Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp which occupies an area of 2.1 square kilometers, located on the outskirts of southern Damascus, was once home to 150,000 people and known as the de facto capital of the Palestinian diaspora in Syria. Today, fewer than 18,000 residents remain, as a result of the bloody conflict that has engulfed the country since 2011.
Trapped between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, the FSA (Free Syrian Army) and, as of late, ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and other Islamist rebel groups such as the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), Yarmouk has been described by the U.N.’s Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as “a death camp” and the “deepest circle of hell.”
The camp first came under attack in December 2012, after the FSA unseated the pro-Assad-oriented Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Council (PFLP-GC) and invited the wrath of the Syrian regime. Yarmouk is a strategically important piece of land for the opposition, paving the way straight into central Damascus. Consequently, the camp has been under heavy bombardment ever since. As of July 2013, a regime blockade has been in place which bars all humanitarian aid from entering. It was only in May 2015 that UNICEF was able to gain access to this area for the first time in two years.
The situation is very grim and has further deteriorated over recent months. There is no electricity, and medicine; food and water are hard to find. “To know what it is like in Yarmouk, turn off your electricity, water, heating, eat once a day, live in the dark, live by burning wood,” urged one desperate man in the camp.
According to Amnesty International, 128 Palestinians starved to death between July 2013 and February 2014 and residents have to “resort to eating cats and dogs.” One man told Israeli media outlet Ynet: “If you want to feed your children, you need to take your funeral shroud with you … there are snipers on every street, you are not safe anywhere.”
In 2014, Palestinians in Yarmouk lived on an average of 400 calories per day — the equivalent of a newborn baby’s daily intake; 1.6 Snickers bars; 1.2 medium-sized … fries; 3.8 medium-sized bananas; or one-fifth of the humanitarian daily rations (HDRs) the U.N. recommends for civilians in conflict zones. Last year, UNRWA was able to distribute food on only 131 days, averaging 89 boxes per day. To meet the minimum requirements of the people, the organization has to distribute at least 400 food boxes each day.
However, what makes Yarmouk special compared to other areas of war-torn Syria? Barrel bombs, starvation, beheadings and diseases are widespread. Hundreds of thousands have died; millions have been forced to flee their homes and seek safety in neighboring countries. But no other place exposes the double standards and moral inconsistency of the international community as much as the situation of the Palestinian refugees.
Imagine for a moment the global outcry were Israel behind the blockade, and the soldiers besieging the camp wore the uniform not of the Syrian Arab Army, but that of the Israeli Defense Forces. You only have to revisit the events of summer 2014 to appreciate how strikingly different circumstances would be. At the height of the most recent escalation in Gaza, mass demonstrations against Israel erupted on the streets of London. Three protests took place that together attracted more than 200,000 people in the month of July alone. They were chanting “Free, Free Palestine” and holding up banners saying “UK — Stop Arming Israel.” This was protesting the Israeli reaction to 3,000 rockets indiscriminately raining down on Israeli territory, targeting schools, kindergartens, hospitals, places of worship and other civilian facilities.
The chairman of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, Hugh Lanning, stated at the time that such “level of support we have never seen before. … The world supports Palestine.”
Unfortunately, for the residents of Yarmouk, that is only true as long as Israel is involved. A Palestinian civilian who dies at the hands of a Syrian soldier or an ISIS henchman counts less than a Palestinian militant killed by an Israeli soldier.
Proof for that is easily visible: not a single mass demonstration has taken place anywhere in the name of the Palestinians caught between ISIS’s swords and Assad’s bombs. If you are looking for protesters besieging the Syrian embassy shouting “Free, Free Yarmouk” or “Russia and Iran — Stop Arming Syria,” you are looking in vain.
Of course I am not suggesting for a moment that we should apply the same standards to a liberal democracy like Israel as we do to a brutal dictatorship like Syria. But the bottom line remains that Palestinians have died in the hundreds, and tens of thousands more are at imminent risk, and the pro-Palestine lobby — which is omnipresent whenever Israel lifts a finger — has been shamefully silent.
If you visit the website of the Palestinian Solidarity Camp, you get all the information you need on why and how to get involved in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, while the plight of Yarmouk is little more than a side issue to them. The same applies to the Stop the War Coalition, whose strategy for world peace ironically includes war against Israel. A search for “Yarmouk” on their website brings a mere two results. That is when pro-Palestine really means anti-Israel.
If the Palestinian Authority (PA) under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas had invested only a fraction of the energy that flows into its war of rhetoric with the government in Jerusalem and had argued with the same passion for a sense of solidarity with the residents of Yarmouk which it demands for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, perhaps it could have garnered international attention and created a sense of urgency.
The U.N. has shown little more moral integrity. In 2013, the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) adopted 21 resolutions against Israel and four against the rest of the world — one against the Syrian regime. The same pattern was repeated in 2014. Twenty resolutions were passed against Israel and only one against the government of Bashar al-Assad.
With the exception of a few headlines here and there, it took ISIS seizing control of large parts of Yarmouk in April 2015 to attract international interest. The group’s main goal was to defeat its Islamist rival, the Palestinian Hamas-linked Aknaf al-Maqdis, and as soon as ISIS withdrew most of its militants from the camp and took the fighting somewhere else, the eyes of the world shifted as well and the starving residents were once more left to die alone.
The outlook is bleak. Yarmouk has become a battlefield for different groups to settle their scores: the southern and eastern parts of the camp are believed to be under the control of different opposition groups; the PFLP-GC clings to the northern section, while the Syrian army and other militias loyal to Assad guard the western and northern outskirts. All other parts are under the control of ISIS and JN.
The suffering of Yarmouk’s residents is severe and unremitting and the silence of those who supposedly care about Palestinian lives and dignity louder than ever.