Analysis |

Syria's Palestinians Hope, at Best, for a Quick Death

The Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria is not Aleppo, and the media is not interested in the some 6,000 Palestinian refugees under siege.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
In this Feb. 4, 2014, file photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, residents of the besieged Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp wait to leave the camp.
In this Feb. 4, 2014, file photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, residents of the besieged Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp wait to leave the camp.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The ruined walls and floor are made of exposed concrete, large openings allow the wind and rain to come in, and the ceiling is filled with holes: This is what the center for raising cattle that the Libyan government once built near the city of Dara’a in southwestern Syria looks like now.

In one of the abandoned halls stands a Palestinian woman with her infant son next to what seems to be a large can. On the top is a metal cover with holes with thick smoke coming out. This is the home heater, which is used for both heating and cooking. The room has no other furniture or anything else; not even food can be seen in the short video the woman “stars” in.

The family in the video clip is one of dozens of Palestinian families who fled the Yarmouk Refugee Camp, just outside Damascus, and who have found shelter in barns, which are not even suitable for raising cattle any more. But she is relatively lucky, because at least she has a roof over head, compared to thousands of other Palestinian refugees who fled Yarmouk, many of whom are living in much worse conditions.

The Yarmouk camp is not Aleppo. It is not the focus of attraction for the media, which only a few months ago reported on the battles between the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front, and between both organizations and the Syrian army too.

In the Yarmouk camp only a few battles are still going on. Last week ISIS forces killed a nursing mother after they suspected her of collaboration with the Syrian army; and before that an Al-Nusra fighter blew himself up alongside an ISIS roadblock, killing eight members of the organization. But these are routine incidents, which no longer cause any excitement.

The division of control over the refugee camp was set a long time ago, so that most of it is controlled by ISIS and a smaller part by Al-Nusra. The camp has been under siege by forces of the Assad regime, who do not allow any entry or exit to the over 6,000 remaining residents. Over the more than five years of fighting in Syria over 1,270 residents of Yarmouk have been killed. Many died from a lack of medicines, others were shot by snipers or died from other injuries.

Figures from the working group on Syrian refugees, which gathers data daily situation of over 500,000 Palestinian refugees living in Syria, show that at least 160 Palestinians from all over Syria have died from torture in prisons of the Assad regime, 10 have been executed in kangaroo courts, 14 were killed in car bombings and another 14 were otherwise murdered.

The group also has data on a few hundred Palestinians whose organs were harvested in government prisons and whose bodies have not yet been returned to their families. Opposition websites report that Palestinian refugees are willing to sell kidneys in return for arrangements to be smuggled into Europe. The Russian Sputnik website reported that the method used is to move the refugee to Lebanon, and from there he is flown to Egypt, where there are specialists in harvesting organs and transplanting them, and from Egypt the refugee and his family are flown to a country in Europe. It seems that the refugee smugglers prefer to receive their pay in organs now, and not in money – because of the enormous profits the new “business” provides.

These dry numbers are swallowed up in the Syrian tragedy, where the number of victims is over half a million people – and do not include the residents of Yarmouk, who are dying slowly while waiting for a solution that will rescue them from the blockade.

Out of about half a million Palestinian refugees living in Syria, the Yarmouk refugee camp, which was established in 1957, housed between 150,000 and 200,000 Palestinians before the Syrian civil war began. In fact, Yarmouk really is not a camp, it is a large city that spreads out all the way to Damascus, and it is impossible to distinguish where the camp ends and Damascus begins. Many Syrian citizens built homes for themselves in the Palestinian section, where the cost of living is cheaper, and this mixing of populations became a quite natural process over the years.

In general, the status of the Palestinians in Syria was much better than that of Palestinians in Lebanon, because even if they did not receive Syrian citizenship, at least many of them were hired by government ministries. Some enlisted in the Syrian army legally, and could – with certain limitations – buy homes. Their children study in government schools and they enjoy free medical services.

Until the civil war broke out in Syria, most of the Palestinians lived in 12 refugee camps. After the war began, half of them were uprooted. Some fled to Lebanon, others to Jordan, and a few thousand managed to escape to Turkey and Europe. Representatives of the Palestinian Authority, and even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas himself, succeeded in reaching understandings with Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria concerning transferring wounded Palestinians to Damascus. The problem is that along the way they needed to pass through ISIS or Al-Nusra roadblocks, and they are not parties to these agreements. Last July an attempt was made to reach an agreement with ISIS on providing travel permits to reach Damascus, but the negotiations failed.

The last shipment of aid from the United Nations to the Yarmouk camp arrived last May, and since then the aid convoys have stopped. UNRWA put out a call last week to raise $410 million in order to aid the Palestinian refugees in the camp, but it is unlikely they will be able to find donors now who will agree to put up more money, as long as no guarantees are provided that the aid will not fall into the hands of ISIS or the Al-Nusra Front.

Without civil status and without international backing, the Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk are at the bottom of the list of those eligible for rehabilitation. The maximum they can hope for is a quick death.

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