al-Nusra Front, which is an enemy of IS in all places but Yarmouk. The Front is hoping to use IS to defeat the mostly local resistance in the camp arranged by the Aknaf Beit Al-Maqdis group before handing it back to the Al-Qaeda affiliated group.

While the criminal gangs are politicking and bartering, the Palestinian refugees are dying in droves.

Cries for help have been echoing from Yarmouk for years, and yet none have been heeded. The UN Security Council recently decided to hold a meeting on the issue as if it had not been a top priority years ago.

But grandstanding and press statements aside, the UN has largely abandoned the refugees. The budget for the UNRWA agency which looks after the nearly 60 Palestinian refugee camps across Palestine and the Middle East, has shrunk so significantly that it now often finds itself on the verge of bankruptcy.

The UN refugee agency, better funded and equipped to deal with crises, also does little for the Palestinian refugees in Syria. Promises of funds for UNRWA, which could have done more to raise awareness and confront the international community over the disregard for the refugees, are rarely met.

The Arab League is even more responsible for the crisis. The League was in large part established to unite Arab efforts in responding to the crisis in Palestine, and it was supposed to be a stalwart defender of the Palestinians and their rights. But the Arabs have disowned the Palestinians as they are focused on conflicts having to do with more strategic interests.

The Syrian conflict has introduced great polarisation within a community that once seemed united for Palestinian rights. Those who have taken the side of the Syrian regime could not argue for a moment that the Syrian government could have done more to lessen the suffering in the camp. Those who are anti-Al-Assad insist that all the problems are his doing.

Both are responsible for wasting time, confusing the discussion and wasting energy that could have been used to create a well-organised international campaign to raise awareness, funds and practical mechanisms to help Yarmouk in particular and the Palestinians refugees in Syria in general.

We all ought to remember that there are still 18,000 people trapped in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp, and we should organise on their behalf to do something for them.

The writer is editor of Palestine

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