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Hussein Ibish

The tragedy in Yarmouk

The Syrian Palestinian refugee camp has become "hell on earth"

A man stands inside a demolished building in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital Damascus on 6 April 2015. Around 2,000 people have been evacuated from the camp after ISIS seized large parts of it. (AFP/Youssef Karwashan)

Given their tragic modern history, Palestinians are used to being trapped between Scylla and Charybdis in one form or another. But rarely has the situation been as stark and alarming as has now befallen the 18,000 remaining Palestinians and Syrians in the Yarmouk refugee camp just outside of Damascus.

Much of Yarmouk has been overrun by the fanatical terrorists of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The group’s familiar campaign of repression, beheadings and vicious abuse have already been reported in parts of Yarmouk. Meanwhile, Syrian government forces loyal to the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad have been attacking the camp with the regime’s equally familiar deadly assortment of indiscriminate firepower, including the dreaded barrel bombs.

One resident reported that in Yarmouk, “people are trapped because of the clashes and the continuous and indiscriminate bombing. It’s hard to go out at all. But they can expect where the guerilla war will take place, but they can never predict where the barrel bombs will come. There is no water. People are running out of food.”

Christopher Gunness, of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), summed up the dire situation as "beyond inhumane." He explained that "the camp has descended into levels of inhumanity which are unknown even in Yarmouk, and this was a society in which women died in childbirth for lack of medicine, and children died of malnutrition. Now ISIS have moved into the camp and people are cowering in their battered homes, too terrified to go outside. We in UNRWA have not had access since the fighting started, so there is no U.N. food, no U.N. water, no U.N. medicine. Electricity is in very, very short supply. It is astonishing that the civilized world can stand by while 18,000 civilians, including 3,500 children, can face potential imminent slaughter and do nothing."

One child who fled the camp reported seeing “two members of ISIS playing with a severed head as if it was a football” on Yarmouk's Palestine Street. Residents have reportedly been reduced to surviving on 400 calories a day. Those who have made it out are the lucky ones. Many are trapped and have nowhere to go.

It's true that the humanitarian crisis in Syria is perhaps the worst since the Second World War, and that there are many millions of other refugees and displaced persons produced by this war. But the fate of the stateless Palestinian refugees has long and properly been considered to be a special international responsibility and concern, given the direct and proactive role of the League of Nations and the United Nations in producing the circumstances that led to their exile and dispossession. This is why it is particularly poignant when Palestinian refugees find themselves caught in tragic circumstances such as the Lebanese Civil War and now the catastrophic conflict in Syria.

Yarmouk is, therefore, a particular international responsibility. The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on the crisis on Monday, but there is no indication that the international community intends to actually do anything about this calamity. Indeed, given the shameful "hands-off" approach to Syria that the West, and particularly the United States, has adopted, and the shameless support for the brutal Syrian regime by Russia and China, it's not immediately clear what they could do about the tragedy in Yarmouk. This is what happens when options are intentionally foreclosed and responsibilities abandoned.

Beyond the humanitarian disaster that it entails, this development is politically catastrophic as well. It signals the arrival of ISIS in southern Syria and the direct environs of Damascus in a dramatic new level of engagement and strength. They are using the same methodology they did to rise in parts of the north and east of Syria two years ago. And there is no reason to think that, with determination and perseverance, they won't be as effective in parts of the south as they have been in the other areas that have fallen under their control.

The attack on Yarmouk is part of a broader and alarming campaign by ISIS to establish a strong presence in the south of Syria. It is attempting, with considerable success thus far, to expand its footprint in Syria even as it is slowly rolled back in Iraq. It may have just lost control of Tikrit, but it has gained control of Yarmouk.

 

The Islamic State's presence in the south gives it access to the slowly developing battle for Damascus and the ongoing fight over the strategically vital mountain region of Qalamoun, near the Lebanese border. There, Hezbollah has been one of the mainstays of regime power, and if ISIS supplants more moderate rebel groups in the south, we might see a protracted battle between the two groups over Qalamoun and other areas near the Lebanese border—possibly spilling over into northern Lebanon as well.

Meanwhile, the Assad regime is trying to use the crisis to draw Palestinians into its orbit, offering them arms and "firepower" if they agree to take them in an effort to expel Islamic State fighters. That would obviously be a disastrous mistake, and one which Palestinians are unlikely, in the main, to make.

But that means that the Palestinian refugees in Syria will continue to find themselves trapped between the ruthless and brutal forces of a dictatorship that coldly and often remotely kills people indiscriminately with devices of mass murder like barrel bombs, and a monstrous terrorist organization that enjoys killing people up close and personally through a variety of antediluvian techniques of horror, from decapitation to burning people alive and flinging them from the tops of high buildings.

The situation in Yarmouk was tragic enough already, particularly given the siege imposed on the camp by the regime, but it has just gotten infinitely worse. Unfortunately, there is still the potential for an even further deterioration. "The worst is not so long as we can say 'This is the worst.'"

