An inconceivable human tragedy is taking place beyond Israel’s borders. More than 230,000 people — by some accounts, as many as 300,000 — have been killed in a war that is now in its fifth year. The number of refugees is shocking: About 3 million Syrians have fled their country, and an additional 6.5 million are internally displaced, having moved to safer areas within Syria.
The neighboring states of Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon provide refuge to most of the refugees, whether by housing them in purpose-built temporary camps or giving them aid in the form of food and money. International organizations are doing what they can, but they have limited funds and the difficult conditions on the ground make it difficult, if not impossible, to bring in even basic supplies.
Tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees are also trapped inside Syria, with little chance of finding shelter in other countries. Among them are some 20,000 refugees in the Yarmouk refugee camp, in south Damascus. Most of them are old, have disabilities or are impoverished, mostly elderly, disabled or lacking economic capabilities, and they have lived under seige for two years. Since Islamic State seized control of the camp, their lives have been jeopardized not only by weapons but also by hunger and a critical shortage of medicines as aid missions cannot enter the embattled camp.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is trying to aid the besieged Palestinians by creating secure escape routes from the camp. This cannot remain the sole responsibility of Abbas. The international community has an obligation to take immediate action to prevent Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, from carrying out additional killings and to rescue everyone who can be rescued.
Israel must do its part in this international effort. It should sit down with Abbas to evaluate ways and means of helping these refugees, some of whom are related, very closely in some cases, to Arabs in Israel.
Among other things, Israel could offer Abbas the possibility of absorbing some of the refugees into the Palestinian Authority, defray some of the costs involved and provide medical services to those who manage to come. Political considerations and disputes with the PA should be set aside at this time. This is a humanitarian task of the first order that Israel cannot shirk.
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