Caught Between Syria's Regime and Rebels, Palestinian Refugees Are Starving to Death

Meanwhile, Syria's minorities share a common fate: No Geneva accord could allay their fears.

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Ruined buildings in the Yarmouk refugee camp, summer 2013.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“If you start feeling dehydrated, drink a liter of water every three hours. Alternate between adding a spoonful of salt, and a spoonful of sugar, if you have any,” suggests the coordinating council of the Yarmouk refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, as he addresses the Palestinian refugees that remain there. Dehydration, malnutrition, and hunger have already caused the death of 15 refugees, including five in the past week.

Before Syria's civil war began, the bustling camp was home to 150,000 Palestinian refugees who led normal lives, complete with schools, hospitals, and nonstop traffic. Today, it stands mostly in ruin. Only 20,000 Palestinian refugees remain there, most of which are poor, elderly, or children who cannot afford to run away. Syria’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, once home to half a million people, now resembles a World War Two ghetto.

The camp was closed off by the Syrian regime six months ago, after it served as a primary base of operations for the Free Syrian Army and other radical Islamist militias. The battle in Syria is not only between the regime and the Free Syrian Army, but also between the Free Syrian Army and the radical militias. Many Palestinians from the Yarmouk camp have joined the Free Syrian Army.

UN aid workers are unable to enter the camp, as the Syrian army denies them access and the rebel militias open fire against them. Humanitarian conditions at Yarmouk are "worsening dramatically," warned UNRWA Commissioner General Filippo Grandi on December 20, adding, "[W]e are currently unable to help those trapped inside. If this situation is not addressed urgently, it may be too late to save the lives of thousands of people including children." It’s doubtful anyone is heeding his warnings.

The tragedy lies in that there really is no one to negotiate with in order to secure free flow of aid to the camp. Palestinian leaders managed to reach an agreement with the Syrian regime, but the regime demanded that all armed individuals leave the area. When the Palestinian leaders met with officials from rebel groups, and especially the Islamist militias, their demands were refused, as the rebels claim that the land is Syrian, and not Palestinian. Earlier this week, it seemed that an agreement would be reached, but the fighting rages on in the camp and those in dire need of aid won’t get it anytime soon.

“Why are Palestinians in Syria being punished this way?” asks Palestinian Journalist Mirna Sakhnini on the Yarmouk camp’s Facebook page. “Is it because they tried to stay neutral, refusing to be mercenaries for either side? Is it because they refused to lay down the arms of the Palestinians, and take up the arms of the Syrian fighters? The Palestinians decided to live alongside the Syrian people not because they betrayed the Syrian regime but due to their humanity, respect, and love for Syria. Today, they alone are paying the price of war.”

Sakhnini defines the suffering of the Palestinians in Syria as a “second Nakba, and first starvation,” and she states that recently, religious edicts have been issued to allow camp residents to eat cats and dogs in order to allay their hunger.

Roughly half a million Palestinian refugees lived in Syria before the war began. Most of them lived in the refugee camps, but some rented apartments throughout Syria. Economically, their situation was similar to the lower-class Syrians, but some of them managed to find good jobs, open businesses, or earn a living from agriculture. Their civil status was better than refugees in Lebanon, where until about four years ago refugees were forbidden from working in 68 different professions, from living outside of refugee camps, owning property, or leaving the country. Though Syria did not grant citizenship to Palestinian refugees, it never placed significant restrictions on them in terms of profession or property ownership.

A Syrian family sits inside their car next to a bus carrying Palestinians, who had been living at Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, at the Lebanese-Syrian border, Dec. 18, 2012. Credit: Reuters

Marriage between Syrians and Palestinian refugees was common, and much less complicated than in Lebanon. Hamas’ decision to break off from the Syrian regime and criticize it for its treatment of its citizens did not spark collective punishment on Palestinians there, or other Palestinian organizations in Syria. Now, most Palestinians support the Syrian regime, along with Christians and Druze, who feel the regime has protected their rights and status.

Taking a side in the war, however, is a fateful decision. Not only have the Christians and Palestinians learned this already, but the Druze in Syria are also walking a tightrope. In general, Syrian Druze are considered supporters of the regime, but have recently created an armed Druze militia that defines itself as part of the opposition. The Druze are a relatively small minority, only 4 percent of the population, and they are concentrated in the southern part of the country. They managed to keep a low profile throughout the war, without declaring a preference for any one side, though it seems they have become targets of the Islamist militias. Last week, an Islamist militia demanded that residents of 18 Druze villages convert to Islam, build minarets on their houses of worship, trim their mustaches, and force their women to dress modestly. Senior Druze leaders in Syria denied these reports and explained that though meetings were held with Muslim clerics, they were focused on dialogue and avoiding future conflict. The denial wasn’t enough to dispel fears of the Islamists’ intentions. As such, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah have been trying to enlist the Druze in the fight against the rebels.

A few months ago, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah sent Samir Kuntar, a Druze who was formerly an Israeli prisoner, to southern Syria to convince the Druze there to fight against the rebels. The community there staunchly refused him. The same Druze community also refused Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who tried to convince them to fight against the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad. “Don’t get involved in our affairs,” they told Jumblatt, who himself went from supporting Assad to breaking all ties with him before the rebellion in Lebanon.

The fears of the Druze, the hardships of the Palestinians and Christians, and the isolationism of the Kurds has made them partners with a common fate in at least one regard: All of them are willing to fight against the Islamist organizations more than they are willing to fight against Assad. As such, while the Syrian rebels continue debating whether or not they will participate in the second Geneva conference, which is scheduled for January 22, a reality is being created in Syria that is likely to thwart any decision reached at the conference, and won't allay the fears of Syria's minorities.

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