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General News    H3'ed 4/12/14

The Death of Yarmouk Palestinian Camp

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The Death of Yarmouk Palestinian Camp


  Franklin Lamb

Yarmouk Palestinian camp, Damascus

This observer does not write these words casually.

  And he is no huge fan of some of the intellectually lazy quick spun internet conspiracy theories, too many of which appear given to flights from reality when facts get complicated and dispositive information is obscure.

However, after months of studying the political, social, military, and economic situation in Yarmouk camp, and based on insightful meetings with former camp residents and PLO stalwarts who have been active in the Palestinian cause going back to the 1980's, or earlier, Yarmouk's survival prospects appear fatally bleak. If one allows oneself some basic deductions about the last three years and the ongoing upheaval, it is difficult to escape the conclusion, increasingly heard from Palestinians themselves, that Yarmouk, as with four other Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, is deeply wounded by the war being waged, that it is unlikely to survive the crisis, whether the latter ends in months or continues for decades, as many regional and western intelligence analysts are concluding.

In part, Yarmouk's curse and current fate is due to its location. This is a triangular-sliced area of land pointing straight into central downtown Damascus, a strategic last piece in the mosaic necessary for a strong rebel advance on the capital. Its relative isolation from the conflict was shattered in mid-December 2012, when armed groups first entered the camp. The government surrounded the area; clashes ensued. UNRWA's 28 schools and three clinics ceased operation, and the armed gangs also occupied homes and looted hospitals and stores. Camp residents who did not manage to flee, or did not want to, got caught in a tight stranglehold that continues today.

UNRWA's HQ in Damascus estimates that more than 70 percent of the Palestinian refugees in Syria are in need of emergency humanitarian assistance immediately, while more than 50 percent are internally displaced. In Yarmouk alone, 142 people have died from hunger and lack of medical care just since June of 2013. Yet attempting to flee does not afford one copious or abundant opportunities either. As of last week, more than 11,000 Palestinians refugees fleeing Syria had sought support from UNRWA in Jordan. Yet even if they can somehow gain entry to the country, the Kingdom's policy is to deport them back to Syria, in essence robbing them of their right to survival.

UNRWA expects the numbers of Palestinians seeking safety in Jordan to exceed 20,000 by the end of 2014. Slamming the gates or deporting them all would be unconscionable. Even the White House reminded Jordan's King Hussein that such a policy violates the international law principle of non-refoulement, a UN protocol protecting refugees from being sent back to places where their lives or freedoms could be threatened.

With respect to Yarmouk, there is a very real possibility that this largest of Syria's refugee camps will succumb to a fate similar to those of the Tel al-Zaatar, Nabatieh, and Nahr al-Bared (now partially rebuilt after seven years) camps in Lebanon, but the loss of Yarmouk will be doubly compounded because in Syria, Palestinians found secure, sympathetic refuge in 1948. At that time, Palestinians fleeing their homeland were welcomed in solidarity--as Yarmouk became a symbol of resistance--but in 2014, there simply is no more welcome. For over six decades the Palestinian residents here nurtured families and communities, integrated economically, and formed a subset of the cultural and intellectual fabric of a vibrant and proud Syrian society, but a civil war and a Western-backed insurgency have changed the landscape, perhaps for good.

Yet even besides re sistance, Yarmouk is also a symbol of Palestinian in sistence--insistence that the right of return be addressed, insistence that their narrative be recognized, that their need for safety be respected, that their rights be upheld, that they live in dignity. One aspect which always stood out for foreign visitors to Yarmouk were the youth clubs, which provided teenagers with a safe creative space where they developed skills while choosing colleges over Kalashnikovs.

UN negotiator Lakhdar Brahimi's recent warning about the "Somalization" of Syria is not merely a disturbing metaphor, for as he told this observer in a meeting last year at the Dama Rose Hotel in Damascus, "Somalization" has already become a daily reality for Yarmouk camp.

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Since 2013, Professor Franklin P. Lamb has traveled extensively throughout Syria. His primary focus has been to document, photograph, research and hopefully help preserve the vast and irreplaceable archaeological sites and artifacts in (more...)

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