The Siege of Yarmouk

Yarmouk Palestinian Camp, Damascus

At the Palestine Embassy in Beirut recently, a young lady showed this observer a video of a gentleman in Yarmouk camp in Damascus, killing and eating a cat because food ran out weeks ago and nearly 18,000 refugees are facing death from starvation and other siege related causes since July 2013. These targeted Palestinians are part of the quarter million children, women, and men, now trapped and dying from hunger and illness in Syria as a direct and predictable result of using siege of against civilians as a weapon of war. Across Syria, neighborhoods are being blockaded with residents running out of supplies and unable to get basic services. Among the Syrians towns currently under siege are Nubul and Al-Zahraa in Aleppo province, the old city of Homs, and the towns of Eastern Ghouta, Daraya and Moadamiyet al-Sham in rural Damascus.

None more so than the systematic starvation of Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk camp where this past week eight more Palestinians have died from malnutrition, including  80-year-old, Jamil al-Qurabi,  40-year-old, Hasan Shihabi, and  50-year-old woman named Noor. In addition, 10-year-old Mahmoud al-Sabbagh and two 19-year-olds, Majid Imad Awad and Ziad al-Naji, were killed while protesting the blockade of the camp.  Their families claim that Muhammad Ibrahim Dhahi  and Hasan Younis Nofal were tortured and killed.

In December 2013, UNRWA Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi, issued a statement about the plight of the Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk camp, in which he said: “Since September 2013 we have been unable to enter the area [Yarmouk camp] to deliver desperately needed relief supplies.”  Based on conversations with Palestinian who were able to literally crawl out of Yarmouk from sewage pipes on the South side of Yarmouk, more than 100 as of 1/15/14 have died from starvation during the past four months i.e. since mid-August 2013. Other causes of death of refugees inside Yarmouk have included three dozen cases of death by dehydration and malnutrition, and some infants dying from lack of milk, more than three dozen abortions caused by lack of food,  a few deaths from food poisoning by consuming old and spoiled food, more than a dozen deaths due to a lack of medical supplies in addition to deaths by hypothermia due to lack of fuel. Recently I spoke to a gentleman whose niece, an infant girl, died of suffocation in her neonatal intensive care unit due to the electricity being cut.

In January of 2013 the UN estimated that one million people needed urgent humanitarian assistance and today, 12 months later, the figure is nearly ten million that according to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon this week speaking at yet another Aid conference. A commission of inquiry set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council found war crimes, crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations are being committed in Syria on a daily basis. According to its conclusion, “All sides in the conflict have shown a total disregard for their responsibilities under the international humanitarian and human rights law.”

With respect to the systematic starvation of Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk camp and similar crimes against civilians elsewhere in Syria,  relevant international law was created specifically to stop the targeting of civilians and its principles, standards and rules demand that it end and the prosecution of the perpetrators irrespective of which side in the civil war in Syria they support. A Civil war is an armed conflict  located on the territory of one state, between the armed forces of the State and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups  under responsible command, control over part of the land are able to carry out armed operations continuous and coordinated. Applicable international law includes Common Article 3 of Protocol II (1977) the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Whether regime armed forces and their allies or  anti-government militia,  both are legally bound to respect the Geneva Conventions  and must lift the siege on  Yarmouk and if not they risk prosecution at an existing international court of a possible Special Tribunal for Syria being contemplated among some at the United Nations.

International criminal law applicable to those who are today enforcing the siege of Yarmouk includes but it not limited to Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949: Part IV: Civilian Population:


1. The civilian population and individual civilians shall enjoy general protection against the dangers arising from military operations.

To give effect to this protection, the following rules shall be observed in all circumstances.

2. The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.

3. Civilians shall enjoy the protection afforded by this Part, unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.

Article 14. PROTECTION OF OBJECTS INDISPENSABLE TO THE SURVIVAL OF THE CIVILIAN POPULATION. Starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited. It is therefore prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless, for that purpose, objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as food stuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works.

Article 15. PROTECTION OF WORKS AND INSTALLATIONS CONTAINING DANGER OUS FORCES. Works or installations containing dangerous forces, namely dams, dykes and nuclear electrical generating stations, shall not be made the object of attack, even where these objects are military objectives, if such attack may cause the release of dangerous forces and consequent severe losses among the civilian population.

