Yarmouk Palestinian Camp, DAMASCUS — History is nothing if not interesting.
Today, Palestinian refugees are being severely punished in Lebanon and deprived of their most elementary civil right to work or to even own a home. This massive violation of international humanitarian law is partially being inflicted out of revenge for some Palestinian refugees’ alleged short-term involvement in Lebanon’s civil war back in 1975—nearly four decades ago.
Today, however, Palestinian refugees are being severely punished in Syria out of revenge by jihadst factions and others for not becoming involved in the current Syrian civil war, as they insist on staying out of this incredibly tragic mess.
Some Palestinian teenagers here in Damascus call it “Yarmouk-Shatila,” as in, “Our neighbors or friends had to escape from Syria and are now in Yarmouk-Shatila camp” in Lebanon. Shatila was probably the most grotty, tightly packed sardine-canned camp of the 12 in Lebanon and of the 59 in the region, even before 600 more families arrived recently, with more arriving daily.
To date, approximately 38,000 Palestinians have fled to Lebanon, another 5,000 to Jordan, 9,000 to Egypt, and thousands more to Iraq and Turkey. Jordan blocked Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria from entering eight months ago and those who did are now essentially incarcerated, and according to American University of Beirut Professor Rosemary Sayigh are prevented from moving outside the camp unless they return to Syria, perhaps facing death.
In Egypt, Palestinians fleeing Syria have found that the host country is blatantly discriminating against them—a policy left over from the Mubarak era and upheld by the Morsi government. Today, a Palestinian refugee from Syria may only enter Egypt if she or he flies directly from Damascus to Cairo’s airport—an impossible condition given that the Damascus airport is routinely closed. Currently, no passenger airlines are flying out of Damascus airport except sometimes Syria Airline to a few destinations.
Any Palestinian refugee arriving from Turkey or Lebanon or anywhere else is detained at the Cairo airport and pressure applied on them until they agree to return to Syria. When Egyptian authorities have forced these refugees onto planes back to Lebanon or Turkey, those authorities refuse entry and force them back to Egypt.
Truth be told, Palestinian refugees from Syria are not welcomed in most Arab League countries and particularly not in the Gulf countries, although in past years Palestinian refugees helped build these countries and their economies. They would do the same for Lebanon if allowed to work.
Palestinians fleeing to Lebanon are mainly from Yarmouk camp in south Damascus but many also arrive from Syria’s Palestinian refugee camps at Sbeineh, Jaramana, and Khan Eshieh, all established in 1948-9 following the massive criminal ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
Virtually all the Palestinian camps in Syria, from Deraa in southern Syria to Neirab near Aleppo, are currently being targeted by occasional random shelling and frequent sniping. Just last week, on the first of April, Grad rockets and mortar shells showered some of the main streets in Yarmouk, killing at least 16 Palestinian refugees and wounding more than 30. A Palestinian woman and her four children were also wounded in the near-by Al-Husseiniya refugee camp.
As of yesterday, the situation in Yarmouk stands approximately as follows. The south-west corner of the camp is increasingly under the control of “rebels.” Their control appears to be spreading as reinforcements sneak in and their ranks swell a bit from defections from camp “popular committees.”
Sniping and clashes appear to be spreading also. The Ahmed Jebril-led Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which was largely expelled two months ago and their weapon stores taken over by Al Nusra fighters, currently has some fighters back in the camp.
The only way to enter Yarmouk currently is from the north side of the camp from the “Melon Square” crossroads. The Syrian army has loosely encircled Yarmouk, but in certain places they will allow passage inside with a warning.
This observer senses that these increased assaults on Yarmouk are an effort to get the Palestinians involved in the current crisis, which virtually all Palestinians want to avoid.
Some of those fleeing for their lives to Lebanon are also from the other Palestinian refugee camps in Syria: Latakia, Ein al-Tal, Qabr Essit, Neirba, Khan Dunoun, Homs, Hama, and Deraa. In addition to seeking refuge in Shatila, they are entering Lebanon’s other camps including Beddawi, Nahr al Bared, Burj el-Barajneh, Burj el-Shemali, Dbayeh, Ein el-Helweh, El-Buss, Mar Elias, Mieh Mieh, Rashidieh, and Wavel, the latter also known as Jalil, near Baalbek in the Bekaa valley close to the Syria-Lebanon border.
In addition, according to UNWRA, as well as personal observations, tens of thousands of Palestinians have been displaced inside Syria and are currently living wherever they can, unable to flee to neighboring countries for various reasons, including lack of money. These comprise part of the approximately 3.6 million displaced refugees inside Syria. According to the March 8 weekly report of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of registered refugees reached 12,000 during the past week, with 262,000 refugees already registered and 140,000 in the process of being registered, for a total of more than 400,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The report said that there are currently 113,000 Syrian refugees in Northern Lebanon, 99,000 in the Bekaa, 28,000 in Beirut, and 20,000 in Southern Lebanon. Among these figures are thousands of Palestinians.
When asked why they have not provided more help for the Syrian and Palestinians refugees, various UN agencies explain that they do what they can, but typically offer explanations such as the one given on April 5th by Marixie Mercado, spokeswoman for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), during a news conference in Geneva: “The needs of the refugees are rising exponentially, and we are dead broke…. The number of people fleeing Syria, the world’s worst refugee crisis has repeatedly outrun the UN’s expectations. The 1.25 million refugees, three-quarter of them women and children, is 10 percent higher than had been expected by June with no end in sight.”
