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Just hanging on in Yarmouk camp

UNRWA says some food is now getting into Yarmouk but no medical supplies, followed by a background article  from the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

Collecting sacks of grain of one of the few food deliveries to the camp.

Syria’s Yarmouk camp needs more aid

The head of the U.N. agency that supports Palestinian refugees said Friday that progress has been made in providing food to some 18,000 civilians trapped in the Yarmouk refugee camp in the Syrian capital, but an agreement must be struck to also allow in desperately needed medical aid. Yarmouk, the largest of nine Palestinian camps in Syria, has been under a tight government blockade since mid-2013 .

By Ryan Lucas, Daily Star, Lebanon
May 17, 2014

BEIRUT: The head of the U.N. agency that supports Palestinian refugees said Friday that progress has been made in providing food to some 18,000 civilians trapped in the Yarmouk refugee camp in the Syrian capital, but an agreement must be struck to also allow in desperately needed medical aid.

Yarmouk, the largest of nine Palestinian camps in Syria, has been under a tight government blockade since mid-2013. More than 100 people have died there from starvation and illnesses exacerbated by hunger or lack of medical aid, according to U.N. figures.

Since January, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency has provided intermittent food shipments to civilians caught inside Yarmouk, although fighting often cuts the deliveries for days at time. Most recently, food parcels have not been handed out since Tuesday, when two government troops were shot at the distribution point.

“Twenty-five percent is our estimate of the level of need in food requirements that we have been able to cover since the beginning of the year. So clearly, much, much more has to be done,” UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl told The Associated Press.

“While food was an important progress – and yet again I insist that not enough food is going into Yarmouk and some of the other camps – we need to be able to add to that also medical supplies,” Krahenbuhl said in an interview in Beirut after returning from a visit to Syria.

“I insisted in my meetings with (Syrian) authorities that there should be ways to find possibilities to bring medical supplies in without there being a concern that this be misused in any way by anyone, but just simply focus on the needs of the population, which are extreme.”

Jam is often the first food to be chosen for giving to children and the infirm in Yarmouk. Photo from intifada-palestine.

While food deliveries have eased some of the suffering in Yarmouk, the situation remains dire and crippling shortages are common. UNRWA’s biggest fear, Krahenbuhl said, would be an escalation in hostilities on the ground.

“When you see what the population has already been exposed to, the level of despair that you feel in the distributions that we carry out, and what people have just been able to hang on to, any further escalation would just be devastating to the people still inside the camp,” he said.

Krahenbuhl, who served as director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross before taking over as the head of UNRWA in late March, also met with Lebanese leaders in Beirut, where he discussed new measures that Lebanon has adopted that places restrictions on Palestinians trying to flee Syria.

Krahenbuhl said that the “large majority” in recent days of Palestinians who have tried to cross into Lebanon from Syria have been denied entry. There also are growing concerns that restrictions are being placed on allowing some of the estimated 53,000 Palestinians from Syria already in the country to renew their visas.

Earlier this month, UNRWA said 41 Palestinians were expelled from Lebanon back to Syria.

“It is really important to reconsider these measures and to not have total closure of the border for Palestine refugees coming from Syria,” he said.

At the same time, he commended Lebanon on taking in more than 1 million refugees from Syria, saying the “great openness” that the country has shown toward its neighbors “really should not be underestimated.”


Newly appointed UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl, far right, visits collective shelters in Jaramana Camp in Damascus during his first visit to Syria, May 15 2014.

Palestinian Refugees and the Siege of Yarmouk

By Natasha Hall, Sada, Carnegie Endowment
March 13, 2014

The siege of Yarmouk, which started in July 2013, changed the dynamics of the Syrian conflict. Not only has it discredited the Assad regime as a champion of the Palestinian struggle but also Palestinians’ own leadership. The Palestinian refugee community was determined to remain neutral throughout the Syrian conflict. After the ill-fated decision to take sides during the Lebanese Civil War and the first Gulf War, which each led to the persecution and expulsion of Palestinians, Yarmouk residents reasoned that, in order to survive, they would have to stay out of Syria’s political strife. This, however, proved difficult.

Yarmouk Camp, a district of the Damascus governorate a few miles from the capital’s center, began as an unofficial Palestinian refugee camp in 1957. Today, at just under one square mile, locals still refer to it as the mukhayim (camp), but it is essentially a suburb of Damascus with a thriving marketplace hosting nearly a million Palestinian and Iraqi refugees as well as Syrian residents. However, with the highest concentration of Palestinians in Syria (at 160,000 as of 2011), the neighborhood remains at the heart of Palestinian refugee identity and culture. Palestinians from every political faction, as well as artists, activists, actors, and musicians, found a home here, because Bashar al-Assad, like his father, allowed the Palestinian cause limited means of expression as long as the movement served to build his cult of personality and never threatened his rule.