This body of international law requires that all warring parties immediate end the siege of Yarmouk  and allow the entry of food supplies while permitting those who want to leave the camp  to do so and those who want to return to their homes to be able to do so safely.  The law also requires guarantees of safe passages to relief teams, UN fact finding missions, and unobstructed entry of medicines, medical staff and medical equipment. Those who today are preventing this are subject to international criminal prosecution and as noted above are subject to future prosecution at any time as their crimes prevent the application of any Statute of Limitations.

According to human rights activists attempts to evacuate civilians from Yarmouk camp failed in spite of efforts and agreements between the regime and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and those who attempt to leave got arrested and serious bodily and mental harm inflicted on them, and were shot at near camp’s entries – in particular, the last two months of 2013 and early January 2014.  Several agreements between the warring parties, being the Syrian government forces and rebels assaulting Yarmouk have not been honored by either. Attempts to evacuate civilians from Yarmouk have consistently failed in spite of efforts and agreements between the regime and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and some who attempted escape were arrested, beaten or shot at. These attempts to bring in relief supplies reportedly received a green light at the highest levels of the Syrian government.

The several attempts to lift the siege usually include versions of the following language from Yarmouk’s Popular Committee that “based on our principled position of positive neutrality and keeping the Palestinians and their camps out of the confrontations in Syria, we propose that all the Palestinian camps – and Yarmouk camp in particular – be secure and safe areas, free of weapons and fighters, by taking the following steps:

– End all public display of weapons and fighters, with guarantees to those who wish to do so.

– Avoid the use of the camps as areas of confrontation and cease all forms of fighting, including sniping and shelling.

– Allow the free movement of people, food, medical supplies and vehicles in and out of the camp, which will encourage the return of the displaced to their homes.

– Restore services, including electricity, water, telecommunications, schools, and hospitals.

– Provide amnesty to all those camp residents who have been detained if their involvement in the fighting cannot be confirmed.

Second, follow up and coordinate efforts in order to execute the steps outlined in the proposal by eliminating all obstacles, providing all that is required for its success.

Despite the neutrality policy announced by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, parallel to unequivocal statements by Palestinian delegations which acquitted the regime of any responsibility in the besieging, bombing and targeting of the camp and its inhabitants, this has not been not enough to ensure the entry of a humanitarian aid convoys.

There is a little hope that relief may come. Against the backdrop of accusations and condemnations being circulated, at a time when the civilians’ suffering is escalating and when the situation is heading towards a catastrophic humanitarian situation many are looking to Russia to end the catastrophe by pressuring the Assad regime to lift their part of the siege with a similar positive results  it achieved by getting rid of its chemical weapons.

Not everyone who claims to support the Resistance and recites that Palestine in his blood stream sacred cause currently agrees with the above analysis.

Indeed, Mr. Ibrahim Amin, Editor in Chief of Lebanon’s Al Akbar daily newspaper, presents an  argument that somehow because Palestinians have been given many more civil rights in Syria than for example in Lebanon, which to Syria’s great credit is true; the refugees are somehow at fault for their own slaughter and siege at Yarmouk. This is nonsense of course as is his statement, “In Syria, Palestinians were citizens.”  Palestinians for example, cannot vote in Syrian elections and Amin should know that they have never been made citizens of Syria and this is common knowledge.

Writing in the 1/13/14 issue of his newspaper, Editor Amin piles endless blame on the victims, rather than the perpetrators, by seeming to argue that they deserved what is happening to the babies dying of malnutrition, dehydration, disease cause by the siege of their camp. He demands to know “What pushed Palestinians in this camp to believe in toppling Bashar al-Assad? No sane person ever figured that much of the camp would raise their weapons in the face of Syria.”

More nonsense from the Editor in Chief since irtually every Palestinian organization, leader,  and camp resident living in any one UNWRA’s 54 camps including the ten in Syria have repeatedly proclaimed their non-involvement in the Syria conflict. Presumably in his line of work Mr. Amin would know this and if he did speak to any Palestinian about the conflict in Syria he was likely advised that Palestinians were grateful to the Syrian people for hosting them and that they regret that some of their leaders got involved with the Iraq conflict under Sadaam because the innocent Palestinian civilians paid dearly-but they will not repeat the mistake in Syria. It is a fact that some individual Palestinians following the intense December 12-17, 2012 shelling and bombing of parts of Yarmouk turned against those who were blamed for targeting them.

