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Yarmouk Palestinian camp, Damascus
This observer does not write these words causally and he is no huge fan of most intellectually lazy quick spun internet conspiracy theories, too many of which appear given to flights from reality when facts get complicated and dispositive information is obscure.
However, after months of studying the political, social, military, and economic situation in Yarmouk camp, and based on some insightful meetings with former camp residents and PLO stalwarts who have been active in the cause of Palestine going back to the 1980’s or earlier, Yarmouks survival prospects appear fatally bleak. If one follows where the facts of the past three years lead, it is difficult to escape the increasingly heard conclusion from Palestinians themselves. Yarmouk, as with four other Palestinian camps in Syria, is deeply wounded by the civil war and unlikely to survive the current crisis whether it ends in months or continues for decades as many regional and western intelligence assessments are concluding.
In part, Yarmouk’s curse and current fate is due partly to its location. It is a triangular slice pointing straight into central downtown Damascus, a strategic last piece in the mosaic required to make a strong rebel advance on the capital. Its relative isolation from the conflict was shattered in mid-December 2012. This is when armed groups came into the camp, the government surrounded the area, and clashes ensued. UNRWA’s 28 schools and three clinics ceased operation. Armed groups also occupied houses, looted hospitals and stores. Those inside Yarmouk and who did not manage or did not want to flee got caught in a tight stranglehold that continues today.
UNRWA’s HQ in Damascus estimates that more than 70 percent of the Palestinian refugees in Syria are in need of emergency humanitarian assistance immediately, while more than 50 percent are internally displaced. 142 people in Yarmouk refugee camp died from hunger and lack of medical care just since June 2013. As of last week more than 11,000 Palestine refugees fleeing Syria sought support from UNRWA in Jordan alone and if they can somehow enter the Kingdoms its government policy is to deport them back to Syria, robbing them of their right to survival. UNRWA is expecting the numbers in Jordan to exceed 20,000 by the end of 2014. Even the While House reminded Jordan’s King Hussein that such a policy violates the international law principle of non-refoulement, which protects refugees from being sent back to places where their lives or freedoms could be threatened.
With respect to Yarmouk camp, if one follows where the facts of the past three years lead, Yarmouk is likely fatally wounded. Tragically, in all probability this largest of Syria’s refugee camps is not going to survive the country’s civil war and the camp community will succumb to a similar fate as have Tel al-Zaatar, Nabiteyeh and Nahr al Bared (now partially rebuilt after 7 years) camps in Lebanon and four other camps in Syria. The loss of Yarmouk will be compounded because in Syria, Palestinians found secure, sympathetic refuge in 1948. Then, Palestinians fleeing their land were welcomed throughout the region in solidarity. In 2014, there is simply no more welcome. For over six decades they nurtured families and communities, integrated economically, and formed a subset of the cultural and intellectual fabric of a vibrant and proud Syrian society.
Yarmouk is also a symbol of Palestinian insistence: insistence that the right of return be addressed, insistence that their narrative be recognized, that their need for safety be respected, that their rights be upheld, that they live in dignity. One aspect which always stood out for foreign visitors to Yarmouk were the Youth clubs which provided teenagers with safe creative space where they developed skills while choosing colleges over kalashnikovs.
Lakhdar Brahimi’s recent warning about the “Somalization” of Syria is not simply a shocking political observation, but as he told this observer at the Dama Rose hotel in Damascus last year, it is also a daily reality for Yarmouk camp.
The trio of Palestinian fighter-fielding groups now fighting inside Yarmouk include Ahmed Jibrils, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (currently the PFLP-GC has approximately 800 fighters inside Yarmouk) the Nidal Front ( a few hundred fighters at most) and Fatah Intifada (close to 600 Palestinian fighters). The Fatah Intifada faction, since the death last year of its founder “Abu Musa”, is now headed by Ziad el Sghayer, (nom de guerre-Abu-Hazem) is Secretary of the FI Central Committee with whom this observer spent an evening two weeks ago in Damascus along with FI’s articulate spokesman Yaser al-Masri.
The Khaled Abdul Majeed led Nidal Front, since1992, has been a breakaway faction of the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front (PPSF) that split from the PLO in protest over Yassir Arafat’s compromises with Israel which led to the 1993 Oslo Accords. The Nidal Front, as of 4/11/14, has a few hundred fighters in Yarmouk but is recruiting more as funds permit and does not recognize the so-called Palestinian National Authority (PNA) chaired by Mahmoud Abass. Khaled Majeed insisted to this observer that only armed resistance will liberate Palestine and the NF works with the PFLP-GC and Fatah Intifada (approximately 600 fighters inside Yarmouk) on most Palestine liberation strategy and coordination continues among the three PLO splinter groups inside Yarmouk.
Some leaders from the above noted three main, if small, former PLO factions militia and who claim to be fighting the ‘terrorists’ in Yarmouk in private conversation hint, despite regularly holding bravado news conferences that would suggest the contrary, that actually they see prospects for Yarmouk similarly and the camps fate is likely sealed at least when compared to what is has been since its founding in 1957. Current refugee views with respective to the Palestinian ‘resistance’ inside Yarmouk pretty much span the political spectrum and many former Yarmouk residents and Palestinian analysts heap plenty of blame of the above noted groups who many consider traitors.
Many Palestinians who have fled Yarmouk, and others still trapped inside or who are in surrounding countries blame the three PLO splinter groups for making the Yarmouk situation and likely fate worse. Some are even charging them with treason for playing the Palestinian card for others and for political and economic gain while engaging in fake negotiations with Jabhat al Nusra and other jihadist groups including the last negotiated seven ‘breakthroughs” that were supposed to lift the siege and allow those trapped to flee to safety. However, as events have shown, were doomed to failure before they were even announced.
