The streets of Al Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee camp in Syria have known better days. Established in 1957 in the Southern outskirts of Damascus, it was once home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees registered under the UN agency UNWRA. Over time, infrastructure and housing within the camp improved and services and facilities began operating in it, including schools and medical institutions.
All this came to an end with the onset of the Syrian civil war. The residents of Al Yarmouk have become cannon fodder in the Syrian crisis. When the war first started in 2011, many residents joined anti-Assad groups and since then bloody hostilities never ceased in and around the camp. Intense fighting between pro-government and rebel forces led to the camp being bombed by Syrian airplanes. ISIS took control of the camp in 2015, and the regime responded with a ruthless siege on its inhabitants. In recent weeks, regime forces, with the support of some Palestinian factions from within the camp, as well as by Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters, resumed pressure on the strategically located camp. This includes pounding the remaining people of the camp with constant bombing and ground assaults, leaving many dead.
Numerous reports on May 1 suggested that an evacuation of both fighters and civilians from Yarmouk as part of a wider deal to evacuate rebel enclaves in southern Damascus was either underway or imminent.
The effects of the bombardment on the camp and its residents have been devastating. The latest attack by Assad further exacerbates the already dire situation. A Syrian-Palestinian NGO claims up to 60 percent of the camp is in complete ruins, with no remaining medical facilities.
UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness told reporters that tens of thousands of Yarmouk people were forcibly displaced to the neighbouring area of Yalda, “Most fled their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Their needs are dire. There are reports that people are begging for medicine. Some have spent their first nights in the street,” he said.
According to a report by the Voice of America on April 30, only about 400 civilians now remain in the camp.
Al Yarmuk is a typical example of the plight of Palestinians in Syria. According to UNRWA’s count, at least 250,000 of the 438,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria were internally or externally displaced, sometimes more than once. Over 95 per cent of them require ongoing humanitarian aid, and more than 50,000 are trapped in inaccessible locations.
Moreover, they are being targeted by everyone – used, suspected and/or rejected by both the Syrian government and the various rebel and jihadist forces in the bloody conflict. Close to 4,000 Palestinians died in Syria over the war years, and thousands are either missing or detained. Yarmouk native, Musaab Balchi, explains that “people like ourselves were chased by everybody. To Jabhat al-Nusra [anti-Assad Islamic faction], we were ‘infidels’ and spies of the Assad regime. To the regime, we were guilty of supporting the revolution, and cooperating with the opposition factions.” Palestinian refugee adult men (up to the age of 30) are often forcibly conscripted to the Palestine Liberation Army in Syria, under the command of the Syrian Army. Absurdly, yet typically, Palestinians fight each other in various factions and the government.
One might expect the Palestinian leadership to stand up and condemn those responsible for this horrendous humanitarian plight facing so many of their brothers and sisters in Syria. But, Abu Mazen, the president of the Palestinian Authority and others in his cohort, are completely quiet. Not a word. This silence speaks about the unwillingness or inability of Palestinian leaders to even verbally confront the murderous butcher from Damascus, using chemical weapons and killing his own people and Palestinians.
By comparison – and exemplifying a double standard – the list of Palestinian news outlets, official or otherwise, scrutinising and condemning each and every Israeli defence operation in the West Bank or along the Gaza border seems virtually endless.
Arab-Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh defines the fate of the Palestinians in Syria as “ethnic cleansing on a daily basis” and called out the Palestinian leadership’s duplicity, attacking Israel on the one hand, while “when it comes to atrocities being committed against their people in an Arab country, words apparently fail Palestinian leaders. Assad and his army can slaughter Palestinians and launch airstrikes on a Palestinian camp without a whimper of protest from Hamas or the Palestinian Authority”.
The hypocrisy does not stop there. There are Palestinians who openly support Assad, even now. An organisation called Fatah-Intifada held (April 23) a demonstration in Hebron in support of Syria and Hezbollah, waving Syrian flags and encouraging their brothers to participate in the intensive fighting at Al-Yarmuk. This event took place at the heart of Hebron under the noses of PA security apparatuses, and there was no counterprotest or other substantive response.
Out-preforming every other Palestinian was the leader of the Joint Arab group of parties in the Israeli parliament, Ayman Odeh. Speaking on April 10, Odeh claimed that Trump lied when he blamed Assad for the chemical attack in Gh’outa, arguing that the Syrian dictator is “moving from one success to another”.
His party, Hadash (the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality), later staged a rally with Syrian flags in Haifa to protest “US policy in the region”.
Dr. Suhiel Asa’d, Hadash member at the municipality of Haifa, refused to denounce Assad and reiterated conspiracy theories suggesting the US is behind ISIS.
(The last two links I’ve mentioned from Hebrew sources but can be automatically translated in Google Chrome).
The phenomenon of unwavering support for Assad among Palestinians – and in particular the outspoken support voiced by Odeh, featured in a Jerusalem Post editorial on April 15 which linked the matter with what it identified as a broader problem of Palestinian support for extremist political positions generally.
The editorial noted:
A survey by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research conducted in mid-March found that if parliamentary elections were held with the participation of all factions [in the Palestinian Authority], 31% would vote for Hamas, 36% would vote for Fatah and 9% would vote for all other third parties combined…
Further, regarding Odeh:
[What’s] troubling is that the leader of Israel’s third-largest list in the Knesset, who ostensibly represents the interests of Israel’s Arab population, is unable to articulate a more nuanced position – whether it be on the Syrian civil war or striking a modus vivendi for peaceful coexistence with the Jewish state.
In other words, the polarised, extreme Palestinian attitudes towards Syria is not unique to that conflict, but finds parallels in Palestinian and Israeli Arab politics, with moderate politicians and their viewpoints marginalised.
For Israel, which continues to seek peace with the Palestinians, this should remain cause for concern long after the guns stop blazing over Yarmouk.
Ahron Shapiro and AIJAC Staff