Concerning UNWRA, it’s an easy target for grousing and it is, in fact, sometimes a bit frustrating to work with due to its cumbersome bureaucracy. For the past five weeks, Palestinian refugees from Syria have been camping outside UNRWA’s Lebanon Branch Headquarters across the highway from Shatila camp. They are urging more help as some explained to this observer last week. The tents have signs on them reading “From Palestinians in Syria: We request: That UNWRA Obtain the Housing and Health, Education and Nutrition Services.” The large banner is signed: “The Palestinians Displaced from Syria.”
But it’s never been easy for UNWRA, which has been in the cross hairs of the Zionist lobby since its creation in 1949. The most recent pledge of groups like AIPAC is to disband it. Elements of the lobby intend to have the US Congress declare that the American government does not recognize any Palestinian refugee but the original ones from the 1947-48 Nakba. At the same time the lobby has organized a campaign to draft legislation to end the automatic transmission of refugee status to the descendants of Palestinians that has been the policy of the international community and the UN since 1948.
One of the leaders of this anti-UNRWA project is Daniel Pipes, the anti-Muslim and anti-Arab organizer of CampusWatch which, as Professor Rosemary Sayigh reminds us, has since 2002 mobilized students in US universities to report on faculty and even staff who support the Palestinians. Pipes declared recently that “the current approach by UNRWA creates a narrative of victimhood and leads to extremism”. Some reporters who attended a recent anti-UNWRA conference in New York, reported that the organizers, led by Israel’s envoy to the UN, Ron Prosor, will be urging Congress to enact a law specifying that “the US will only consider as a Palestinian refugee someone who was personally displaced as a result of the 1948 or 1967 Arab-Israeli conflicts, and who is not firmly resettled in another country.”
This language is similar to an amendment presented in the Senate last May by Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk. The amendment was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee but did not become law when the larger bill to which it was attached failed to pass in the Senate. AIPAC pledges to continue this campaign. The intention of the initiative is that when the last of these Nakba and Naksa refugees die—the sooner the better—the issue will be solved. Presto! No more of those troublesome Palestinian refugees.
When a refugee family arrives in Lebanon and registers for help with UNWRA (the backlog to get an interview in Lebanon at the Lebanon Field Office is currently close to six months and some refugees interviewed by this observer at the Shatila Camp Youth Center on April 2nd reported that, given the delay, they could not wait and have essentially given up on UNWRA—some risking their lives and returning to Syria. Assuming all their documents are in order, a family of four will received $150; a larger family will receive $200. It should be noted that the average taxi fare for Palestinians from Damascus to Beirut is now $110, up from around $16 pre-conflict. War profiteering again. Then there is the $17 per person (children aged 7 and under exempted), 90-day Lebanon “visa fee,” for which no social services are provided by the government of Lebanon.
Earlier, UNWRA renewed the cash grants for another month but has recently announced it cannot continue this aid due to lack of cash, leaving Palestinians from Syria now essentially on their own. Palestinians from Yarmouk and elsewhere in Syria are currently relying on their countrymen in Shatila and other camps. UNRWA’s current Response Plan calls for $26.85 million of which only $19.04 million has been received as of April 5th.
Even UNWRA schools in Lebanon are now maxed out for those Palestinians from Syria who could adjust to the UNWRA curriculum in Lebanon given that language and methodology are different in Lebanon than the system used in Syria. Most Palestinian refugees from Syria are not enrolled in school.
Another UN aid agency, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is also stretched beyond its limits and giving no aid to Palestinian refugees because it claims its mandate excludes Palestinians since UNWRA was set up specifically to help Palestinian refugees until their return to Palestine. But UNWRA, under an increasing barrage of assaults from the Zionist lobby, as has been the case since its founding in 1949, is also out of cash and cannot do much for Palestinians being forced into Lebanon.
In fairness to UNHCR, some local administrators do bend the rules and discretely do what they can, as they are, after all, humanitarians and no human being this observer has happened across can witness the carnage being inflicted on innocent civilian victims without wanting to help them, irrespective of their political views or of who they hold responsible for the slaughter.
Yet, UNHCR’s official policy of not including Palestinian refugees in its mandate should be immediately changed. UNHCR’s current hands-off policy flagrantly violates the international legal principle of “non-refoulement (the act of refusing entry or aid to refugees whose lives are endangered). The refoulement requirement is enshrined in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, is required by the 1967 Protocol and Art 3 of the 1984 Torture Convention and is required by international principles, standards and rules of accepted customary law, as well as trucial Law of Nations (which forbids the rendering of victims to their persecutors) agreed to by certain tribal states in the Middle East as far back as the 19th century.
Professor Rosemary Sayigh, at the beginning of her recent brilliant lecture in Berlin, quoted Thomas W. Hill’s observation: “Palestinians never seem to have the luxury of digesting one tragedy before the next one is upon them.”
All too true. But at the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, as well as the other 11, Palestinians are receiving and helping their countrymen to the best of their capacity until they can return to their still-occupied country.
That, history teaches us, they will eventually do.