Yarmouk, once a relatively stable haven for as many as 100,000 Palestinian refugees located in the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, has become a living hell for those refugees left behind whom have managed to survive years of starvation, disease or relentless attacks from the Syrian government and its adversaries. Now, Yarmouk has become the latest front in the jihad launched by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), which reportedly occupies about 90% of the camp and has been busy killing Palestinian residents. More than 100 civilians may have been either killed or kidnapped by ISIS and al Nusra fighters since last week, according to one report. Another report put the figure of Palestinians killed during this time period considerably higher.
As many as 18,000 Palestinians are reportedly still trapped in Yarmouk, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Many of them are children. Tens of thousands of other refugees have been able to escape the camp during the years of civil war in Syria, some even to Gaza of all places where they thought they could have a better life. A few hundred have fled in the last few days as the Islamic State invaded and began its massacres, although UNRWA is unable to confirm the precise numbers.
ISIS, with the support of al Nusra, is exacerbating an already grim day-to-day reality that the Palestinians trapped in Yarmouk have been enduring for years. Even before ISIS’s killing spree, more than 1000 Palestinians from Yarmouk had already lost their lives since the start of the Syrian regime’s siege of the camp. Geneva-based Friends of Humanity estimated that 166 children were amongst the fatalities.
As described by the Guardian in an article dated March 5, 2015 – before the latest ISIS attacks – Yarmouk is “a refugee camp designed as a safe haven for the Palestinian diaspora that had become the worst place on earth. No electricity for months. No piped water. No access for food.”
The Guardian article then noted how the plight of Yarmouk residents was worse than the much ballyhooed situation in Gaza “because the siege was more comprehensive; Yarmouk was a prison from which there was no escape. Unlike in Gaza, where UNRWA has several offices, the organisation cannot enter Yarmouk at all.”
Every month the United Nations Security Council hears reports of alleged Israeli human rights violations supposedly committed against Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank. Yet it took the ISIS massacres in Yarmouk for the Security Council to finally take notice of the plight of Palestinian civilians in Syria not under Israeli “occupation.” The Security Council scheduled an urgent meeting on April 6 to receive a briefing from Pierre Krähenbühl, the Commissioner General of UNRWA, on the dire conditions in what has remained of the Yarmouk refugee camp.
“What the civilians in Yarmouk are most concerned about right now is bare survival. It’s as simple and straightforward as that,” Krahenbuhl told reporters after his closed-door briefing. He described the situation in Yarmouk as “completely catastrophic.”
UNRWA currently has no access to the camp to provide any humanitarian relief.
All the Security Council members could agree to collectively after the briefing was the issuance of what is called “Elements to the Press,” its weakest form of a statement of substance on any issue it is considering. “Elements to the Press” connote only a general non-binding agreement on certain principles.
In their “Elements to the Press,” the Council members called for “for the protection of civilians in the camp, for ensuring humanitarian access to the area including by providing life-saving assistance, and ensure safe passage and evacuation of the civilians.” The Council members expressed their support for the work of UNRWA in trying to reach the besieged Palestinian refugees. They were able to muster enough agreement to condemn both ISIS and al Nusra for the “grave crimes” they have committed “against 18,000 civilians in the camp” and to declare their wish that “such crimes do not go unpunished.”
However, nothing was said specifically about the long-standing siege instituted by the Syrian regime itself – which is backed by Iran and Russia – against the Palestinians in Yarmouk. This siege prevented even the most basic of humanitarian aid such as food, water and medicines to reach the trapped Palestinians for years before ISIS came onto the scene.
In her own separate statement released on April 7, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations
Samantha Power took on the Syrian regime directly as well as the Islamic State:
The United States strongly condemns ISIL’s advance on the besieged Palestinian community in Yarmouk, southern Damascus…Those living inside Yarmouk have already suffered from the regime’s violence and have lived under regime siege for nearly two years, deprived of desperately needed essentials, including food, potable water, and medical relief. Bombardment by the Syrian regime now creates an even more desperate situation, as ISIL reportedly controls Yarmouk’s only functioning medical facilities.
Residents of Yarmouk have expressed keen disappointment in the lack of concern that Palestinian leaders and activists for the cause of an independent Palestinian state have shown regarding the suffering of the Palestinians trapped in Yarmouk.
For example, a local aid worker with a Palestinian non-profit living in Yarmouk was quoted by Mondoweiss last February as saying that the residents “felt abandoned by the Palestinians outside Syria.” He added: “All I would say to the Palestinians outside and to the whole world is that we are alone. We in Yarmouk are alone.”
A former Palestinian resident of the camp told Middle East Eye last January that “Palestinians of Yarmouk face three layers of censorship: the international media, groups who claim to be supportive of Palestine, and Palestinian officials and activists who hardly mention us.”
This indifference goes to the very top of the Palestinian leadership.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is always ready to condemn Israel at the drop of a hat for alleged crimes against humanity and is seeking to take Israel to the International Criminal Court, has said little of any consequence about the situation in Yarmouk. “We urge those wanting to drag us in the conflicts to keep us away as we have been suffering and anguishing from many wars everywhere,” Abbas said last Sunday. “We announced more than four years ago that we have not interfered in the internal affairs of any Arab country and therefore we reject any interference in our affairs. We have no relations with what is going on in Syria.” Abbas made no effort to assign any specific blame in his bland remarks.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) on Monday simply called for ending the “tragedy” of Yarmouk – a bit late for the killed, dying and displaced residents. Even a Palestinian human rights group decried the PLO’s passivity and failure to carry out its minimum obligations to protect the interests of all Palestinians, including the refugees wherever they resided. “It did not even condemn openly the parties of the conflict and siege, which has been lasting since two years,” the group said.
Hamas, which had reportedly infiltrated Yarmouk and recruited some residents to their cause, has condemned the ISIS attacks. However, Hamas is doing so for tactical reasons to hold onto whatever influence it had managed to gain in Yarmouk and to align itself closer with its patron Iran, which is fighting ISIS in Iraq. Hamas leaders also may want to exact revenge for the reported killing and beheading of a senior Hamas operative in the camp, Sheikh Abu Salah Taha. Aknaf Beit al-Madqis, an anti-government militia in Yarmouk aligned with Hamas, is reportedly trying to push out ISIS.
The Arab world has kept mainly silent on the latest developments in Yarmouk, so much so that Ahmed Tibi, a member of the Arab Joint List party in the Israeli parliament, has condemned the Arab world for its silence.
The Left, as usual, ignores real crimes against humanity being conducted against innocent Palestinian civilians if they cannot blame Israel or, alternatively, they blame Israel anyway. Gideon Levy, a prominent left-wing columnist for the left-wing newspaper Haaretz wrote a column in 2014 which he said that “the moral responsibility” for Yarmouk “lies on Israel, the introduction of which has led to the existence of these refugees and exiles.” He added that Israel “has the historical responsibility for the fate of the camp’s residents – native Palestinians of Israel who were forced to flee as well as their descendants.”
In the morally confused cobwebs of the leftist mind, the very existence of the Jewish state is reason enough to place the ultimate responsibility on Israel for the slaughter and starvation committed by the Syrian regime, the Islamic State and other jihadists against the Palestinians trapped in Yarmouk.
It may not be long before the anti-Israel United Nations Human Rights Council blames Israel for the Yarmouk catastrophe and calls for a verdict first, evidence later investigation.
Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.