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World must act to save Yarmouk camp in Syria

The international community and Palestine solidarity groups everywhere ought to place Palestinians in the refugee camp in Syria on top of their agenda

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The title was more baffling than revealing. ‘Abbas orders immediate food supplies to Yarmouk camp in Syria’, was the headline in a news report by the Palestinian News Agency (WAFA) on December 28, 2013. The article itself was no less confounding. The WAFA report, which was written in a way that conveyed a sense of urgency, spoke of orders emanating from Ramallah in the West Bank, to send food and other supplies to Palestinian refugees in Syria’s largest refugee camp, in order to stave off starvation. “The president’s decision came following reports that five Palestinian refugees have died of hunger in the besieged camp,” according to the report.

But the suffering of Yarmouk started much earlier and many have reportedly perished as a result of the war. Why didn’t Abbas issue such ‘orders’ then? Needless to say, by the time of writing this article on January 11, neither any supplies reached the camp nor were Abbas’ ‘orders’ taken seriously.

Yarmouk is disowned, as millions of Palestinian refugees were also disowned when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Israel signed the Oslo Accords more than 20 years ago. Over time, the refugees — especially those in the shattat or diaspora — grew less relevant. For years, they desperately called for attention and received none. It did not take much political savvy to predict the magnitude of the disaster befalling already stateless Palestinian refugees in Syria. Some of us wrote about it in the early months of the war, warning of a repeat of the Iraq scenario, where Palestinian refugees paid a heavy price in terms of blood and endless suffering, to finally find themselves living in refugee camps at border crossings in Jordan and Syria. However, what is unfolding in Syria now is the worst-case scenario, as Palestinian refugees, particularly in Yarmouk, are paying a hefty price for Syria’s cruellest war. They are starving, although there can be no justification, nor logistical explanation for why they are dying from hunger.

Spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Chris Gunness, told AFP that “at least five Palestinian refugees in the besieged refugee camp of Yarmouk have died because of malnutrition, bringing the total number of reported cases to 15,” since September 2013. The camp, which is located south of Damascus, had once housed nearly 250,000 Palestinians, including 150,000 officially registered refugees. After three years of a brutal war, Yarmouk is now nothing but in ruins and houses only around 18,000 residents who could not escape. Reporting for the BBC from Damascus, Lyse Doucet quoted aid officials who told her “the gates of Yarmouk were slammed shut in July and almost no aid has been allowed to enter since then”.

Perilous circumstances

There has been a semi-consensus among Palestinians that they should not be embroiled in Syria’s war. However, the warring parties — the Syrian government, the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other Islamic groups — tried to use every card in their disposal to weaken the others. The result has been devastating and is taking place at the expense of the refugees. Apart from the 1,500 reportedly killed Palestinians and thousands more wounded, the majority of the refugees are once again on the run, although in more perilous circumstances. According to a statement by UNRWA on December 17, 2013, “of the 540,000 Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA in Syria, about 270,000 are displaced in the country and an estimated 80,000 have fled; 51,000 have reached Lebanon, 11,000 have identified themselves in Jordan, 5,000 are in Egypt and smaller numbers have reached Gaza, Turkey and farther afield”.

Yarmouk was established in 1957 to shelter thousands of refugees who were expelled from Palestine at the hands of Zionist militias in 1947-48. Although Palestinians in Syria were generally treated well, if compared to the very poor standards set by other Arab countries, thousands of men found themselves victims of occasional political purges of the Syrian government. An example of this followed the 1983 fallout between late Syrian president Hafez Al Assad and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

But the latest disaster is the worst to strike the refugee camp. In December 2012, rebels of the FSA tried to gain control over the camp. Fierce fighting ensued, followed by aerial bombardment of Yarmouk by government airplanes on December 16. Dozens were reportedly killed and thousands fled for their lives. In July, government forces staged a tight siege around the camp, which continues until this day.

Despite the obvious signs of danger surrounding Palestinian presence in Syria, only then did the Palestinian leadership attempt to negotiate a special status for Yarmouk so that the stateless Palestinians were kept out of a conflict that was not of their making. Some Palestinian factions allowed themselves to be used by other regional powers to declare political stances regarding the conflict in Syria. The refugees should have never been used as fodder for a dirty war and all attempts at sparing them have failed.

The failure has been across the board. Typically, the so-called international community is at the forefront of this shameful episode. “There’s deep frustration in the aid community that a world which came together to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal cannot do the same when it comes to tackling a deepening humanitarian crisis,” reported Doucet.

‘Peace process’ mirage

The same could be said of the Palestinian National Authority in Ramallah, which is chasing after another ‘peace process’ mirage that is surely doomed to fail. Why doesn’t Abbas put all of his frivolous talks and appointments on hold and lobby the international community to save Yarmouk?

Hamas too has much soul-searching to do. The embattled faction played politics in Syria, evacuated its top officials, closed down its offices and simply relocated elsewhere, while the refugees suffer and starve alone.

The situation is getting worse. Ayman Abu Hasham, the director of the Palestinian Refugees Support Network in Syria, told Ma’an last Friday that hundreds of refugees “face imminent death in the coming 10 days unless a safe supply line is opened”.

Meanwhile, Chris Gunness continues to speak of the “fatal consequences” and “profound civilian suffering” in Yarmouk. “Residents, including infants and children, have been subsisting for long periods on diets of such things as stale vegetables, animal feed and cooking spices dissolved in water.”

The world must act now. The international community and Palestine solidarity groups everywhere must place Palestinian refugees top of their agenda. Food should never be a weapon in this dirty war and Palestinians should not be starving to death, no matter the motive or the logic.

Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).

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