 

The international community may be shirking its responsibility, but that doesn't mean the responsibility goes away. On the contrary, an urgent moral responsibility that is ignored only becomes a greater ethical conundrum, and a deeper indictment.

 

Hussein Ibish is a columnist at NOW and The National (UAE). He is also a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He tweets @Ibishblog

A man stands inside a demolished building in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital Damascus on 6 April 2015. Around 2,000 people have been evacuated from the camp after ISIS seized large parts of it. (AFP/Youssef Karwashan)

People are trapped because of the clashes and the continuous and indiscriminate bombing. It’s hard to go out at all. But they can expect where the guerilla war will take place, but they can never predict where the barrel bombs will come. There is no water. People are running out of food.”

  • Petrossou

    It has become obvious that nobody gives a shit about them anymore!

    April 15, 2015

  • Anne Selden Annab

    Heart breaking- but a very good column by Hussein Ibish. I am glad Ibish has not abandoned Palestine and the refugees. While I understand Ibish's call is for the international community, I have to wonder what exactly is the international community- is it formal governments worldwide, or is it mainly people speaking out to persuade their peers and elected leaders and newspapers to promote preferred story lines? I can not help but think of all the many "pro-Palestine" activist individuals who constantly knock support away from diplomacy and state building efforts for Palestine. Why are one-staters, anti-Israel Jewish activists and Islamists, who all tend to scorn negotiations, never ever held accountable for prolonging the Israel-Palestine conflict? How many reasonable able advocates has Palestine lost, and how many good arguments for negotiations and statehood simply are not being made because 'pro-Palestine' in America has been hijacked by anti-state activists? Seems to me the real Imperialism of today is a conglomeration of all the many "pro-Palestine" activist inciters weighing in to exasperate racism, religious bigotry, extremism, escalating conflict... further disenfranchising people connected to Palestine, and alienating America (and donors for UNWRA), rather than giving people concerned about the very real plight of the Palestinians the tools to help build a future with good jobs and real freedom based on a just and lasting peace for both Israel and for Palestine. I wish more people had given more public support to American Task Force on Palestine efforts... I wish more people understood the vital importance of diplomacy and dialogue... and citizenship. American Task Force on Palestine might not be super active today, but all the many wise words, honest insights and good advice written through the years by Ibish & Dr. Ziad Asali (and others) remain in view providing a glimmer of hope that reasonable arguments for a real Palestine can still be made.

    April 10, 2015

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    And Israeli expansionism, annexation, dilation on negotiations, creating facts on the ground, stealing land, uprooting humans and olive trees, demolishing homes, settlements....all of this is not a factor? It seems to me that those whom you refer to as "one-staters" are not alienating America; they are actually, finally, winning the arguments battle, notwithstanding the might of the Israel lobby. Palestinians have by and large abandoned terrorism for diplomacy, something they should have done long ago, but they are finally winning. The persistent question, though, is: while it is, in my mind at least, too late for either a one-state or a two-state solution, both hopelessly romantic, it is too late for whom? Is it too late for the Palestinians, or is it too late for the Israelis? The former have little to lose given they have essentially all the time in the world and a huge demographic critical mass behind them, but the latter have everything to lose because they cannot indefinitely sustain the far-from-equilibrium artificial status quo in which they have shoved themselves . And so, Israel may have won all the battles, but Palestine may ultimately win the war, granted that the dumb Israelis still have the Samson option. I remind readers that 1,000 years ago, Christian Crusaders came to retake Palestine. using similar arguments as the Zionists. They built kingdoms, counties, settlements...and stayed 200-300 years, won all the battles..but eventually lost the war. The Jewish Crusade called Israel is by its very definition similarly untenable in the grand scheme of history, and so will in all likelihood suffer the same fate as their Christian forerunners.

    April 12, 2015

  • Anne Selden Annab

    History does not have grand schemes. History is simply what we chose to point out and remember and repeat in trying to make sense of our world. Fact is a real Israel exists right now with many loyal citizens, and that well armed nation state is not going to go away even if the Israel lobby in America loses the power to persuade Americans to invest in Israel. Israel will either be at war with Palestine, or at peace with Palestine. Perpetuating the Israel-Palestine conflict (and all that conflict's many very negative ramifications) by promising Palestinians that given more time they'll win back everything they have lost is cruel: The longer the Israel-Palestine conflict goes on the more the people of historic Palestine suffer. Countless increasingly vulnerable Palestinian men, women and children need peace and stability- and citizenship... and jobs. Yes, "Israeli expansionism, annexation, dilation on negotiations, creating facts on the ground, stealing land, uprooting humans and olive trees, demolishing homes, settlements" (covering only a few of the ugly points about Israel that can be made) are a huge factor in perpetuating the conflict- but they are not the only factor. How much is anti-Israel activism, and Islamist militancy, goading Israel to scorn Palestinian rights- and Palestine? How much is anti-Israel activism, and Islamist militancy, convincing donors worldwide to defund UNWRA? Diplomacy and calm careful negotiations by officials as well as by every person weighing in on Palestine are the only way to win real freedom, justice, and peace for the people of historic Palestine.

    April 15, 2015