Mr. Amin insists, without proffering any evidence, that “Those who stayed are the ones who refused to go through a new displacement, as well as members of armed groups and their families. In a few months the camp was transformed into a haven for groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Nusra Front.”  Again his assertions are false and politically motivated. Those who stayed are overwhelmingly those refugees who cannot escape.  The Syrian army to its credit has not invaded the camp but it does surround and seals most of it. Some rebels groups are hiding inside and also terrorizing the camp.

It is egregious for Mr. Amin to misrepresent the facts of Palestinian neutrality in Syrian camps, it is doubly egregious for Mr. Amin to do so apparently wishing to gain approval from Syrian or Resistance leaders.  Neither is likely to be other than embarrassed by Mr. Amin’s gross misrepresentations and his gratuitous ad holmium attacks on refugee camp victims of war crimes. The Editor in Chiefs distortions do not help the Resistance but rather they harm it.  As does his insistence that the murder of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri eight years ago was done with a ‘secret missile’ fired from the Zionist regime occupying Palestine. There are a fair number of “Resistance groupies” and bloggers, well-meaning perhaps, but many actually aid enemies of the Resistance by their clumsy attempts at water carrying while ignoring reality.

But there is good news awaiting Mr. Amin if he will accept the invitation from one who considers himself to have been “Hezbollah long before the 1985 “Open Letter” announcing the organizing of the Party of God next to where this observer gets his motorbike repaired in Ouzai. Which is to say “Hezbollah” in the sense that this observer, since studying International Law in Law School, has supported the liberation of Palestine while rejecting the last of the 19th century’s colonial enterprising which still occupies Palestine.  This observer shares Hezbollah’s Resistance goals and their declared responsibility to continue the struggle until achieving the Full Right of Return.

This observer is not a card carrying member of the Resistance as I want to remind dear friend Jeff Feltman who swore at an Embassy Christmas party a while back that “Lamb faces ten years hard time in the Feds when he dares to set foot on American soil for hobnobbing with terrorists.”

Since Jeff had been imbibing Christmas cheer during a Carol sing when he made that statement to an Embassy staffer hopefully he has forgotten by now. That would be good news.

And for Mr. Amin, here is what a fellow supporter of the Resistance is willing to do for him in order to maybe help him re-assess his conclusion about what is going on in Yarmouk.

I invite Mr. Amin to appear in the lobby of the Dama Rose hotel in Damascus at 9 a.m. sharp on 1/24/14. I will buy him breakfast and two contacts from Yarmouk will brief him on our morning program.   That program will include Mr. Amin discretely accompanying us to the south side of Yarmouk. Depending on conditions that morning, we will arrive in front of the Zakerin Mosque in Al-Buweida, maybe 300 yards from the Az-Zain neighborhood.  We will need Mr. Amin to join us in crawling  through a rather claustrophobic h and smelly 40 yard length of 30” diameter drain pipe and we’ll hopefully safely end up in the basement of “Abu Ali’s” half remaining house where several refugees are still trapped—and he can also visit with others next door. He should bring some cash, because his host doesn’t have much and we may need a bit to bribe a couple of gun-kids from one of the militia to facilitate our exit in case we are ratted out so to speak.

Finally Mr. Amin will be able to see for himself and listen to direct testimony about what is and has been happening to and inside Yarmouk. He can ask the weakened residents about the conclusions he confidently presented in his Al Akbar article claiming that the Yarmouk tragedy and crimes are their fault. For example, using his words, “what pushed Palestinians in this camp to believe in toppling Bashar al-Assad, about why no sane person ever figured that much of the camp would raise their weapons in the face of Syria.”  Also his ascertain their thoughts on his written conclusion that “Today, the unfolding events (in Yarmouk) are 100 percent a Palestinian responsibility.”

He may be surprised at what he learns about camp residents still trapped having had no say or active role in any of what he is accusing them of.

Just maybe Mr. Amin will then be motivated to edit a bit his earlier ridiculous broadside attacking the victims of the Yarmouk siege.  And should he feel any contrition, maybe he will devote some of his energy and space in his newspaper to actually working for two elementary civil rights-the right to work and home ownership- for Palestinians in Lebanon. Their achievement will benefit Lebanon and the Resistance both of which Mr. Amin claim to support.

Franklin Lamb is a former Democratic National Committee Member representing Oregon.  He volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program.

Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. He is reachable c/o