Issue No.1180, 16 January, 2014      15-01-2014 01:05PM ET

Kneel or starve

The Syrian regime has been inflicting a campaign of collective punishment on Palestinians sympathetic to the revolution,
writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Kneel or starve
A funeral for a resident who died during the siege of the Palestinian neighbourhood of Yarmouk in Damascus, Syria(photo: AP)
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Palestinians reside in most parts of Syria and have largely integrated into Syrian society. It was only natural, therefore, that they would share the feelings and concerns of their Syrian friends and neighbours and that a majority of them would sympathise with the peaceful protest movement and deplore the brutal repression meted out against the demonstrators by the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

During the first phase of the Syrian revolution, there was no collective Palestinian involvement in the grassroots protests, and their support for the Syrian people was limited to offering relief and medical assistance to communities under siege and displaced persons.

Daraa refugee camp, the Raml camp in Latakia, the Aidin camp in Homs and, to a larger extent, the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus all received wave after wave of Syrians fleeing violence and terror. The latter camp alone received more than 300,000 Syrian refugees from the regime’s attacks against their neighbourhoods or villages on the outskirts of Damascus.

However, the regime has had no tolerance for such humanitarian aid, and it has rounded up and killed Syrians furnishing medical relief to the thousands of displaced people. When the Palestinian communities did the same, it regarded this as a hostile act and decided to punish them by bombarding the camps in Daraa, Homs and Damascus, subjecting them to violent raids and leaving many people dead or wounded.

Both Palestinians and Syrians share the tragedy and bitterness that has become a way of life in Syria. Palestinian and Syrian blood has intermingled in the streets, and Palestinians have been gunned down by regime forces as they have tried to rescue the wounded or deliver supplies to Syrians trapped in neighbouring quarters under siege.

At the same time, the revolutionary brigades have fought to prevent regime forces from raiding the camps and to safeguard the property of Palestinians who have fled their homes. But if ordinary Palestinians have acted as one with respect to the Syrian people, the same cannot be said of all the Palestinian factions.

Some of these are close to the regime and have acted in ways that have precipitated higher levels of violence. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)-General Command, led by Ahmed Jibril, has long been close to the Syrian government. Taking as its principle that the regime’s battle was its battle, its fighters have clashed with the revolutionary brigades in Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria.

The killing and destruction have spiralled, as a result of which most of the camp’s residence have now fled. Only 30,000 now remain of the more than one million Palestinian and Syrian inhabitants who once lived together in a degree of harmony and mutual support rarely seen elsewhere.

After Jibril’s forces were defeated, Syrian regime forces surrounded the camp as well as a number of villages in the rural area around Damascus and in other governorates. Food supplies and services were cut off to punish the residents and to force them to hand over anti-government militiamen to the regime.

In an attempt to counter the catastrophic error into which the Syrian regime had led the PFLP, the PLO sent a delegation to the camp to negotiate an agreement whereby the opposition forces would withdraw, the government would lift the blockade, the Palestinian refugees would be neutralised in the Syrian conflict and the PLO would assume control over the security of the camp.

An agreement was reached, but it was never implemented. The regime reneged on its commitment and continued its refusal to permit anyone to leave the camp or to allow in food supplies, let alone PLO forces to assume control.

Palestinian refugees in Syria are spread across a number of camps, a third of the more than 500,000 refugees living in Yarmouk in which over a third of the residents were Syrians. The camp thus had a very large total population, crowded into an area of barely one square kilometre.

The blockade of Yarmouk began in December 2012. As of February 2013, bread supplies were cut off and only a trickle of essential goods, such as rice, sugar and beans, was let through. Prices of goods skyrocketed in the camp. In April, the blockade was tightened further, and during the past two months no food or medical supplies have been allowed in at all.

The camp has shared the fate of other areas in the country that have suffered similar extended blockades. It is not unusual to see signs telling residents to “starve or kneel” in front of the military checkpoints at the entrances to these areas.

“People have begun to root through the garbage for something to stave off starvation. Scraps of food are a dream,” said Umm Mahmoud, a resident of Yarmouk. Ahmed Madi, an English teacher, told Al-Ahram Weekly that people were killing and cooking cats, which have become the only source of protein for themselves and their children due to the near impossibility of obtaining meat.

Abu Shihab, a Syrian resident in the camp, said “the regime checkpoints are keeping people from bringing in food. No one is allowed to bring in more than a kilo of food. Any amounts over that are confiscated.” The residents also live under constant terror. “Soldiers on top of the lookout towers at the entrances to the camp fire live ammunition. People are afraid to walk down the main streets because they might be shot at any moment,” Abu Shihab said.

Moen Al-Hajji, a revolutionary brigade commander in the camp, described the soldiers who manned the checkpoints as “mercenaries”. “If we give them money, they’ll let us bring in food and medicine. But their prices are high, and we don’t have enough money to pay them. In any case, we cannot get the sick or wounded out of the camp. It doesn’t matter if they are elderly, women or children, or Syrians or Palestinians. We just have to watch them die in front of our eyes due to the unavailability of medicine or appropriate food. There’s nothing we can do.”

According to the statistics of the Syrian Revolution Group, an opposition group, 1,425 Palestinians have been killed since the revolution began three years ago. More than half of these were killed in Yarmouk, and among them were 150 women and 130 children. In addition, 119 Palestinians have died under torture in regime prisons. Ninety-eight were executed, 32 were killed by chemical weapons in the outskirts of Damascus, 39 died from starvation due to the blockade of the camp, and 27 drowned while trying to flee the country by boat.

Political activist Abu Gheith told the Weekly that “the average person has had to cut down his daily meals from three to one due to the lack of food supplies. People have begun to make bread from lentils or bulgur. Electricity has remained cut off for six months now and fuel to power electricity generators is about to run out.”

Bishar Ahmed, a nurse and coordinator of the medical office in Yarmouk, said that “medical conditions in the camp were bad even before the blockade. When the blockade and the random bombardments began, medical conditions deteriorated severely, and even more alarmingly after the major clinics in the camp were targeted.”

“At present, there is only one doctor in the camp, and he has not yet completed his medical studies. And there is only one clinic. The arrest and emigration of doctors is one of the main reasons for the shortage in medical staff. The regime has arrested anyone attempting to bring medical equipment into the camp and any doctors who tried to enter it. There are more than 100 people with various broken or fractured bones, and these injuries can not be remedied due to the lack of physicians and the materials needed for splints and casts.”

It is not easy to describe the gruelling conditions that more than 30,000 people, including women, children and the elderly, have endured for more than a year under the blockade of Yarmouk. Many times this number face similar circumstances, but the camp stands out because the majority of its inhabitants are Palestinians who have no connection to the conflict in Syria and who are being collectively punished through systematic deprivation and daily bombardment because the regime has decided to use them as pawns to pressure opposition fighters.

According to the latest figures from the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians in the Near East, 420,000 Palestinian refugees are in need of urgent aid due to the conflict in Syria. In addition, there are another 80,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria in Lebanon and 10,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria in Jordan.

In other words, the number of Palestinians requiring urgent relief is rapidly approaching the total number of Palestinian refugees in Syria, or 529,000.

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