When a war becomes imminent, rich and politically powerful countries swiftly evacuate their citizens from areas of conflict using every means available. Other countries lag behind and often their refugees become stranded for months before they are transported home. And then, there are Palestinian refugees.
The adversity of Palestinian refugees merely provides opportunities for political and other forms of exploitation. Few seek actual solutions and one is accused of being too radical for daring to suggest examining the roots of Palestinian statelessness or calling for the repatriation of the refugees to their lands in Palestine according to international law. If any “solution” is offered, they are merely partial solutions which even then are half-hearted and insincere.
The hardship of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Syria — whether they are internally displaced, stranded at a border crossing or those who successively braved the journey to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, among other places — have been reported as a side note. Their suffering often gets belittled and lumped into a much larger landscape of destitution.
In fact, since the commencement of the so-called Arab Spring, a pattern of misleading comparisons also has surfaced. Palestinian victimisation is juxtaposed in a disparaging way to other tragedies across the Middle East. According to some bizarre logic, Israeli leaders are emerging as more benevolent brutes than Arab leaders. Regardless of the intentions, Palestine and its refugees around the region are being downgraded as if their collective suffering and anguish of the past 64 years are transitory matters, barely useful for self-indulging contrasts.
Even genuine voices distraught by the plight of refugees seem to echo in the same predictable pattern, a tedious attempt at making political points — organising conferences, issuing statements — with little practical mechanism, except for the habitual detonations of UN resolutions. In the final analysis, however, nothing changes. The refugees seem destined to move about in an endless odyssey, amid fiery speech and heartening commentary.
While 1947-48 marked the Palestinian Nakba or Catastrophe — initiating a bloody nomadic journey for nearly a million Palestinians — it was not the last exodus as other Nakbas followed and still continue today. Some are well-known and others are scarcely discussed, such as the slow ethnic-cleansing underway in occupied Jerusalem, West Bank and the Naqab desert. In Lebanon, there were sub-Nakbas, where the refugees found themselves on an aimless run over and over again.
Before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, a small community of 35,000 Palestinians resided there. Following the invasion, they became an easy target for various militias, US forces and criminal gangs. Many were killed, especially those who could not afford paying heavy ransoms haphazardly imposed by gunmen. Most of the refugees fled, seeking safe havens in Iraq. When that was no longer possible, they sought shelter in neighbouring countries. Allowing Palestinians entry into Arab countries, however, is not so simple. For this reason, thousands were stranded in newly-constructed refugee camps at the Jordanian and Syrian borders. They subsisted, some for years, fighting the elements in punishing deserts and surviving on handouts. Finally, many of them were sent to various non-Arab countries. It was a pitiful spectacle of the betrayal of Palestinians. The more passionately Arab regimes seem to speak of Palestine, the more inconsiderate they actually are of the plight of Palestinians. History has been consistently cruel this way.
The point must be repeatedly iterated. Iraq’s Palestinian refugees belong in Palestine. For now, however, UN Resolution 194 of December 11, 1948, remains ink on paper. As long as Israel continues to flout international law, millions of Palestinian refugees will remain captive in regional struggles that use them as political fodder or see them as a demographic problem, or even worse, a threat. And with the US ensuring that no meaningful action is ever taken to alleviate the suffering of the refugees, thousands will continue to find themselves at some border, queuing for food and pleading their cases to anyone willing to listen.
Palestinian refugees seem to be the common denominator of conflicts in Arab countries. Their case is now highlighted in Syria. The story was stressed in a most painful display last September when a rickety boat filled with entire families sunk merely a hundred metres off the Turkish western Aegean coast. They were mostly Palestinians and Syrians fleeing the war — 60 perished, 31 of them were children. Death was their only salvation. And Palestinians continue to wander about, with no destination in mind, but only seeking survival.
There are 12 refugee camps in Syria. Nine of them are registered as official camps by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and have a population of more than 496,000 refugees. Yarmouk alone, near Damascus, hosts an estimated 150,000 refugees. This camp has been a recurring target for various militant groups and Syrian forces. Other camps have also been targeted in the brutal conflict, including Dera’a, Husseinieh and Neirab among others.
Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed in Syria. They were either caught in the bloody conflict between the Syrian government and the opposition, or were purposely targeted under one pretext or another. The most recent violence, which nearly emptied Yarmouk, began on December 14 when Islamist militants reportedly attacked Palestinian fighters loyal to the Syrian government of President Bashar Al Assad. A counterattack involving a government airstrike on December 16 left Yarmouk littered with dead and wounded. A collective flight followed and a new chapter of the Palestinian odyssey was forcefully written, draped with blood and more atrocious memories. Tens of thousands fled. Some made it to the very crowded Palestinian camps in Lebanon. Others were refused entry, only to camp in Damascus parks, once more queuing for UN handouts.
Palestinian leadership bears much responsibility, as it downgraded the urgency of the refugee crisis, thus the Right of Return, into something like an enigma that would be unravelled in one way or another during the final status talks between it and Israel. Of course there were no such talks and according to the leaked Palestine Papers, it appears that the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) had completely disowned the refugees in secret talks with Israeli officials.
However, there is no changing the fact that most of the Syrian Palestinian refugees were driven from their homes in Palestine. The first wave arrived in 1948, mostly from Safad, Haifa and Yaffa. The second after Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights in 1967 and the third during Lebanon’s civil war and Israel’s wars on Lebanon. It is multi-layered, protracted tragedy. It demands a serious reexamination of the international community’s dismissive attitude towards the refugees. Palestinian refugees are not simply fleeing multitudes caught in Arab conflicts, but they represent a grave political and moral crisis requiring immediate action, guided by Palestinian rights as enshrined in international law.
The crisis of the Palestinian refugees in Syria should also serve as a wake-up call to Palestinian communities in the diaspora, to translate words into action. There is an urgent need for an international civil society network that fills the gap created by the dismissive attitude of the international community and the wholesale failure, or even betrayal, by the Palestinian leadership.
The final destination of the decades-long journey of Palestinian refugees should be Palestine. This assertion is not open for bargaining or negotiations. However, until that inalienable right is realised, there must be a serious mechanism that anticipates and effectively responds to these recurring crises. Considering the never-ending conferences, countless TV discussions and ever-expanded text dedicated to this issue, it is fair to say that some form of centralised and practical action is not too much to ask.
Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is: My Father was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press).