A friend at the Palestine Embassy in Beirut recently told this observer that the PLFP-GC, Fateh Intifada, and The Nidal Front “are not Palestinian at all! Just by ID card and ancestry maybe. They are owned by a foreign government and have many times targeted Yarmouk camp residents claiming to” protect” the camp. These guys and the rebels claim to be protecting Yarmouk but the truth is sometimes they work with each other to exploit in various ways the crisis. For politics and money. Take your motorcycle and visit refugees from Yarmouk staying in Shatila, Burj Barajneh, Mar Elias– or Yarmouk residents sheltering in any of the camps here in Lebanon what they think about these traitors and what they are doing to destroy Yarmouk!”
Few Palestinians in Syria have much hope that the so-called ‘cease-fires’, nine announced over the past year, will hold and allow more than a trickle of aid into Yarmouk. The most promising ‘reconciliation’ between rebels and government supporters inside Yarmouk began on in early February. Jabhat al Nursa and some allies did withdraw from the south side of Yarmouk for nearly 30 days. They then re-entered and cries from the three Palestinian factions were loud that they were double-crossed. There are not surprisingly other views of what happened to the ‘reconcialation’ and this observer heard one view in detail during a meeting with the al Nusra spokesman and one of its jihadist commanders in south Damascus late last month.
Briefly put, the rebels claim that they kept the agreement for 30 days but PFLP-GC and Shabiha forces inside Yarmouk failed to allow in more than token aid for the refugees under siege and, failed to neutralize the camp. Al Nursa claims the Palestinian factions instead brought in more arms and fighters as well as continuing to use snipers to kill Yarmouk refugees if they tried to leave or get food. Re-entering Yarmouk last month, (3/12/14) the Islamic State of the Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) admitted to this observer that they executed 21 Palestinians upon arrival to Yarmouk. At about the same time, the Al-Nusra Front militants kidnapped 30 other Palestinians who mediated a ceasefire between the warring sides in the camp after they also returned. Both groups told this observer that their victims were ‘fair game’ because they were supporters of the government.
Again, the exact truth the events inside Yarmouk is illusive but and many opinions are offered by Yarmouk residents who did manage to escape in January-February 2014 and from former residents who still hope that something is left of their homes.
Many Palestinians who have fled Yarmouk, and reportedly among many still trapped inside the camp or who are in surrounding countries blame the three PLO splinter groups for making the Yarmouk situation worse. Some are even charging them with treason for playing the Palestinian card for others and for political and economic gain while engaging in fake negotiations with Jabhat al Nusra and other jihadist groups including the last seven ‘breakthroughs” that were supposed to lift the siege and allow those trapped to flee to safety but all of which were doomed to failure before they were even announced.
Another aspect of the predicted death of Yarmouk and a major upheaval in Palestinian camps that many, including this observer, consider likely in the next couple of years, is the fact that increasingly, for different policies reasons, pressure for Yarmouk residents to join the long lines at Western embassies and seek a new, more secure and prosperous life for their children and families far away from Yarmouk or their country, Palestine. The forces working for this range from John Kerry’s recently pronouncements of rewards for Palestinians who give up their birth Right to Return to their ethnically cleansed land and homes to reports in the Israeli media about a secret EU deal with Israel and the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah, for substantial material rewards if the Right of Return is surrendered. The Zionist colonial enterprise has been working for 65 years to deal this inalienable right a death blow just as it is witnessing the growing international support for those the apartheid state expelled and it pledged again last week its assistance to the US and EU with this idea.
Those pushing to buy out the Right of Return in Washington and Brussels, are using AIPAC furnished ‘talking points’ that last week’s mailing to Congressional offices hi-lighted. They include reports and a survey from Beddawi Palestinian camp near Tripoli Lebanon, in Ain el Helwe camp in Saida, and now this week from Mieh Mieh camp in Saida, and among former Yarmouk residents in Syria that the Palestinian refugees want to emigrate. Emigrate to anywhere they can get a visa from Asia to Zambia but preferably to Europe.
Rumors this week about the German Embassy in Beirut being overwhelmed with applicants from Palestinian seeking a life of dignity have been seconded by other EU embassies in Lebanon. On 4/10/14, the German Embassy in Beirut denied reports that their visa appointment system had been hacked to ensure slots were booked up minutes after they were released, saying the problem was due to over-demand and had since been rectified. A report emerged last week in the German national newspaper Welt am Sonntag, the Sunday edition of Die Welt, alleging that hackers had infiltrated the German Embassy’s visa appointment system in Beirut and were snapping up all available slots to sell them on the black market outside Yarmouk camp and in Lebanon for up to $5,000. The Beirut Daily Star reported that as of yesterday (4/10/14) there was one slot available for Palestinians wishing to apply for a family reunion national visa appointment, and none for those seeking to apply for a Schengen EU visa appointment.
The international community has been unable to significantly help the Palestinian refugees trapped in Yarmouk and the other Palestinian camps in Syria. The camp may well die. The unfolding tragedy of Yarmouk is devastating to the psyche of every Palestinian refugee in more ways than the sheer suffering of those directly affected by it. There is a ripple effect of anxiety and fear emanating from Yarmouk. Walk by and you can experience it. Yarmouk has for six decades defined Palestinian solidarity and hope, and it now defines the loss and uncertainty not only for its residents, but also for Palestinians all over Syria, and of the wider community.
The remaining Palestinians trapped in Yarmouk and elsewhere continue their descent into the abyss. It will likely not be until the guns finally fall silent–in months or decades– that we will fully realize the price paid by Palestinian refugees and Syrians and the extent of their shared loss.
But what has already become perfectly clear is the magnitude of our shared shame for allowing the carnage, starvation, and crimes against Palestinian refugees to continue.
Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).