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Starving Refugees: How We Disowned Palestinians in Syria

A worst case scenario is unfolding in Syria, and Palestinian refugees, particularly in the Yarmouk refugee camp, are paying a heavy price for Syria’s cruelest war. They are starving, although there can be no justification, nor logistical explanation for why they are dying from hunger.

Spokesman for the UN 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 Sep. 2013. Other estimates, especially those reported by local residents, say the number is significantly higher.

The camp, which is located south of Damascus, had once housed nearly 250,000 Palestinians that included 150,000 officially registered refugees. Three years of a brutal war later, Yarmouk is now nothing but ruins, and houses only around 18,000 residents who couldn’t escape to Lebanon, Jordan or elsewhere.

Reporting for the BBC from Damascus, Lyse Doucet quoted aid officials: “Aid officials in Damascus recently told me ‘the gates of Yarmouk were slammed shut in July’ and almost no aid has been allowed to enter since then.”

A minor Palestinian group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - the General Command, has tried to control Yarmouk on behalf of the Syrian government, an act that the refugees rejected. 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 – desperately tried to use every card in their disposal to weaken the other parties. The result has been devastating and is taking place at the expense of innocent refugees.

Aside 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 Dec 17, “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.”

Not that other Arab countries have proven kinder than Syria, for the UN agency reports that “those who have reached Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt face risky legal limbo compounded with living conditions so difficult that many decide to return to the dangers inside Syria.”

Yarmouk has been at the heart of that tragedy. The refugee camp was established in 1957 to shelter thousands of refugees who were expelled from Palestine at the hand of Zionist militias in 1947-48. Despite the fact that it was located in Syria, Yarmouk remained close to the pulse of the Palestinian tragedy, as hundreds of men were killed fighting against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. 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 Dec 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 Dec 16. Dozens were reportedly killed, and thousands fled for their lives.

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 were 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 the refugees 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, quoting an aid official: “I have never seen a humanitarian crisis on this scale which does not have a Security Council resolution.”

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

The disgrace hardly ends here, for some in the Palestine solidarity movement had ceased to think of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return as an issue that is at the heart of the Palestinian struggle for freedom. They only mobilize around the same issues which are located within the territorial and political parameters imposed by the Oslo accords. According to that logic, Palestinians in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and so on, are hardly a top priority for action and mobilization, even if they are killed by the hundreds or starve to death.

By paying greater attention to Palestinian refugees in Syria, one is hardly calling for ignoring the horrible reality under which the Syrian people continue to suffer. But Palestinian refugees have no legal status, no political representation, no serious international support, no leadership truly concerned by their plight, no place to go to nor place to return to. They have nothing, and now they are starving.

There can be no rationale to explain why the Syrian government and the rebels insist on embroiling the Palestinians into their war which is accumulating into an assortment of many war crimes that refuse to end.

The international community and Palestine solidarity groups everywhere must place Palestinian refugees on the top of their agenda. Food should never be a weapon in this dirty war, and Palestinians should never 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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