This, however, changed in 2012 when rebels began hiding in Yarmouk, previously considered neutral territory, and the army bombarded the neighborhood in retaliation. Palestinian political factions based in Damascus were forced to take sides. Hamas was put in an awkward position facing pressure from two sides: the Muslim Brotherhood and Palestinians sympathetic to the opposition on one side and their benefactors, Iran and the Alawite Syrian regime, on the other. In early 2013, Hamas turned away from their Syrian patrons toward Qatar and Egypt, declaring that Assad “took the wrong option.” Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority pleaded with Palestinians to stay out of the conflict, but President Abbas’s declarations of neutrality proved belated and futile, especially since groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command (PFLP-GC) were already defending the Syrian government. The PFLP-GC even worked with the shabiha (the regime’s notoriously brutal thugs) to besiege Yarmouk. Infuriated that the PFLP-GC jeopardized Palestinian neutrality and sided with a regime implicated in the deaths of Palestinians, Yarmouk residents burned down PFLP-GC headquarters in June 2011. In 2012, other Palestinian groups like Liwa al-Asifa (Storm Brigade) fought alongside Syrian rebels in the camp. With the leadership so fractured, Yarmouk was vulnerable to attacks from all sides.

Since Yarmouk’s location was seen as the gate to seizing Damascus, the camp became ground zero for the larger conflict, with the military controlling the northern gate and the rebels at the southern end with nearly 20,000 civilians still trapped inside. Before long, extremist and criminal elements took over the Syrian opposition, and Palestinian support for their presence waned. Armed groups began looting homes and squatting in hospitals, taking what few supplies were left. From August through December 2013, nothing got into Yarmouk and no one came out. People began eating weeds and boiling cacti for sustenance. An imam issued a fatwa allowing people to eat dogs and cats. Malnutrition, dehydration, and treatable diseases killed over a hundred people. With few supplies left, the price of foodstuffs skyrocketed, with a kilo of rice costing 70 dollars by December 2013. When the money ran out, family and friends wired more funds into Syria, which was then smuggled into the camp. When supplies ran out, the money was used to bribe guards to open the gates for a few minutes in order to deliver food and medicine1.

In response to the siege, Yarmouk residents disseminated poignant images of the crisis via social media to hold their leaders and the international community accountable. Disturbing images of starving babies and children crying out for food and water in Yarmouk went viral on the Internet. Soon, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, in solidarity with their people in Syria, were posting images of children holding up stale loaves of pita bread with Arabic writing that read “Camp Yarmouk.” Activists posted a video of dignified but beleaguered young men in the destroyed streets of Yarmouk standing around a pianist singing, “Oh displaced people, return . . . Yarmouk, we are part of you and that will never change.”

From the Facebook groups “From Tunisia here is Yarmouk” and “Yarmouk Camp News” to fundraising concerts in London and poetry readings in Glasgow, tens of thousands of people around the world united to raise awareness about the siege. UNRWA initiated a Thunderclap campaign, which has reached over 11 million people. This campaign shamed Arab leaders and the international community into advocating for a humanitarian corridor. In order to answer to his constituency and maintain his relevance, Abbas engaged in several rounds of negotiations with the Syrian regime, and a trivial amount of food and medical supplies arrived in December 2013. A little over a month later, Syrian rebel groups and government forces agreed to a tenuous truce, and Syrian rebel groups left the camp to be replaced by Palestinian factions allied to the Syrian government. The agreement allowed limited amounts of food and medicine to be distributed, but the UN still struggles to deliver aid every day. The truce was short-lived: days later, Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups flooded back into the camp, allegedly executing 21 people in the open. The spotlight on Yarmouk has diminished, but the area is still the heart of the larger conflict, and fleeting ceasefires will not be effective in protecting this population.

In the absence of a unified Palestinian leadership, crises like Yarmouk will continue to plague Palestinian refugees wherever they go. Assad’s support among Palestinians has decreased substantially. While Hamas made a seemingly virtuous decision to leave Syria, they effectively abandoned Yarmouk. Consequently, Hamas lost 300 million dollars in aid from Iran. Since then, they also lost their Muslim Brotherhood partner in Egypt and with it the Gaza tunnel. Loss of Iranian aid and the tunnel levies weakened Hamas, which is now crawling back to Iran and walking back its opposition to Assad. Abbas, preoccupied with some of the most unpopular rounds of Israeli negotiations at one of the weakest moments for Palestinian leadership, has not improved his image either. With about 270,000 Palestinians displaced inside Syria and 80,000 outside, it is a dangerous time for Abbas to consider definitively forgoing the right of return.

In Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria, Palestinians have been caught in one crisis after another without a state or even the UN Refugee Agency to protect them, lacking the necessary papers to escape these conflicts. The latest invasion of Yarmouk by extremist groups is simply another example of this misfortune. An unfair compromise over the Palestinian question in current negotiations would, at best, keep the status quo in which Palestinians will remain vulnerable in the next conflict and, at worst, incite a war. While Palestinian leadership is divided over Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the Syrian conflict, Yarmouk residents effectively used the social media tools of the Arab Spring to demand humanitarian protection. These same forms of expression could fight an unsatisfactory solution to their larger plight, with or without the leadership to support them.

Natasha Hall is an analyst specializing in refugee and humanitarian crises. She conducted fieldwork with Palestinian and Iraqi refugees in Syria.

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