Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Yarmouk - A real case of Palestinians living "under siege"

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The civil war in Syria has created a humanitarian crisis on a huge scale. Yet some aspects of that catastrophe have received little media attention. For instance, the reported intentional, cruel and cynical blocking of the provision of urgently needed humanitarian aid, mainly, yet not exclusively, by Assad's forces, is one such aspect. Now another issue deserving of international attention, but not receiving it, has become apparent - the starvation of Palestinian refugees in Syria, most notably in the Yarmouk camp on the edge of Damascus.

Reports says that each day brings with it new deaths from starvation at the Yarmouk refugee camp, where for months the residents have been living under siege. At least 48 deaths from illnesses related to the siege have been reported since November. At least five deaths seem to have been a direct result of starvation and malnutrition and others from a lack of medicine. Some have died of anemia and diabetes, and the quality of food is so poor that, in one case, a family in desperation cooked and ate a cat, only to later suffer from severe food poisoning, according to reports. Starvation generally afflicts the most vulnerable the hardest, and all those who have died have been children or elderly. Thousands more are reportedly at risk of imminent death due to lack of nutritious food, clean water and medical care. For almost a year the refugee camp has been disconnected from heating and electricity. The prices of the food available are so high, few can afford it, and most residents of the camp reportedly survive on little more than small portions of lentils, onions, stale vegetables, powdered tomato paste, animal feed and even boiled grass.

On top of the death toll claimed by malnutrition local Palestinians in Syria, including teens and children, have also been killed while protesting the conditions in the blockaded camp - tortured to death by pro-Assad forces or murdered in bombings.

In a video recently posted on YouTube, a teenage boy from Yarmouk camp describes the desperate conditions in the camp, and the suffering of the residents as he broke into heartbreaking sobs: "We just want to eat and drink, and we have no money...What have we done to be part of this? It is nothing to do with us."

As the negotiations between the Syrian factions commenced this week in Geneva, humanitarian aid and relief is expected to be raised as an urgent item on the agenda, as the UN estimates that 9.3 million Syrians within the country and 2 million more outside it are in urgent need of aid. While the UN and other humanitarian aid and relief organisations are attempting to provide food and other basic needs for millions of Syrians, they cannot reach the most vulnerable and endangered populations. Civilians, mainly in rebel-held territories and especially in neighbourhoods and suburbs of Damascus, are surrounded by pro-Assad fighters that intentionally prevent access to food or medical aid. In Yarmouk too, residents accuse pro-Assad forces of blocking access to the camp by relief convoys.

The policy of deliberate obstruction is now taking its toll in Yarmouk, as described by Chris Gunness from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA):

"There is profound civilian suffering in Yarmouk, with widespread incidence of malnutrition and the absence of medical care." He added that "Yarmouk remains closed to humanitarian access and remains a place where extreme human suffering in primitively harsh conditions is the norm."

In another statement Gunness demanded that:

"... Yarmouk must be open to safe, regular humanitarian access; that the civilian residents of Yarmouk must be granted free, safe movement; and that all sides to the Syria conflict must comply with their international obligations to protect Syrian and Palestinian civilians in Yarmouk and across Syria."

Strong words, but they appear unlikely to have much effect on the brutal tactics of the Assad regime. The Assad regime, for its part, argues that the camp provides refuge to "terrorists," including members of the radical Jabhat al-Nusra.

Palestinian commentator Hussein Ibish from Lebanon's NOW news identifies a "blame the victim" line of thinking coming from pro-Syrian commentators. He notes that:

"According to [Al-Akhbar editor Ibrahim] al-Amin it is, believe it or not, the Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk themselves [who are to blame].'What are these Palestinians doing?' he thunders. 'Why are they doing it? Who can stop them or convince them that their battle is elsewhere? Palestinian refugees are the ones called to conduct an overall review.'"

Amin is also quoted as stating that "the unfolding events [in Yarmouk] are 100 percent a Palestinian responsibility."

To this Ibish answers:

"Really? What were the dying, starving, and wretched refugees in Yarmouk supposed to do about this? Like all Arab demagogues, Amin knows just who to blame. On cue, like the broken record he is, he concludes, 'The one who seeks to liberate Palestine doesn't join a bunch of murderers who work under US command to serve one occupier and one criminal: Israel.'"

Blaming Israel for Palestinian suffering to distract attention away from serious atrocities is, of course, not a new trick. Ibish warns that the true nature and interests of the Assad regime and its allies and supporters is exposed by the case of Yarmouk - proving that the Palestinian cause and "liberation" are not their true agenda:

"Those who still worship at the altar of the false idol of 'resistance' and see Assad, Iran, Hezbollah, and their allies as the embodiment of the Arab cause are not simply disingenuous or delusional propagandists. Their thinking - not even, but especially, if it is sincere - is profoundly sick."

A recent attempt to relieve some of the conditions in Yarmouk appears to provide the tragic proof of Ibish's argument. When a PLO convoy of trucks loaded with food and medicines tried to access the camp, they found themselves under fire by pro-Assad forces as they approached a checkpoint at one of the camp entrances, preventing them from delivering the aid. The PLO says it has been trying to negotiate with "Syrian officials and [pro-Assad] militants in Palestinian camps in Syria in order to reach a solution and create a safe passage for the entry of relief supplies to Yarmouk."

As Ibish notes:

"They are, in effect, begging for the lives of innocent Palestinians suffering a siege that, while significantly smaller in scale, is without doubt much crueler and more arbitrary than anything imposed on Gaza by either Israel or Egypt."

The international community and some Western leaders have made a few statements condemning Assad's aid prevention policies. For example, British Foreign Secretary William Hague recently stated that:

"The deliberate obstruction of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people is... utterly unacceptable."

After months of forced starvation, the United Nations recently confirmed that some desperately needed food aid has finally reached Yarmouk. Yet even the 200 parcels of food aid that reached the camp can only provide one-third of the calories required to sustain 1,000 people for a month. It is hardly enough to feed the thousands living at the camp, despite the shocking fact that Yarmouk's pre-war population of between 160,000 to 250,000 has shrunk in the years since the civil war began to merely 18,000, according to UN sources, with most residents fleeing the fighting.

Yet as the Assad regime's tactics in Yarmouk reach new levels of cruelty, with starvation used as a weapon of war in a way never done by Israel, the so-called "pro-Palestinian" critics of Israel, while constantly berating Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians and falsely asserting Gaza is "under siege" and denied adequate food, are almost completely silent about the plight of Palestinian refugees in Syria.

American foreign policy pundit Walter Russell Mead took to task the "pro-Palestinian" activists and organisations for their hypocrisy, writing on the American Interest website that:

"The total silence among Israel-bashers while Palestinians are starved and murdered just a few dozen miles outside Israel's borders tells us two things about so much ostensible concern for the Palestinians. First is that, in the cozy cocoon of the anti-Israel world, the suffering of Palestinians only becomes visible when Israelis do something to them. Otherwise they and their problems simply don't exist.

The second is that many of the people who think they're standing up for Palestinians are more prejudiced than they'd like to admit. They spend much time and energy condemning the Jewish state for various crimes committed against Palestinians, but do nothing as far more despicable crimes are visited upon the same people by Arab Muslims."